Teresa Heinz Kerry talks about her improving health
October 27, 2013 10:20 PM
Teresa Heinz Kerry
By Mackenzie Carpenter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
She arrives in the beautiful book-lined conference room of the Heinz family offices in the EQT Tower Downtown, looking very much like the Teresa Heinz Kerry of old -- a little more tired, perhaps, but with the signature tousled hair, clutching books, papers, an iPad, and, of course, an elegant scarf tossed over her shoulder.
It's hard to imagine that just less than four months ago, on July 7, after suffering a seizure at her family home on Nantucket, Mrs. Kerry was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she was in intensive care for a few days before moving to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for a nearly three-week stay.
Last week, though, she was back in Pittsburgh for the first time since June for board meetings at the Heinz Endowments -- the family's $1.4 billion foundation -- and in an interview Friday, she talked frankly about her life, the future of the endowments and her return to health after this summer's scare.
The cause of her seizure, she said, wasn't related to her 2009 treatment for breast cancer, but rather the lingering effects "after a bad concussion that was not properly treated at all ... from a very bad fall," four years ago.
According to medical research, such seizures might not appear for as long as 20 years after an accident. The brain's repair process -- the forming of new connections and circuits -- may take years, and while strength and memory return, sometimes the circuits formed can be overly excited and lead to seizures.
But her doctors don't know for sure.
"I guess the way these things get resolved is that [the concussion's injuries] probably get absorbed by the brain, scar tissue, too, and in my case I don't know how long it took to be absorbed," she said. "But there were a lot of signs of impacts over the four years, and probably the last absorption, I think, was about the time I had my seizure. I don't know if I lost all of it in six months, in two years, or all in one week. We don't know."
When Mrs. Kerry was moved to Spaulding to begin her long climb back to wellness, "It was hard." She had no balance, and it was hard to mentally focus. Today, she goes three times a week for physical therapy, in Washington or Boston, and exercises to sharpen her brain's acuity. She says the doctors have told her she's made a "miraculous" recovery.
"I have a great feeling of gratitude in my heart that my brain is still working," she said, adding that she is "in the 97th percentile for my age group in terms of analytical function."
There is a touch of wonder -- and pride -- in her voice, but then in the next breath, she credits her brain's resilience both to an iPad app game of problem-solving exercises called Lumosity -- "I've got two foreign ministers doing it" -- and her background as a simultaneous interpreter, a special skill she learned as a young woman who, growing up in Mozambique and educated in South Africa and Switzerland, was already fluent in five languages. Somehow, the skills she learned at simultaneous interpretation so many years ago "were still present and allowed me to revive my brain faster than I should have."
The recovery process has been a fascinating one, she said, and, not surprisingly, she wants to share it -- so she's already pondering an idea for a health conference, to be held in Pittsburgh, "not just about the brain but all the new research, games, therapies and all the possibilities that the brain will allow us to do for our children, our families and ourselves, and in understanding that lead to a kinder world, and not be so fearful about it."
The problems, she said, is that doctors "don't spend much time with patients for the most part, and you cannot do neurology unless they know your construct, your background, your history. So I want to share a lot of what I've learned."
While she can't drink alcohol anymore -- "I'm mad about that," she laughed -- she has thrived on the challenge of bringing her 75-year-old brain back up to speed.
She first learned about Lumosity while watching the news on television over the summer. "It was all about [Anthony] Weiner and that mayor from San Diego, and I thought, I can't believe this is happening in this country."
When she saw the television advertisement for the game, though, all thoughts of mayors or would-be behaving badly vanished. She asked a nurse to put it on her iPad, and realized, to her great relief, that she was not only good at the exercises but having fun.
"There is an anticipatory quality to managing this, people don't understand that. They think if you look good, you're fine, you're great. You're actually thinking clearer, but not for long. [I'm focusing] much longer now, but for the beginning, maybe for 30 minutes, and then, whoosh, the brain gets tired."
For now, her life is focused on her recovery, her grandchildren -- two, with a third on the way -- and her 24 godchildren and their children, reverting to her role as "Mama T," as she was always known by her friends.
Does she see her husband, Secretary of State John Kerry, very much?
"Of course not," she responds immediately, noting that she has not been able to travel at all -- and his trips are exhausting. "His aides say they've never seen anyone work so hard."
"I keep thinking I'm doing it for the world," she said of letting her husband go -- and she seems to be only half-joking. She had hoped to stay this past weekend at her Fox Chapel home, "but he's going off again, and I have to see him. I know he's good at his job. But it's not a life, and some days are hard, but I believe in what he is doing -- even when I disagree with him, which I sometimes do."
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