Jan 2, 2012

Head Cases

Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath
by Michael Paul Mason

I chose this book off a library shelf because it jolted my mind: I knew I had another book on the TBR about brain injuries. This wasn't the one on my list, but it turned out to be a very gripping read. It's very sad, and frustrating, and astonishing. It's written by a man who works as a case manager for people with traumatic brain injuries. He travels the United States to visit people who have suffered brain injuries and try to help them get the medical care they need - most often woefully inadequate or non-existent.

Head Cases is a collection of stories about these people: what they have suffered, how it has changed their lives, and those of their families as well. He describes athletic accidents, car wreck, diseases and violence, all wreaking a moment's devastating havoc on the all-so-important yet so very fragile brain. Some of these stories literally terrified me, as you read them and see how easily it could happen to yourself, or someone you love. A few of them have positive outcomes, with a person recovering and regaining a sense of self (though different from what they were before) and a meaningful life. All too often though, the patient ends up shuffled around between facilities that don't quite know what to do with them, much less how to help them. It's very sad to read of brain injury patients who could improve with the proper medical care and therapy, being drugged into a stupor in a nursing home or mental health facility where they don't really belong. Also very sad to read of families torn apart- people who no longer recognize their loved ones, or whose personalities are so altered they can't stand each other anymore. What gave the book relief was how very well it is written. There are many passages beautifully describing the experiences these people had, the things they loved to do- it takes you into another person's life so acutely. They are written with compassion, you can tell the author really cared about these people. He often participated in experiences that were a part of the patient's spiritual life- sitting in a sweat lodge or joining a meditation session. Even in the last, most painful chapter where he tells the story of a suicide survivor he brings a personal connection to the narrative, as one of his close friends had just died of suicide.

Wait, that wasn't the most painful chapter. Just as disturbing was the one where he visited a hospital overseas that treats soldiers and civilians who have been injured in Iraq. Horrifying as the head injuries are, many patients survive them. Only to get released, come home, and find their lives frustrating, painful and misunderstood. It's very dismal that medical technology can now save people who suffer the most atrocious brain injuries, but then the system fails to continue offering them proper care. So many of them find their lives a dead-end.

I could not help comparing this book to those I've read by Oliver Sacks. Mason writes in a much friendlier manner, his book is not nearly as technical as Sacks'. I found it a lot easier to read, but also a lot more emotional. Because I didn't have to sit and struggle to understand, the narrative communicating itself to me easily, it was also easier to connect to it and feel like this was something that could happen to anyone I knew. Makes you scared to get in a car or ride a bike...

rating: 4/5 ........ 310 pages, 2008

more opinions:
curled up
Open Mind, Insert Book
Krista Stevens

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