Gabby Giffords & some thoughts on head wounds

Several years ago I was standing in an Albany parking lot talking to three other men who, like me, had survived being shot in the head at point blank range. One of us, I don’t remember who, interrupted the flow of our conversation and said, “Can you believe it? We’ve all been shot in the head and we’re still alive.”  A quiet moment followed in which each of us took this reality in. There was, then and now, an  ineffable and unbreakable bond between us. I feel the same bond with Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who handed in her resignation today , as well as anyone who has experienced this form of mind-splitting, life-shredding violence.

What is rarely if ever talked about is a salient truth unique to head injuries, brain injuries if you will. When your head is wounded, whether by bullet, stroke, fall, accident, drugs, alcohol, and so on, the very place from which you experience life has been invaded, and, without mercy, damaged. I cannot and will not say one type of injury is worse than another. What I can say is there is a form of vulnerability one lives with after suffering what, in today’s parlance, is called an acquired brain injury. And acquired brain injury, or ABI, is any injury to the brain that occurs after one is born. The more commonly used term, TBI, or traumatic brain injury, is a subset of the ABI family in that a TBI is any brain injury resulting from an external event: fall, gunshot, accident.

I tend to think that all of us who have lived through these injuries live with this unique form a vulnerability, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes both. The question, or perhaps better put, the challenge we each face is this: are we willing to take part in life again knowing these things happen? My answer and my hope for myself and all others is, yes. Am I successful in this endeavor? Not always.  There are days on end when I cannot get myself out of the house. I do know I do the best I can.

I know this too; the three men I was in the parking lot that day are doing the best they can. Gabby Giffords is doing the best she can. Thousands upon thousands of Americans of every age and every walk of life are battling like hell and doing the best they can. Because we are all human, our best varies from day to day. Such is life. What I will not do, and I hope no one else will do, is give up. If we give up, then whatever life-villain damaged our brain wins. And one of the last things on earth I want to do is give the circumstances of my injury and the injury itself so much control over my life that they cause me to give up.  That is a power they don’t deserve – not ever.

Our Protective Memory

The human capacity for survival is stronger and shrewder than I used to give it credit for. Sometimes it is only by chance that we learn how strong and, in the example I’m about to share, how shrewd we can be, and not even know it.

Before I continue, let me say this to you. There is no difference between you and me on the courage front. The worst, or, better put, the most inaccurate thing you can take from this essay is a belief that somehow I am braver than you, made of sterner stuff. Not so. I was shot early one summer morning in 1984 and I can tell you from the time the gun appeared until the time I came out of surgery hours later I was so terrified that if terror was light I would have glowed.

It went like this. I was walking to work around five in the morning on a beautiful tree-lined street in Brooklyn flanked on either side with brick an Brownstone houses. A teenager came out of nowhere, put a gun to the side of my head, and a second person I never did see emptied my pockets. Then the teenager fired, shooting me in the head at point blank range. 

Here is my memory of what happened next.

When I came to on the ground and opened my eyes I had no vision and no feeling from the neck down. There was no pain, just this enormous outward pressure from the top of my head. It felt as if it had been blown off. I knew I’d been shot and I knew I was going to die. It was not a matter of knowing I might die, I knew I was going to. I thought of someone telling my seven-year-old daughter that her father was dead and I desperately wanted to get up and try to get to the hospital so she would know Daddy didn’t give up. At least I could leave her a courage note, so to speak. Then I thought of my father, the greatest gift life has ever given me, and how he died when I was 15, thinking if Daddy can go from here to there, from life to death, then so can I. And somehow, I am convinced, this last dropped my fear level, and that is when I got back to my feet.

I have no memory of getting up. My memory is this. Once standing I lifted my hand towards the wound and blood hit my hand before my hand reached my head. I pressed a sweatshirt against the wound and began banging on the window of a basement apartment. From down the street I heard a male voice call out. I went back to the sidewalk and a tall slender man in pajamas hurried to me and took me by the arm. “Come on back to the house, my wife’s calling the police and ambulance.” As we walked I looked at him and could see him fighting to maintain his composure. I told him not to worry I’d be okay.

We’d walked no more than a few feet when a half dozen cop cars from Brooklyn’s 84th Precinct came flying up the street. Afraid they wouldn’t see us I pulled my helper into the street, the cars came to a stop, I got into the back of the first unit and off we went to the hospital.

Now, here’s the thing. Everything I just told you is honest. However, nearly all of it is not true.  I later met the man who’d come to my aid. I told him my memory of the morning pretty much as I just told you. He looked perplexed. “You’re all wrong,” he said. “The only thing you’re right about is you were lucid, you weren’t panicking.” And then he told me what really happened. “When I saw you you couldn’t stay on your feet. You kept falling down and getting up. When the cops cars came I was laying you down on the front steps. Me and the cops pretty much threw you into the back seat.”

My memory was honest, but my mind, like yours, is shrewd, we are survivors when possible and my mind was only allowing me to recognize what it could handle. Had it allowed me to recognize the full scope of the shooting, I would not have been able to remain lucid and avoid panic, and I would not have been able to write this essay for you.

Have faith in you, there may be more reason to have faith than you think.

Getting Shot in the Head

I was 30 years old in 1984 when a wild-eyed teenager put a gun to the left side of my head and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through my skull in front of the left temple, tore a path through the left side of my frontal lobe before coming to a stop in my right frontal lobe. Bone spray was blasted into the left side of the brain.  I underwent brain surgery in which a large subdural hematoma was removed. The wound was cleaned and the bullet was left where it was. Doctors knew  more brain damage would result if they removed it.

No one told me I had a brain injury and back in the day, this was the norm. Words like brain injury and traumatic brain injury and terms like TBI had not found their way into common parlance. My marching orders were, We’re going to put you on anti-seizure meds for the first year as a precautionary measure and no, you can’t play contact sports anymore. No one said I was living with brain damage. It would be years before I learned that mood swings and short tempers and bursts of anxiety were reflections of the damage done to my brain. It would be years too before I understood why some activities exhausted me and others did not.

Fortunately, for Gabrielle Giffords and others who sustain brain injuries today, some things have changed for the better in my country. Now there is an increased awareness of brain injuries, that the injuries themselves present a range of lifelong challenges. Brain injuries don’t get all better and go away. What has not changed, or, if it has, it hasn’t changed enough, is how people with brain injuries, meaning people with disabilities, are treated. Too often people with brain injuries (and other disabilities) are treated as if they are both less valuable and, in a very real way, less human than others. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I hear of someone getting shot in the head and suffering brain damage as a result, I almost instantly think, Please don’t let anyone lose sight of them, meaning, let no one lose sight of the fact no matter damage, no matter the personality of the disability, the person is still there. The whole of their value and humanity is not diminished.

When I hear of people being shot shot in the head, it moves me beyond description and I feel an instant bond with the person who was shot. When the person has been shot in the head, there is a unique sense of connection. Over the years, I have known a number of people with gunshot wounds to the head, I can think of eight at the moment. I remember a moving moment in 2002 when I was standing outside on a sunny day talking with three other men, all of whom had been shot in the head. One of us, I can’t remember who it was, quipped, “Can you believe we’re all talking here standing up?” to which another said, “Hell, can you believe we’re all here?”

We were all shot in the head and we all live with brain damage. And that is the reality that Gabrielle Giffords is dealing with and will deal with for the rest of her life. As my closest friend in the world, Michael Sulsona told me that day after I was shot. “Remember, you control it or it controls you.” Michael knows. A former and always in his heart U.S. Marine, Michael lost his legs in Vietnam.

One of the unique rarely talked about realities of getting shot in the head is this. The head is the sanctuary from which we experience our lives. It is there that our thoughts and feelings are shaped, emerge, and have their say. Our heads are, in a very real way, the center of our universe. And so, when you are shot in the head, the very sanctuary from which you experience life has been ruthlessly invaded, and an ineffable form of deep-seeded vulnerability results. It is, for some, the toughest challenge of all.

Gabrielle Giffords will not function entirely the way she functioned before she was shot; there will be differences. The bullet went through the left side of her brain, home to the speech center, so there may well be differences in her communication. Only time will reveal the personality of the brain injury she is dealing with. Here is what we don’t need time to tell us for sure. Gabrielle Giffords is still Gabrielle Giffords; her humanity and worth is not diminished. To treat her as if she is less than she was before is to give the shooting, the brain injury and, for that matter, the shooter, far more control than they deserve.

We are not our injuries, we have relationships with them, we are not defined by them.

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Five weeks after shooting