I should be terribly worried.
At home, finally, I retrieve my phone to see a half-dozen messages from my husband. The last one says, "Where ARE you? We gave up and went to dinner. Home in a few hours." I toss the phone on the counter, mumbling, "Thanks a lot." I have a throbbing headache, probably a result of the cold and sinus infection I've been fighting for a week. But I'm on antibiotics and prednisone, so surely it will get better soon. I take some Ibuprofen and lay down for a nap.
When my husband wakes me, it is dark. Still sleepy, I mumble a reply to his hello, run a hot bath, and sink into the steamy water. Maybe that will help my headache, which has moved into my left eye socket.
An hour later, my son cracks the bathroom door. "Mom, when you get out, could we talk?" We'd started a stressful disagreement before I'd left that morning. I've been crying on and off since he arrived home for Thanksgiving break two days ago. Now, sitting in the tepid bathwater, I begin to cry again. I feel too bad to argue further. "I don't feel right," I tell him. I have trouble getting the sentence out.
The next day is Thanksgiving. We have dinner reservations with friends. I take more Ibuprofen and get dressed. When I relate my symptoms and experiences of the last two days to our friends over dinner, my cousin says, "Please, Sandy. Go by the Urgent Care after dinner."
We drive by the Urgent care center on the way home. Since it's Thanksgiving night, business is slow and I'm admitted to a room immediately. I struggle to complete the paperwork, and my husband takes the clipboard out of my hands and fills it out for me.
The ER nurse takes my blood pressure, and the doctor asks me to describe my headache, which has settled at the back of my skull in addition to my right eye. "Say 'No ifs, ands or buts,'" he instructs. I give a garbled reply, and my husband shoots me a look of concern.
"You've had a stroke," the ER doc says brusquely. "Let's get you in for a CAT scan."
"Transport?" the nurse asks, and he nods. "There's a bed available at Chandler Regional."
* * *
A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is deprived of oxygen when a clot occurs. When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain, such as memory or speech are lost. How a person is affected by their stroke depends on where the stroke occurs in the brain and how much of the brain is damaged.
Most of the cells in our bodies die and are replaced every few months. However, neurons—the primary cells of the nervous system, do not regenerate or multiply after we are born. That means that the majority of the neurons in your brain today are as old as you are. This longevity of the neurons partially accounts for why we feel pretty much the same on the inside at the age of 10 as we do at the age of 60.
If brain cells do not regenerate, can one recover from the damage of a stroke?
Consider a busy Chinese restaurant. People are getting their orders taken and yelled into the kitchen, others are being seated. Plates are clattering and food is being eaten. It looks like chaos, but everything gets done.
Your brain is like that busy Chinese restaurant. As new connections are made in the brain, different answers, different perspectives, and different solutions to problems are created.
There are approximately 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. A typical stroke kills less than 2 billion neurons. But those numbers are small compared to the number of connections between neurons in the brain. The present estimate of connections between neurons is an astounding quadrillion (a thousand trillion). Hard to imagine, but good news for stroke survivors. The number of connections between neurons in more important than the number of neurons themselves. Forging new connections between neurons that survive after a stroke is the basis for recovery.
And that's where the concept of neuroplasticity—and this blog—come in.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adjust to trauma and rewire itself. Rewiring the brain after stroke requires hard and focused work. But if a skill is developed with the right intensity it will promote lasting change in the brain. The saying among scientists who examine how the brain works is "neurons that fire together wire together." We are what we repeatedly do. The more times we repeat a specific action the more thoroughly the brain learns that action.
For me, that's writing.
I haven't resumed work on my new novel since the stroke, but I'm ready to take that big step. After two months of cognitive therapy and my own personal research, I've decided to try a combination of distributed and mass writing practice: Relatively short two-hour writing sessions each morning Monday through Thursday, with more intensive 5-hour day on Friday.
I will be blogging my progress—good and bad, on my personal blog, as well as information from my ongoing brain research. Join me, please, and leave your comments and questions on all aspects of writing or the brain. I'll post a short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Stones of the Ancients, starting next month.