Archive for the ‘Recovery’ Category

I Am My Own Science Experiment

December 18, 2010

Today the whole world smells to me  like my small world at Walter Reed Army Medical Center did in December 2007.

Since being blown up, my sense of smell has been quirky. For months after I was released from the hospital, all raw meat smelled rotten, salmon smelled like polluted earth; I was unable to tell if milk had gone off; the clean, fresh scent of lemon made me nauseous. I couldn’t smell smoke; some of the finest perfumes smelled like cheap drugstore scents; and coffee smelled like burned toast.  The day that I was able to discern the delicious scent of coffee as coffee is supposed to smell was one landmark day in my recovery!

Now my sense of smell has what appear to be permanent gaps, and about once a month or so I’ll have a few days of persistent strangeness. Many perfumes and – oddly and perhaps luckily – sewage type odors almost never register as accurate. I’ve become accustomed to that. It’s the days of unexpected scents that stand out. One day everything will smell like raw meat. Yesterday scented soaps smelled like alcohol, and the day before that the desert smelled like talcum powder. Today, as I’ve said, everything smelled like Walter Reed, a distinctive lightly sweet, slightly waxy, barely medicinal odor that wouldn’t be unpleasant if it weren’t associated with the hospital.

In the excellent book The Emporer of Scent, Chandler Burr describes Luca Turin’s scientific investigations of the sense of smell. Turin is convinced that we discern scents through the vibration of molecules, the molecules seating themselves in sensors in the nasal system. In contrast, the leading scientific theory states that we perceive odors by sensors reading the shape of molecules, so in the course of his investigations and conclusions, Luca Turin ran head first into the entrenched scientists of shape theory. When scientists have invested many years in a particular theory, they don’t necessarily follow the basic precepts of science by keep their minds open to deviations from that norm and alternative explanations for gaps in the original theory. Luca Turin’s theory explains the gaps in shape theory, and overall he makes a convincing argument for vibration. Although I will remain willing to be convinced otherwise, since I’ve read only one popular-science book about the subject, I am currently a proponent of Turin’s vibration theory.

One of the stories Chandler Burr recounts in the book describes a woman in Scotland who suddenly perceived everything as smelling like feces. After consulting with many experts, her physician heard about and contacted Luca Turin, hoping he could help this woman. Being convinced that smell is based on the body reading the vibration of molecules, he suspected that this woman’s body was misreading the vibrations, which he postulated might be alleviated by medicines for epilepsy. I wish I remembered the details of why he came to that conclusion, but I don’t, probably because it made sense to me intuitively.

I think about this when my own sense of smell goes haywire. I had a massive concussion, a fractured skull, shrapnel in my frontal sinus – that’s still there – and that frontal sinus was ultimately isolated by being plugged. Perhaps there are sensors in that frontal sinus that no longer allow me to smell certain odors at all. Maybe my brain had enough jarring that some connections were permanently altered. Or perhaps my brain sustained some scarring that affects the way information is transmitted or received.

It’s also possible that environment affects my body’s energy vibration in such a way as to disrupt the scent sensors. I’ve noticed that when I eat sugar my sense of smell will be “off” the next day. If I eat more sugar the next day, the deviations are exacerbated. If I eat vegetables and simple meats, and exercise regularly, my sense of smell gets more acute and accurate.

Physics has found that what appears to be solid is not really solid. A chair is just an organization of molecules, which are in turn smaller particles with spaces between, which are in turn smaller particles with spaces between … and on and on to smaller and smaller and smaller particles, down to perhaps no particles at all – just energy. Vibration.

It makes sense to me, in these contexts, that what I put into my body or do with my body or surround my body with will affect all my senses. All the “particles” that make up my body are my own unique energy, and create or emanate my own unique energy. That energy interacts with all that it encounters.

So on days that my sense of smell is screwy, I look at what’s affecting my energy: food, exercise, stress, chemicals, drugs, sleep habits …

I am my own science experiment.


Heartbreak 01

August 9, 2010

March-April 2007

One of the nurses who took good care of me while I was laid out on the fifth floor for a month has recognized me. She sits down to share a smoke.

 I’m perched on a park bench on the quad in front of Walter Reed. I’m between my three appointments for the day, killing time. A tree shades me from the weak spring sun, which I would do something about but I’m still poling along on a cane. I’d like to stand in the sun, but my balance is poor and my wrist, shoulder and ankle are stiff. With only one working eye, I never feel as if I’m seeing all there is to see. I’m anxious moving about in the world, though no longer fearful. So here I sit, cautious in the shade on the bench nearest the door, tentatively enjoying the small speckles of sun passing through new leaves.

 “I’m having a bad week,” my nurse admits heavily when her cigarette is lit. “A lot of kids have come in. We’re full.”

 A lot of kids from Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers. Wounded young men and women. I know what she’s talking about. The wounded are the only ones who “come in” to our world. I came in four months ago. I make a neutral sound, remember lying in my room studying the ceiling with one eye wondering if one eye was the shape of my world to come.

 “A boy came in yesterday,” the nurse tells me. She pauses for a puff off the cigarette, her other hand lying dead on her lap, looking abandoned and exhausted. “He’s blind. They didn’t tell him. They kept him drugged until he got here, so he didn’t know it.”

 I suck in my breath with fear. I hold it, paralyzed with horror. I want her to stop talking now. Now. I stare at air in front of my face, willing her to stop talking.

 “When he woke up in the ward and realized he was blind,” she tells me, ignoring my mental plea, “he went crazy. He was throwing everything he could get his hands on, beating on walls … “

Overwhelmed with the horror of the moment that boy discovered he was blind, I want to scream. On the bench in front of Walter Reed, I hold my breath. I can see the ward the boy is in, the shape of the room, the placement of bed, the color of the chair, the wood grain on the cupboards, the metal trays, the plastic bag drips, the colors and feel the shape of every detail of every loose object that boy can’t see and so is throwing around the room in his unfathomable fear.

I sit still as a stone to keep from disintegrating, while my mind screams, Don’t tell me this. Don’t! Don’t tell me this right now! Oh someone, help that boy!

 I want to disappear. If I could, I would die to avoid this boy’s fear. If I could, I would die right now in trade for this boy to have his sight back. 

I’m still raw. I’m still new at this, still avoiding thinking about the possibilities of somehow losing sight in my other eye. I’m still raw, still worrying about the driver of our truck, whom I haven’t seen since the air evac and don’t know … I don’t know if he’s alright. I’m still raw, still melting with sadness – what is the word strong enough for gut-dissolving grief and frustration? I’m still disintegrating with grief for the handsome, angry boy in a wheelchair in physical therapy, for the boy in the bed in the elevator whose jaw was missing. Now I’m disintegrating with grief for this boy who woke blind.

I’m still raw, pumped full of Percocet, emotions flowing like spring water, no wellhead, no catchment, no filter. Oh please, don’t tell me this right now, this strong boy who is blind and all his friends are in the desert and all he can stand to do is throw things around his room. I don’t know what to do with this terrible love and horror that I feel for this boy! Stop talking to me!

 I look up at the sky, out onto the quad that I can’t see at all for the tears standing in my one good eye, my one blessed eye, refusing to fall. “I can’t stand it …” I whisper, frightened to death for this boy, this poor boy, oh god … my body bends forward, hands holding my stomach. Sit up! I scream to myself. Don’t think! I sit up, try to breathe.

 The nurse puts her cigarette out and forces a smile for me. “I’m so glad to see you walking around, honey,” she says to me as she stands to leave. She pats my arm.

 All I can do is shake my head and whisper, “Thank you.”

 I mean, thank you for taking care of the boy. Please take care of that boy. Please. Please take care of that boy.

I don’t know how to help these people. I don’t know how to help, and it feels shameful and shoddy and mean.

My Brothers

February 13, 2010

One of my favorite PSD guards, I’ll call him G, tracked me down five days ago. He sent a short, sweet email that catalyzed an excited flurry of communication. We compared injuries, traded photographs of our bombed out trucks, asked personal questions, sent each other love and kisses. He passed me on to another PSD friend, and another, who passed me onto yet another … my angels, my guns, my guards, my big brothers, my broken hearts, my strength, my baby brothers …  God, I miss them. I’m soaring on a flurry of sweetness and warm hearts.

G’s truck was blown up about a month prior to mine, and no one would tell me, at the time, how he was doing. “A broken back, other bad injuries, Seren, it’s not looking good. We don’t know.” OK, maybe. Or maybe they knew every detail. I never really figured out the secret rules of their secrets. Some things were off limits but I was never sure which, or when, or why.

I didn’t know any of the PSD men well, yet I knew some of them very well. We weren’t friends in the sense of sharing opinions or feelings, intimacies or life stories. We worked together in delicate harmony of respect: I told them where to take me and when, and they told me how we’d get there, how long we could stay.  I trusted them to protect me, and they trusted me to stay alert and follow orders. I was the reason they were employed, and I couldn’t do my job without them. We grew into a sort of deep but narrow, limited friendship by spending many hours together on the road, watching each other act and interact in a volatile environment. We grew to depend on each other, to trust each other in certain important ways.

Many of their clients treated PSD men like servants or adversaries. I tried to treat them like the experts they were. Some of their clients – my colleagues – argued about routes, time on the ground, the intel behind their decisions. I asked the men what they thought was best and trusted their decisions. Some of them had been living in war zones all over the world for two decades. I’m going to argue with that?

We got to know each other over hours and hours on the road together: sweating in hot little Land Cruisers, walking down roads under the relentless desert sun wearing thirty, fifty, eighty pounds of armor and ammo on our backs. We watched each other defuse hot situations involving guns or angry contractors, belligerent Oil Police or Port authorities. We watched each other squirm in uncomfortable situations, and brood heavily over problems and tensions. We shared deceptions, lying to colonels and generals in order to make our own lives easier, and pushing agendas on behalf of each others’ interests. We shared water and candy and sandwiches. We shared hours of silence, naps bumping down dusty tracks through empty desert, winks behind the boss’ back, cigarettes in the thin shade of ratty trailers.

Each PSD team developed a unique personality. G’s team was mature, solid, impossible to shake. Where another team might move-move-move at the rattle of SAF up the block, these men would step behind walls and wait it out, assessing, watching, thinking, sensing. To a man they were calm, friendly, curious about the history and people of Iraq, thoughtful about the reconstruction effort. They made friends with children, fed families along the frequently-traveled routes, wondered how land ownership worked, pondered Iraq’s future. They asked questions and engaged the answers with intelligence.

We got lost on the desert following a faint dirt track, finally laughing, wondering if we’d strayed all the way into Kuwait. G tapped me on the shoulder and politely tugged me back into a doorway when SAF rattled off down the street. One of G’s teammates was insulted on my behalf when an Iraqi asked my age. Another teammate winked when the port official finally signed turnover papers that I was sure he’d find an excuse not to sign; “Good day, eh Seren?” he said quietly when the official walked out the door. “You looked worried.” He touched my arm gently and smiled, giving me a little bit of his confidence and assurance. G stared out across the blue water of the port, lost in time, looking like his heart was worn out.

The experts, my eyes and ears. My guns, my guards, my big brothers.

And sometimes my little brothers, the pain in their eyes almost too much to bear, the bravado a little too thin. I wanted to hug them, each of them, hold them close and hum quietly, taking them somewhere gentle and serene. I wanted to erase their memories of pulling bloody friends from beneath trucks and saluting coffins disappearing into the back of C130s. I wanted to erase the deep sadness in their eyes when they watched little children begging for water. I still do.

In this way we were friends: the whole world existed only in the present, and there we were.


Now we chatter through the ether, finding each other again. I’m excited; I’m touched that they worried for me – that they remember me.

My heart aches again for them, worries for them still in the zone, yet it soars and sings for them because they’re doing what they’re good at and they love what they do.

G wants me to call, day or night. I’m nervous. I’m scared now, of them, of G and of myself. Who are we now?


Who Knew Rehab Takes So Long

November 3, 2009

This morning I read about a man who accidentally crashed his car into a house. The car barreled through windows and walls, carried on through the living room, and came to rest in the kitchen. The driver was injured. His passenger walked away.

I used to read accounts like this and think about the accident itself. Did he lose control of the car, or was there a defect in the car’s steering or braking mechanisms? Was it a small car or a large car? Was the house a nice one or a dump? Were the owners of the house planning on doing any remodeling before someone drove a car into their living room? Does homeowner’s insurance classify this sort of accident an Act of God? Does he have good health insurance or will he spend the rest of his life paying off medical bills?

My being injured by a roadside bomb is only unique in the details. People are getting injured every day, whether in wars or in accidents during the course of normal life. The stories of how people get injured are easy to come by: peruse any newspaper or a few online headlines. Until I was injured myself, I didn’t put much thought into the way the stories continue after the how of the incident. Now I wonder, for instance, what this driver’s injuries are exactly, and wonder how long he’ll be in the hospital. I wonder if his doctors will be good ones, sympathetic and skilled. I wonder who will help him shave or tie his shoes or fix his supper when he gets out of the hospital. I wonder how long it will take to rehabilitate his body and whether he’ll have any permanent disabilities.

The how of accidents is the bang-bang, and good bang-bang sells. The moment a life changes, that action episode, is a peek at someone else’s drama that our own everyday life might lack. It makes such a good story. The action tends to take place within a short span of time, concentrating drama. Compact, the stories are born with a built-in arc, holding our interest in the same way a good action flick rivets attention: beginning, middle, end: A woman is doing something unremarkable; an unusual twist took place and she was injured; she is being treated at this hospital.

What happens to people after the bang-bang initial injury is a much more complicated story. It’s a slow read, a long book that involves uninteresting but crucial details and tedious repetition of scenes. You almost have to be the lead character or the subsequent caretaker to comprehend the innumerable small inconveniences of rehab.

I try to minimize the tedious details and the boring repetition for others by changing the subject. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I like to say great and move on. This has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. By minimizing the effects of my injuries, the conversations I have with people are more diverse and interesting. But by minimizing the effects of my injuries, I also misrepresent this whole process as less of a big deal than it is, and give people the impression that I’m back to normal, that I can do everything that I used to be able to do. It’s a pretty lie, but it is a lie. (Working with the military taught me that trick, the lie – ha ha!) Recovery is a lot of work, a lot of pain, a lot of discomfort, and it takes for f*ing ever, especially when you’re a middle aged woman (49 years old now …). The body can do amazing things, but it takes some time for those things to work their way through the system.

I try to minimize the tedious details and the boring repetition for myself with humor. My favorite t-shirt: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. I like jokes about holes in my head and cracked skulls, and if I tell stories about surgeries and pain, I want to tell the funny ones. Here’s one: I’ll have another surgery in January to rearrange muscles on the back of my eye. They’ll leave little strings hanging out of my eye so they can tug on them to fine-tune the muscle position after I wake up. Ew!?! Can I string little beads onto the ends of the strings? How long will the strings be? I’m thinking macramé …
Opportunities for humor are surprisingly frequent when you’ve been blown up, and I try to take advantage of every single one.

I’ll admit that I do still apply my sick sense of humor to others’ predicaments; I’m not my only fodder. When I read articles like the one today of the man driving his car through someone’s house, I still like to think about why it happened and the unreported details. I like to wonder if he was stinking drunk or had just spilled hot coffee on his lap, and whether it was a small car that fit neatly through the picture window or a large SUV that the house hardly dented. I like to imagine that a couple living in the house had been discussing remodeling the place when the car came crashing through the very wall they were talking about pushing out ten feet for a bigger kitchen. -!- I like to wonder if the full story would reveal a hilariously improbable chain of events, or some ludicrous stupidity deserving of a Darwin Award.

But now I can’t help but take the time to hope that guy is not seriously hurt, and to put some real effort into that wish on his behalf. Because now when I see someone on a walker, I think about all the hundreds of little things in that person’s life that are made slow and laborious by that walker. When I see someone with a cane I study them to try to figure out what their limitations might be and how they might compare to mine when I was using a cane. I imagine other people taking five minutes to tie a shoe, fingers like paralyzed sausages, practically having to learn the process all over again. Or being unable to grab a zipper to zip up their own jeans. Or having to have a friend or spouse help them into the shower and wash their hair for them. I imagine someone else taking ten minutes to get up the stairs, straining and pulling and pushing for each goddamn step. I can practically see someone’s head slowly dropping down to bang on the tabletop in front of them as the physical therapist bends a finger or wrist so hard, hurting so badly, they just stop breathing. I wonder how many other people rarely go out in public because their friend or spouse is embarrassed by how slow they are using a walker or crutches, or how slow they are fumbling for a credit card or a few bills, unable to do something as simple as slipping a hand in their pocket.

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye! And splinters a forearm into little stringy pieces of shattered bone. And breaks all the bones in their face. And loses a few pieces of skull bone, and breaks a heel, and fractures a skull, and damages a few key nerves, and the retina detaches, and … yeah, yeah – whatever …

Two years. Who knew rehab takes so long? I’d never broken a bone before I got blown up. Well, ok, I dislocated and cracked my little finger. Does that count?

I’m so lucky.

That’s not a cynical or facetious statement: I am lucky and I know it. I had skilled and warm, good-hearted doctors. It’s been two years since I was blown up (I still laugh when I say that – !) and I can tie my shoes perfectly now because I have metal plates in my arm and I still have all my fingers even if I don’t have feeling in all of them. I can wash my own hair, and walk up and down stairs all by myself. I can see out of one eye and that’s one more eye than a lot of people can see out of. I don’t need a walker to help me stand upright. I don’t have nightmares, a drug addiction, a death wish, or a load of guilt. Instead, I have an odd and irreverent sense of humor to keep things in perspective.

If it takes another year to get my body straightened out, that’s ok. I’ve got nothing but time and laughter is free. I wish everyone was so lucky.