Of Two Minds

May 11, 2009 // Filed under Blog

I recently read two very interesting books, one fiction and the other nonfiction, dealing with the calamity of brain disease. Both books were very engaging, and neither one took an overly depressing tone, although in each case the subject matter was certainly frightening.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova is a fictional tale of a Harvard neuroscientist’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The main character, Alice, is at the top of her field in psycholinguistics and is in demand to speak at university colloquia around the country. Her husband pursues an equally demanding career as a research scientist. Their three children are mostly grown, so this should be the best time of Alice’s life. But worrisome symptoms are creeping into her awareness, and we are along for the diagnosis. Because Alice is only 50 years old, Alzheimer’s disease is the farthest possibility from her family’s mind, and it is quite revealing to see how various family members and professional colleagues deal with this development.

The author, who works for the National Alzheimer’s Association and has a background in neuroscience, moves the progression of Alice’s disease along with a knowledgeable yet empathetic hand. We follow Alice through the little telling missteps that crop up early in her disease and on to the obvious signs of her dementia. Things like not finding her way home from a customary route and misunderstanding what a doormat is are just some of the signs along the way, and the author ties them together into an engrossing story which involves not just Alice, but the people who love and respect her.

In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor has written an electrifying account of the stroke she had at the age of 37, and of the many years required for her recovery. The author also discusses how this experience changed her life for the better. Like the previous author, Taylor has a background in brain science, being a neuroanatomist who worked for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. It was her good fortune that she was able to telephone a fellow scientist for help during her brain hemorrhage. The morning of her stroke is recounted dramatically when she experienced crippling symptoms which she didn’t immediately recognize as signs of a stroke. If a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy is unable to put the symptoms together right away, I can understand why other people delay getting help, too. As her speech, vision, motor skills, and ability to process numbers slipped drastically away from her, she was just minutes from being totally incapable of calling for any help. This accounting is a real page-turner.

The author was also fortunate to have a terrific recovery coach in her mother, who crossed the country to stay with her when she faced surgery and a very lengthy period of rehabilitation. It was this devoted attention which the author credits for her remarkable comeback. Taylor makes a number of helpful, important points for hospital attendants, physicians and therapists who do not know firsthand what it is like to be a stroke patient. For instance, the author suffered greatly from the bright hospital lights and loud noises, but was unable to communicate this. She also needed instructions to be repeated slowly and patiently, over and over. Some medical staff might have given up on her too quickly because she didn’t fit into their paradigm for stroke recovery progress. The medical profession could learn a lot from My Stroke of Insight as could the families of stroke victims.
-Evelyn Fischel

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