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Brain Wreck
(excerpt from What I Thought I Knew by Barbara Stahura)

The nurse left Ken’s room. I watched her out in the ICU’s central area for a few minutes, hoping she wouldn’t be back for a while. I didn’t want her to see what I was about to do.

My husband was finally asleep, his delirious thrashing temporarily eased, thanks to morphine and exhaustion. Someone had neatly stitched the Y-shaped cut above his left eyebrow. His blackened eyes were mostly swollen shut, and the bridge of his nose was broken. A heavy plastic cervical collar pushed his chin up and immobilized his neck. Now that aspiration pneumonia threatened his breathing, small tubes in his nose, or sometimes an oxygen mask, whooshed air into his lungs. The respirator’s unwavering cadence meshed with the longer rhythm of the plastic cuffs around his calves, inflating and deflating to keep the blood circulating through his supine body and prevent clots. A horrendous bruise ran from the inside of his left elbow, down that arm and ribs and hip, all the way to his knee, where a wound the size of a quarter dug almost to the bone. Brilliant blue tape secured a temporary cast around his right hand and lower arm, an eye-catching spot in the flat light of the pale room.

And then there was the biggest shock of all: his His doctor had mentioned a brain injury, possibly a serious one, although we wouldn’t know for sure until Ken was more alert.

I turned away from Ken to pull the camera from my satchel on the floor beneath one of the room’s windows. As I stood up, the wide-open Arizona sky, blue as the tape on Ken’s arm, filled my vision and helped me feel a little less claustrophobic in the tiny space. Here it was, the first day of 2004, and instead of welcoming the new year at home, we were in this room filled with beeping monitors, a few small chairs, and the bed with side rails, where my husband lay, covered by nothing more than a hospital gown draped over him and a light blanket, which he frequently kicked off.

He was quiet now, but yesterday he had become hysterical several times, once screaming, “Can’t do! Can’t do!” and thrashing in terror.

“Can’t do what?” the nurse and I asked, stroking his arms and face to soothe him.

“Can’t do!” he screamed again, hoarse. “Can’t do anything!”

Was that how helpless he felt when he realized the accident was about to happen?

Later, he yelled, over and over, what sounded like, “D-O-A! D-O-A!”

Did he mean “dead on arrival”? The nurse and I did our best to comfort him as we wondered if he was reliving the collision in his delirium.

Now, with Ken asleep, I checked once more on the nurse’s whereabouts and fiddled with the camera’s controls. Then I stood back from the bed and quickly snapped four shots of Ken, ashamed of intruding on him while he was so defenseless but determined to have this record. I couldn’t let him ride again, and these photos would be my ammunition.

The three-pound human brain is probably the most wondrous mechanism in the universe. It’s also one of the most delicate, basically a lump of gelatin floating within the skull like the yolk inside an egg. Even though a human head propelled against a sheet of steel comes to an immediate stop, the brain continues its trajectory, smacking against the skull’s hard, rough interior and then rebounding in a motion called coup contrecoup, damaging the fragile tissue and often killing uncountable neurons. If a person survives such an impact, it is with certain brain damage, ranging from a light concussion to a coma and even eventual death later on. In between those poles, many problems can arise, such as memory loss, impaired mental function, personality changes, and the inability to work or handle the tasks of daily living.

Ken joined the tribe of the brain-injured when a white sedan carelessly turned left in front of his Ducati that day. Having the right of way but unable to avoid the vehicle, he smashed into the passenger side near the back wheel. The sedan continued into the Super K-Mart parking lot as if nothing had happened and disappeared (it was never identified and the driver never found). Witnesses came immediately to Ken’s aid, and an ambulance took him to University Medical Center.

After seeing the condition of Ken’s face and, later, the blood-smeared face shield of his helmet, I was haunted by a mental image: helmet striking steel, face smashing into helmet, and brain slamming into skull. His brain injury didn’t show up on imaging scans—as is often the case—so there was nothing to do but wait and see how the damage
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