Saturday Diary / How I got a new brain

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After covering health at the Post-Gazette on a sunny, warm Monday, last Aug. 13, I headed home on the bus to Park Place and got our golden retriever Rufus on his leash. I took him to our corner, South Braddock and Edgerton avenues, to head down Braddock. But he spotted my husband, Evan Pattak, in our driveway on Edgerton, turned us left and started jogging.

I don't remember any of this because of what happened next. Evan has told me all about it.

About five yards before we reached the driveway, I passed out and fell without trying to catch myself. I remained unconscious with a big bruise on the back of my head. An ambulance was called. I was taken to Shadyside Hospital.

Doctors found that I had fractured my skull and injured my left temporal lobe. There was heavy bleeding in my brain as well as swelling. I was semi-conscious for the first couple of days, and Evan said I was able to talk a little bit. But the bleeding worsened, and I became unconscious and remained so for about three weeks.

In the meantime, I developed pneumonia.

The main doctors treating me were two neurosurgeons. Though partners, they disagreed on how much I'd recover.

One doctor said once the swelling went down and my brain healed, I'd get better, though he couldn't predict how much of my previous capabilities would return. The other doctor said I'd never walk unaided again, never talk again and never again understand what other people were saying.

"The doctor who was pessimistic advised me to discontinue treatment," Evan told me. "You would have been gone."

I was 60.

Evan told them I was a fighter and deserved a chance to get well. He said continue treatment.

As my condition stabilized, I was sent to LifeCare Hospital in Wilkinsburg, where I eventually started to awaken and occasionally spoke a couple of words. I began to learn to sit in a chair.

After three weeks, I moved to Seneca Place, a skilled nursing facility in Penn Hills, and I was there about three weeks. I remember the last 10 days or so. I started to talk to people, do little exercises and, with help, walk some and go up short flights of steps in a gym. I remember being taught how to dress myself, wash my face and comb my hair. I loved it.

The next stop was HealthSouth Harmarville in Indiana Township, where I was hospitalized with head trauma victims. I took a lot of short classes that taught me things like simple cooking and remembering popular songs, holidays and words. I went to a gym in my wheelchair for more exercise, walking and going up steps. I remember talking to a lot of visiting friends and writing thank-you cards.

I was allowed to leave for three hours with Evan to vote Nov. 6, and I went home for good without a wheelchair on Nov. 8.

I was so happy to be with Evan and our seven animals. And I thought I was just about back where I'd been before I hurt my brain. I figured I'd be working again at the Post-Gazette in January.

I came to realize I was wrong.

The left part of the brain I injured Aug. 13 is gone. I have, in effect, a new brain, and though it seems to be as smart as the old one, it is still young and learning things that the old one knew.

I'm lucky, though. I go to classes at HealthSouth. There, physical therapist Amy Vtipil shows me how to strengthen the right side of my body. Occupational therapists Josh Mickle and Jan Wilson help improve my coordination and information-processing with complicated computer games and cooking, map, checkbook and computer exercises. Speech therapist Janice Pivik Bowser helps me remember dozens and dozens of words and names I used as a reporter and how to tell stories and write sentences.

My husband, who also is a professional writer, continues Janice's work at home, constantly.

My injury was terrible, but my recovery has been wonderful. I'm getting better, and I think I'll be back writing about health at the PG before too long.

Doctors say it takes a year to heal from my kind of brain injury -- if you're lucky enough to heal at all. I'm coming up on six months.


Pohla Smith is a Post-Gazette staff writer temporarily assigned to getting better ( First Published February 9, 2013 5:00 AM


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