Last fall, as I was spending hours on end in the combine, I relied on CBC Radio to keep me company. The Jill Bolte Taylor interview stuck with me for months. I needed to know more about this woman’s incredible story. Her book My Stroke of Insight had been beckoning from a stack of must-reads, but it wasn’t until this week, during a couple of long flights, that I finally read it.
In December 1996, 37-year-old Taylor had a stroke. Her education and training as a Harvard neuroanatomist?brain scientist?likely aided her recovery. It definitely led to an unforgettable story.
The book chronicles, in exquisite detail, the day of the stroke. Even the two chapters of brain anatomy near the start of the book are fascinating and are essential to a full understanding of what happened to her. Thankfully, she simplified the functions and included many line drawings to illustrate the area she was explaining.
I challenge anyone to read about how our brains work and be unchanged by the experience. I felt exactly the same way reading the fictional Still Alice by neuroscientist Lisa Genova as she gave us a glimpse into Alzheimer’s disease. Awaiting my attention next is Genova’s follow-up novel, Left Neglected, a book about a brain injury that leaves the heroine unaware of the left side of her world.
Through Taylor’s book we learn about the three types of strokes and that her hemorrhage was a result of an undiagnosed congenital malformation of the blood vessels. But not only is the book a fascinating read in itself, I also believe it provides a valuable service to anyone who is trying to cope with someone who has had a stroke. An appendix entitled ?Forty Things I Needed Most? is a blunt reminder to all, even professional caregivers, who have forgotten or perhaps never knew how to treat a stroke patient. At her sickest, Taylor was still able to identify those caregivers who sucked the energy out of her and those who built her up with their patience, tenderness, and optimism. She credits her mother’s love, wisdom, and months of dedication for her very good outcome.
We learn that talking louder doesn’t help. Neither does finishing sentences or filling in words. We know, through Taylor’s experience, that sleep is vital to healing and that it was celebrating the little successes that kept her working hard through eight years of recovery! What a gift it is to be able to bring this awareness and understanding to someone trying to recover from this often deadly and almost always debilitating disease.
To understand her devastated brain, consider the day her mother brought out a child’s puzzle. Taylor needed to re-learn what right side up was, what an edge piece meant, and that colour is a cue. By the next day, she was able to put all 12 pieces together. Twelve pieces.
Reading about her efforts to walk, talk, read, write, dress herself, and do every other action you and I take for granted was inspiring. To understand the changes in her attitude and her approach to her new life was profound, from where I sit.