Simon Lewis on Traumatic Brain Injuries
Posted on Oct 17, 2008
By Simon Lewis
Ultimately, the question of this book, the aftermath of TBI—and the potential for recovery of a damaged brain—remains one of science’s greatest puzzles.
From the book’s opening line—“The first thing I tell her is that I cannot help”—Mason gives the most limited answer: “I spend the last half hour of my evaluation explaining to Jake’s mother that this will take months at a minimum, but most likely a year or two—if anything happens at all.”
This mantra, that “you may or may not improve for the next two years,” is one this reviewer heard from doctors, many times over. Yet at the end of the book Mason recounts something quite inconsistent: “Marilyn takes me up to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Debbie is currently receiving care. … More than thirty years after her injury, Debbie continues to make gains in her life, all because of the focus of one person, her mother.”
This is the knowledge gap which “Head Cases” leaves its readers. To address the paradox, Mason briefly references, as “mystery,” some new information: “In recent years neuroscience has revealed that the brain has a dynamic proclivity for self-recovery. In a global sense, the brain can actually relocate functions from one area of the brain to another. … The mystery of plasticity continues well into adulthood, allowing even elderly brains the capacity for restoration. Years after a brain injury occurs, adult survivors continue to make gains that surprise even the most optimistic doctors.”
It’s a shame that Mason doesn’t explore the treatments and hope derived from the medical fact that new neurons are created in the brain every day, even in people in their 70s, or mention to readers desperate for answers that neuroplasticity has been termed “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.”
Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath
By Michael Paul Mason
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages
Similar to a book last year, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves,” which was Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley’s account of neuroplasticity, “Head Cases” offers few tips or guidance to this emerging paradigm shift in brain injury recovery.
“Head Cases” thus offers a schizophrenic approach to its central issue, the aftermath of brain trauma, in which at the book’s opening Mason gives his patient a time frame of one to two years, “if anything happens at all,” yet in the final pages describes an individual who, over 30 years after her TBI, continues to make gains.
Like the reader in search of knowledge, Mason lies awake in the dark beside his wife, ponders the mind’s mysteries as if the science of neuroplasticity still remains a complete unknown, and wonders “what it feels like to be waiting in between the world you left and the world you want.”
Perhaps it’s the mark of an important book that it leaves the reader hungry for more. Fascinated readers of “Head Cases” will finish the book eager for it.
Simon Lewis is a survivor of traumatic brain injury and is finishing “Rise and Shine: Finding the Hidden Path to Full Recovery,” his account of unexpected tragedy and regeneration. His Web site is http://simonlewis.us/.
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