• The Cerebellum Blues Story, Chapter Three: What Happened to My Brain?

In preparation of my album launch, which should happen in May, 2011, I'm recapping how I got back into music. In this chapter: 

My regular doctor tells me the cold, hard truth / Early thoughts of disability / A changed outlook

When I was in the hospital, the doctors told me what had happened to me, but I couldn’t really process it and neither could Catherine. It was all too new and too filled with words like syncope, occipital, hematoma, ataxia, bradycardia... And we were scared and maybe didn’t want to know everything right then and there. But after being home for about a week, I had a couple of near back-to-back appointments with my regular doctor, who knew quite a bit about head injuries and was very frank—even blunt—with me. Here is a brief summary of what he told me.

He said that I had most likely fainted as a result of a combination of factors: being a little older, having to pee at night and being a man. To explain: like women, men sleep lying down; unlike women, they pee standing up. So at night, if you’re a guy and you gotta go, you will stumble off to the toilet and stand before it to do your business. This is bad for because (A) you are already a little lightheaded from having just stood up, (B) your body is secreting an internal chemical to relax you so you can go to the bathroom and (C) you are surrounded by hard surfaces. In younger guys, none of this is really a problem, but if you’re over 40, as I was when I had my accident, these things matter, because the chemical your body releases to relax you can be enough to cause you to lose consciousness. And then those tile surfaces come into play.

When I fainted, I collapsed down and then back into the tile wall, shattering a small part of the back of my skull (the occipital bone) and then bounced forward hard enough to cause a mild whiplash. This would have been pretty bad, but then I fell again, after trying to stand, and the absolute worst thing that can happen if you have just suffered a head injury is to hit your head again.

So, the initial fall had caused some bruising on my cerebellum (hematoma), killing some cerebellar brain cells near the point of impact and stunning other cells in both in the front and back of my brain as it slopped around against my skull, while the second fall stunned even more frontal and rear brain cells. I was dizzy and struggled to walk because the cerebellum’s main function is thought to be motor control.

My doctor went on to explain that the healing process after a brain injury happened in stages, with the first three months seeing the most rapid healing, as stunned cells “woke up”, and slowing as fewer of the stunned cells came back to life. Dead cells tell no tales, so they were gone for good. Parallel to all this activity, my brain was just starting to get busy reassigning the functions of damaged and dead cells to healthy ones. This process is known as neuroplasticity and was very recently thought to be a crock. Instead, the prevailing wisdom was that the brain was mapped and certain parts did certain things and if you lost a part, whatever it did you weren’t going to be doing again. Now, of course, this is seen as a total load (thankfully!), so I was in luck. I would get better, no question. Sadly, the part of the brain that coordinates the reassignment of brain function is, you guessed it, the cerebellum. Given all this, my doctor figured I would most likely recover, but not 100%. When I asked him how long he thought my recovery could take, he said he didn’t know but guessed it would be years.

After those appointments, I started to finally understand why they classified my brain trauma as severe, why they had kept me in the hospital for so long and why I was having so many problems. Still, it was just so tough to accept that I was essentially brain damaged, even though I could think clearly and had no visible physical injuries, and would have to possibly go on disability. It just didn’t seem to be possible that I could really be all that bad off. But I was. And the coming months and years would prove it.