I read mysteries.
“Tires hiss against the road. A gentle bump bump at high speed wakes her up. She stretches against the confines of the seat belt and blinks open her eyes. Pitch night engulfs the car. The glowing numbers on the dashboard clock draw her eyes: 12:54.”
An ordinary scene. It only feels portentous because it’s the first scene in my first novel She: The words herald that a mystery is about to unfold. The reader experiences a frisson of joy, anticipating beating the author in solving the 5Ws: whodunnit, why, with what, where, and how.
Brain injury is like a mystery. A grey and white thing hidden inside a roundish bony thing, the brain runs us and our bodies and none can see the damage when it's injured. They have to detect it.
But how to detect and answer the 5Ws?
That is the mystery.
Life before brain injury is ordinary. Being belted in a car driving fast down a highway is ordinary. Lightless night hides the scenery beyond the headlights.
Boom! Brain injury.
I enjoy reading Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. Someone is murdered; as the lead detective, Brunetti must solve the case while expertly avoiding his boss Patta’s every move to shut him down or pass responsibility on to another jurisdiction.
A detective must know much in many areas to decipher the behavior and context of a mystery. Brunetti created a team because one person can’t have all the network contacts and knowledge needed to solve a puzzling disconnected mystery.
Brain injury is a Gordian knot. It murders the person inside yet isn’t treated like a mystery.
The shock makes you grab at your doctors and health care professionals to cure you. You believe that they understand this mystery and know how to solve it — because they know the ropes. You’ll return to your ordinary life, clinics and clinicians having solved your brain injury mystery.
Until you don’t return to ordinary life.
Until you learn that medicine often treats brain injury as a mystery that doesn’t need solving. And that they won’t collaborate to do so.
I read mysteries because, I guess, my brain likes challenges. In mystery novels, the hero detective sets out with their team to find whodunnit no matter how difficult the chase, while the incompetent rival detective latches onto the quickest, easiest route.
Medicine and brain injury rehab are like the hero detective looking down at the dead body, declaring, “He can’t move,” and returning to headquarters to fill in paperwork for bodies-that-can’t-move, then ordering someone else to move the body to a beautiful columbarium filled with inspiring flowers and meditative incense, devoid of life, while they move on to their next case.
I assumed neuropsychiatrists, psychologists, and neurologists enjoyed the challenge of solving puzzles in order to right an injured person’s world. After all, the brain is the greatest mystery left in the human body. Insatiable curiosity, persistence to follow tantalizing clues, compassion driving toward curing — aren’t they the hallmarks of those who pursue brain injury care? Don’t they thrill to the siren of discovery, poking into unknown spaces, searching for non-surgical cures, diving into innovative techniques to regenerate, rewire, and regrow neural networks? And yet an incurious and complacent attitude often seems to prevail, blocking people from getting better.
We knew the reason for my brain injury: Drivers plowing their cars into the back of our car, slamming my brain against the inside of my skull. But the injury itself remained a mystery, with medicine and rehab not using all available tools to unravel it nor bringing disparate clinics and individuals together to restore it as a team.
They sniffed loudly at the very idea of curing my brain injury, never mind using qEEG to peer into an injured brain as they do when examining sleep issues and seizures.
And so I had to solve the case of my brain injury.
I’d latch onto a clue, clutching it desperately so I wouldn’t drop it before I discovered what it meant. I gathered clues from psychologists, clinics, therapists; I followed them to the treatments I needed to restore my brain bit by bit. But one clue evaded me, the one to solve my reading mystery. Like Brunetti often does, I’d hit a wall.
When Brunetti hits a wall, he moves on to other cases for awhile; I plummeted into grief and tried to focus on daily living. Then, like the time a boat pilot gossiped to Brunetti and suddenly Brunetti had the answer he needed, I was handed the last essential piece.
The hero detective faces obstacles, gets frustrated, and wants to quit, but always their conscience and their curiosity tugs them back. People are hurting, justice is crying out, and they have the background, skills, talents, creativity, and persistence to answer.
Most people with brain injury cannot solve their own mystery. They need medicine and rehab to become like hero detectives. They need to attend a concussion clinic that uses all the current objective tools — from qEEG to picture vocabulary to computer-timed tests to metabolic tests — to unfold the mystery of their particular brain injury and solve it. A solve is not an inspired lesser life. It’s a cure.
“Jeej…has work to do. The insulin did not solve [Judy Taylor’s] neuropathy, and this worries him. This is not normal diabetes. Something else is going on.
He looks for an answer in the piles of research journals that perch precariously wherever he has room for them both at his office and at his home. And there, in one of the journals, he finds a possible explanation in an article written by an animal biologist.” (From Lifeliner.)
Who do brain injury experts want to be? Do they want to be like Patta, Brunetti’s boss who follows the well-worn easy path while getting credit for looking handsome? Or like Brunetti and Jeej, who unearth clues to attain justice, the justice of a righted life?
Copyright ©2023 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy