I was 14 years old when my maternal grandma had a massive stroke. It resulted in her being paralyzed down the left side of her body for two and a half years before she died. Seven years prior to that, my grandad had died from a stroke and so when we got the call about grandma, my family and I found ourselves in familiar territory.
As you can imagine, it was devastating to watch this lovely, kind, independent women suffer for such a long time from this debilitating event. Not only was she paralyzed but the stroke affected the part of her brain that controlled her short term memory. She couldn’t remember what day it was or what she had had for breakfast, but she knew who we all were and the history of our family. For her, there were no future memories to build, we only ever lived in the past.
Years after my grandma’s death, I saw an interview with a woman named Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D, on Oprah. Jill has been a brain scientist for 37 years and on December 10, 1996, she had a stroke. She wrote a bestselling book called My Stroke of Insight and detailed the events of that fateful day in a way in which no one else could.
As she was having the stroke and drifting in and out of consciousness, she knew exactly what was happening to her brain as it shut down. As I read each page, I was both fascinated and haunted by her description. Of course, I was thinking of my grandparents but I also felt a huge amount of empathy for Jill. To understand your own demise would be utterly terrifying and her story was simply unbelievable to read.
During her recovery, she became a different person. She didn’t connect to the world, her work or the people around her the same way she had before. She began to use the side of her brain that controlled her emotions more. She was transforming her life and ideas because of her stroke of insight.
In the years since writing the book, Jill has become a public speaker. She famously spoke at the TED talks with such authenticity that she received a standing ovation. I have clung to her line, “you are responsible for the energy you bring into a room.” During Jill’s recovery, she wasn’t able to communicate for a long time and learned to feel the energy of those around her. I loved this line because it wasn’t coming from a doctor who had studied the science of the brain her entire life. It was coming from a patient trying to understand her world again.
My Stroke of Insight was upsetting to read. It made me imagine how my grandma’s head must have hurt and how frightening it would have been to lay immobile on her kitchen floor for hours until she was found. But it also allowed me to understand that horrible events do not need to define our lives. My grandma’s stroke shouldn’t define my memory of her. Her story was so much more than the functioning of her brain over the last few years of her life.
Jill writes about finding an inner peace after her stroke. For anyone who has suffered or knows someone who has suffered a brain injury, this candid, insightful book is a must read and will hopefully bring you some peace.
I know it’s unusual to dedicate a book review to people, but I dedicate this to my grandparents.