Friday, July 10, 2009

A Stroke Towards Understanding

On a totally different note, but still in book report mode, I'd like to share another book that I've read recently, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.

Every once in a while, someone experiences something in life that can radically change how we understand something considered generally "unknowable." When that happens, if we're lucky, the someone who has had the experience writes about it cogently or in some other way shares it with the rest of us and, then, through increased understanding, we can change how we treat each other in those particular circumstances. That's what has happened with My Stroke of Insight.

Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specialized in brain function during her training and early academic career, trying to understand (among other things) why a beloved older brother developed schizophrenia. She worked at Harvard Medical School and was active on the national lecture circuit, helping others understand what was happening on an anatomical basis when the brain doesn't work properly.

Then, at age 37, she had a major stroke effecting almost the entire left hemisphere of her brain. She was conscious during the entire time the stroke was occurring and she was able to figure out, from her training, what parts of the brain were being effected and why she was having the problems she was experiencing. Despite that, by the time she reached the hospital, she was totally unable to talk, barely able to understand what others were saying to her, and almost infantlike in her reactions to stimuli.

In this book, she shares with us what she experienced, how she recovered her abilities (which took 8 years), and suggestions for helping others to recover from strokes as fast and fully as possible.

Because her stroke basically incapacitated her entire left hemisphere for an extended period, this account is also a fascinating look at how the 2 sides of the brain interact to produce our normal view of reality as well as our normal personality, and what each side of the brain contributes to that "normality". Last, but hardly least, she gives us a view from a brain that is ONLY functioning with the right hemisphere - what she could understand, what she felt, how she could and could not communicate.

I read My Stroke of Insight while we were on our recent trip to Chicago, and it seemed like I was constantly noticing parallels between conversational topics and what I was learning as I read. I'm sure everyone was sick of the phrase, "In that book I've been reading....."! I've already had to watch my mother-in-law suffer (and eventually die) from a brain tumor many years ago. I've always wondered what and how much she felt and understood as she lay, basically unresponsive but with her eyes open, in the hospital those last few weeks; now I feel like I have a better understanding. Having read this book will certainly change how I care for someone with a stroke, if that ever becomes a task that I am called upon to do. By helping me understand what she experienced, Dr. Taylor also helped prepare me for what to expect, should I ever experience a stroke.

This is not a long book, but it's an important and interesting book. I highly recommend that you read it now...and reread it, if anyone you know is unfortunate enough to suffer the life-transforming effects of a stroke.

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