I awoke on October 12, 1980 on the floor of
a motel room at Keddy’s Motor Lodge in Presque Isle, Maine. I was surrounded
by about fifteen other University of Massachusetts Geology graduate and
undergraduate students. We were on one of the dozen or so field trips put
on annually by the New England Intercollegiate Geological Congress. I felt
a little light-headed but considering the drinking and dancing we had done
the night before I didn’t think that this sensation was particularly unusual.
The NEIGC is renowned for its social events as well as its academic pursuits.
By 8:00 we were loaded into our van stuffing glazed
donuts and guzzling hot black coffee. My light-headedness persisted. It
was not unpleasant but was actually rather soothing. I felt as if I was
a removed observer somehow disconnected from my body as we drove to the
first set of outcrops through a light rain under overcast skies.
The trip leader, Richard Naylor from Northeastern University, described the significance of the
rocks we were examining as we huddled together in the cold morning dampness.
Few of his words penetrated my ethereal state. My enjoyment of the floating
sensation diminished and began to concern me. Throughout the morning I
continued to act as if I was paying attention but I really comprehended
little of what was said.
By noon the sun had dispersed the clouds and we
were treated to a wonderful, clear, but not too crisp, autumn day. Near
Washburn, we stopped at some rocks exposed on the side of a small river.
After discussing the closing of an ancient sea our growling stomachs returned
us to more immediate concerns. I was pooling lunch supplies with a couple
of my peers, Pete Morton and Paul Eberly, so I volunteered to return to the van to grab the food and
bring it back so we could eat on the rocks.
I walked over to the base of the road embankment
and began to climb up to the highway level. As I started I heard and felt
a subtle POP! in my head. I wondered what it was but dismissed it as the
van came into sight about 50 meters down the road. Before I reached it,
I began to feel numbness in my left cheek. My concentration on this sensation
was soon diverted when I realized that my left foot and hand were also
getting numb. Impressed with the leftness of these feelings I wondered,
“Am I having a stroke?”
I thought that was a crazy idea. I was only 27 and
besides I didn’t have a headache on the right side of my head. I don’t
know why I knew the symptoms of a stroke but I come from a medical family
so it is likely that I had discussed it with my wife, mother, grandfather,
or father-in-law at some point.
A feeling of horror swept over me as I realized
that I did have a growing headache on the right side of my head. I then
recalled that just a few months earlier a pitcher for the Houston Astros,
James Rodney “JR” Richard, had had a near-fatal stroke. He too was 27!
By this time I was in the van. I knew I had to get
back to the group but I paused to grab the peanut butter, jelly, and bread,
stuffing the jars into my vest pockets. I walked back to the picnic site.
By the time I reached the embankment I was having trouble controlling my
left leg. Somehow I made it down the short slope and over to my nearby
friends. After handing off the bread I reached into my pockets and pulled
out the jars. I watched in amazement as the glass jelly jar slipped from
my numb left hand and shattered on the rock. “Nice play!” one of my friends
said with a smirk. He looked at me and his face changed to shocked concern.
“Are you all right?”
“No, the left side of my body is going numb.” I
He called our professors, Peter Robinson and Leo Hall, and they got me
to lie down. Retching, I vomited some yellow-green bile—the only contents
of my empty stomach. Leo quickly (and correctly) diagnosed my
condition. He sprinted to the van and drove off to get an ambulance.
Time ceased to be measurable as I lay there. It
must have taken awhile for the ambulance to arrive from Presque Isle. I
vaguely remember being carried to the ambulance on a wide board by the
rescue squad. As we sped toward the hospital I looked out at the blurred
potato fields knowing that these might be my last views of the outdoors
I loved so much.
The Emergency Room doctors confirmed the diagnosis
that Leo Hall and I had made. They told me I would have to be sent
by air ambulance to either Boston or Springfield, Massachusetts, two of
the best hospital towns in Massachusetts. I told them that my father-in-law
was a neurosurgeon at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New
Hampshire so, with my blessing, they elected to send me there. I lost consciousness
a few minutes later. I was flown there in an air ambulance but I was comatose
throughout the flight and remember nothing.
I vaguely remember my father-in-law, Donald Wilson, shouting my
name and seeing his face illuminated in the dark by flashing red lights
as I was loaded into the ambulance at the Lebanon, NH airport. I came around
again as the Emergency Room radiologist, Peter Spiegel, a family friend, inserted a catheter
into my right femural artery to perform an angiogram. When it was over,
my wife, Haidee, who was visiting her parents that weekend, came to my side and
stoically held my right hand. My father-in-law, later told my wife and mother-in-law
that I was probably going to die that night. My pupils had ceased to dilate
in response to light shined into my eyes. I remember nothing else from
I was lucky; my father-in-law was wrong. “Jim, open
your eyes!” he shouted at me the next morning.
I did. I saw a double image of everything—one on
top of the other.
“You had a stroke. You are extremely lucky.” he
“I know.” I said. But I did not feel very lucky.
When asked to move my left toes and fingers I could not, no matter how
hard I tried. Regardless of what I did, nothing on my left side would move.
My speech was also slurred and I discovered that the left side of my tongue
would not move. No, I did not feel lucky.
The arterial rupture, deep in my brain, occurred near the
right ventricle—an open space in the brain. This gave the blood an avenue
and space for drainage. The bleeding stopped after the ventricle filled
so the pressure never grew to the point where it did large amounts of permanent
brain damage although my paralyzed left side was a good indicator that
I suffered a major stroke.
Don told me that that Dr. Saunders and Dr. Harbaugh would be handling my case.
Out of nowhere, my parents and brother appeared.
They had driven all night from central New York not knowing what they would
find but prepared to make funeral arrangements. I started crying uncontrollably.
This was to be the first of many tearful episodes. I soon learned that
this is a characteristic of stroke patients.
Later that day as I lay in bed, I developed a horrible
headache—far worse than any I had ever experienced. I thought that my head
would literally explode. I pushed the buzzer for the nurse. She went for
the doctors but they were either in surgery, staff meetings, or holding
office hours with other patients. A nurse gave me some pain medication
but it only seemed to dull the pain a little.
I have no idea how long it was before Dr. Harbaugh
finally came but it seemed like eternity. I described the pain. He suspected
that the blood lodged in my right ventricle had clotted, thereby blocking
the outflow of cerebral-spinal fluid. As more of the fluid tried to flow
into my brain, the pressure mounted. Once again I was probably in grave
To test his hypothesis, the doctor ordered a spinal
tap. I suppose that ordinarily I would have dreaded hearing those words
because I knew it was a painful procedure. The idea was to check the color
of the fluid at the base of the spine. If circulation of the cerebral-spinal
fluid was unimpeded, it should be pink—tinted by the clot that it was slowly
washing from my brain.
The procedure was painful but not nearly as bad
as the pain throbbing in my head. The fluid was clear. The doctor was correct.
The clot was damming the flow through my brain.
I suppose that someone probably told me what would
happen next but it did not penetrate my pain. A gurney was rolled next
to my bed and the doctors and nurses moved me onto it. I felt a sharp sting
a couple of centimeters above my right eyelash as the doctor injected a
local anesthetic. He told me to hold very still. A nurse held my head firmly
as a cloth was placed across my eyes.
Suddenly, I felt and heard a grinding sensation.
“Are you drilling through my skull?” I asked.
“Yes, please hold very still.”
"What are archaeologists going to think?" I wondered
A nurse snickered as the doctor said, "Quiet, please!"
The grinding was over quickly. They removed the
cloth from my eyes.
“This will hurt for a moment.” the doctor warned
I saw him move a lancet to my forehead. I was already
in more pain than I could remember in my life but suddenly I was gripped
by a blinding white flash of agony. I remember thinking that this must
be what it is like to be shot in the head.
The doctor punctured the arachnoid sac that surrounds
the brain and lets it float in the cerebral-spinal fluid. Unlike the brain,
which does not have a sense of feeling, the sac is laced with sensory nerves.
“This won’t hurt but may be a little uncomfortable.” He advised as he maneuvered a tube to the hole in my skull. He plunged
the tube into my brain directly into the right ventricle. I saw fluid race
out the tube and into a collection bag. My headache disappeared instantly.
The excess pressure was relieved.
The doctors left the tube in my head thinking that
I may need to have a permanent shunt put under my skin to my stomach so
that the excess fluid could be disposed of by my digestive system. I found
this prospect far from thrilling but was in no position to argue against
it. Peacefully, I dozed off and on for the rest of the afternoon.
By 9:00 PM I started to feel some discomfort
in my lower back. I assumed it was from the spinal tap. I complained and
was given some pain medication which helped me fall asleep. I slept fitfully
as the pain medication gradually wore off and my back became more and more
uncomfortable. I tossed and turned as much as a person who is half-paralyzed
can do, trying to get comfortable but never fully awake. Suddenly, a panicked
nurse woke me up by turning on the light. She told me that in my sleepy
discomfort I accidentally pulled the tube out of my head opening up the
possibility of allowing infection directly into my brain. She summoned
a doctor who seemed concerned but not alarmed.
When morning came my attending physicians entered
and told me they needed to do another spinal tap. I said that the previous
one caused so much pain during the night that I didn’t want another. He
explained that it was probably not the spinal tap that caused the pain
and that the pain could actually be a very good sign but he needed to do
the spinal tap to be sure. The tap was performed and this time the fluid
was pink. Great news!
My father-in-law came in later to explain
this result. Circulation of the cerebral-spinal fluid reestablished itself
probably as a result of the tube entering the clot the previous afternoon.
This meant that my body was washing the clot out of the ventricle. A consequence
of this was that the clotted blood was being deposited at the base of my
spine where it degraded to a substance called bilirubin, the principle
pigment in bile. This same material causes the black-and-blue marks of
bruises and their accompanying tenderness. It was as if I had a large bruise
at the base of my spine. Sure enough, my pain felt very similar to that of a very sore
bruise. Like any other bruise, the body would gradually reconstitute the
residue and the pain would eventually subside.
Because the circulation system was working again,
it would not be necessary to plumb a shunt line to my stomach. In fact
it wasn’t even necessary to reinsert a tube into my brain. The small incision
in my forehead was closed with a stitch. With my finger, I can still feel
the small, circular, drill hole in my skull just beneath the skin.
I lay there in the hospital bed for four weeks,
getting up daily for two sessions of physical and occupational therapy.
The gross motor function returned to my left side early but my left foot
and arm remained unresponsive to stimuli. Two days before my release, the
occupational therapist put an ice cube on my left hand. In a reflex response,
my hand jerked away. "That's a good sign." she told me.
My left shoulder was too weak to raise my arm so
I had been grabbing my wrist with my right hand to help lift my arm
over my head while lying in bed. The morning before I was released I repeated
this exercise and felt a surge of electricity rush up my arm from my shoulder.
Magically, my hand opened and closed. I looked at it and tried to move
my fingers. They quivered but moved a little, as willed. The muscles were
completely atrophied after 4 weeks of dormancy. Tears flooded from my eyes.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Maybe someday I would play
the guitar again!
The next day Haidee drove me to Springfield, MA
and checked me in to the Rehabilitation Center at Mercy Hospital. I was
nearly half a century younger than most of the other patients. It was a
depressing place but that atmosphere made me want to work hard to get the
hell out of there as soon as I could. The program was not nearly as good
as the one I had been in at Mary Hitchcock but the people were pleasant.
I got along well with the nurses and they were extremely encouraging.
By the end of two weeks, I was ready to get
out. My foot was still paralyzed but I wanted to go home. During my last
therapy session I asked that ice be placed on my foot. It was and my foot
quivered. That night, at home, in my own bed, it started quivering on its
own. I slowly realized that I could move my ankle and toes again… another
flood of tears. Everything was working again, to some degree.
Now, more than 25 years after those terrible days,
I look at the person I have become. I still walk with a limp. Use of my left hand is awkward but I can play some rudimentary guitar. I still have double vision but the degree of offset was greatly reduced by surgery in the summer of 1981.
I do not regret the stroke. I like
the person I am. Most of my real accomplishments took place after I had
the stroke. I wonder if I would be as driven as I am had I not had the
stroke. My guess is probably not. I can’t imagine what life would be like
if it had never happened. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but now, at least,
I know that I can survive a lot of bad times and still eventually emerge
from them with dignity. I think that I've already won the hardest battle of my life.