Archive for the ‘brain’ Category

Stroke of Insight: Review

I recently read Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor. Cath recommended it to me right after my stroke, and it took me a long time to be emotionally ready to read Jill’s stroke experience without darkly replying my own.

In the first part of the book, Jill tells of her pre-stroke life and goes over some of the basic science behind the brain, cognition, and stroke.

The middle portion focuses on her experiences from the moment she realizes she’s having a stroke, through her time in the hospital, recovering for her surgery, and beyond.

She closes the books with several chapters that go over what she learned from her stroke: neurologically, emotionally, and spiritually. She also include a couple helpful appendices about assessment questions to ask patients suffering from a stroke and a list of what she needed the most during her recovery.

I’ll admit to skipping a couple of the first few chapters dealing with brain anatomy & function (only because I am familiar with those topics), and I did lose some interest at the end as she delved more into the spiritual side of things. But, I did find the book to be very interesting overall, and found her knowledge of her experience thought provoking, which made me reflect on my own experiences.

I also think her list of things she needed during recovery is great, and anyone with a loved-one who has suffered a stroke should read it (I wish my family and friends had seen that list). The suggestions that resonated with me the most were:

  • Honour the healing power of sleep (this was lost on many of the nurses and other hospital staff)
  • Protect my energy, especially keeping visits brief (and only with people who will bring in positive energy)
  • Stimulate my brain when I have any energy to learn
  • Do not assess my cognitive ability by how fast I can do things
  • Speak to me directly, not about me to others (VERY common!)
  • Trust that my brain can continue to learn
  • Celebrate my little successes
  • I may want you to think I understand more than I really do
  • Focus on what I CAN do rather than what I cannot (again, very common with hospital staff)
  • Love me for who I am today. Don’t hold me to being the person I was before
  • Be protective of me but do not stand in the way of my progress

I give this book a 4/5 because I (obviously) related to her story on so many levels and it forced me to re-think my own experiences. Thank you, Dr. Jill Taylor, for sharing your story!



I’m in the midst of reading Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, and I’ve been asked to talk about my stroke experience at an upcoming workshop for local gifted students interested in aspects of the medical world.

Needless to say, I’ve been forced to think about my stroke & aftermath a lot lately. I have been taking stock of various aspects of my recovery.

One: it’s interesting that I have heard myself say at many times in the past that I thought I was about 90% recovered. Obviously that can’t be true at every step of the way since the stroke, but it’s always in hindsight that I realize how my recovery was really going. But, it’s as with everything that changes gradually, it’s hard to see changes in yourself.

This leads me to Two: Where am I now with my recovery? Well, I’m smart enough to say that I can’t say for sure. As Dr. Bolte Taylor says in response to this question in her book: “Physical recovery from the brain surgery  was minimal when compared to the task of rebuilding my mind…”. People seem to think that once someone is physically recovered (which is easier to see & measure) that the recover is completely.

Yes, I certainly have an easier time performing certain tasks (typing, reading aloud, multitasking, talking). I’m not nearly as fatigued as I used to be and my anxiety seems to be at bay. However, is that because I’m recovering from my stroke, or because my kids are older (& so sleeping better) and my work-life is less stressful?

That being said, there are deficits that, while less obvious now, are still hanging around. I still mix up word sounds when talking (an embarrassing one is “Harrer Potty” for “Harry Potter” – you’d be surprised how often this comes up!), and there are some words that I just can spell or say now, even though I used to be able to (deficit!!!). When I proofread my writing, it can take me a few times through to catch errors. I can’t think too quickly on the spot, especially when blindsided with a question or comment I wasn’t expecting – it’s like my brain is working in slow motion.

I’ll make the point here again: how do I KNOW that these are from my stroke, or something new that I’ve “learned”? It’s hard to say, but I’m sure it’s a combination of both.

This brings me to Three: what does it really mean to be “recovered”? Does this only mean “be the person I was pre-stroke”? Is that the end goal? Since that was 2.5 years ago now, wouldn’t it be expected that I would have learned new things, had experiences affect me, and I would have changed anyway?

One day, I will go to DH’s work and we’ll do an fMRI scan of my brain to see where certain tasks are mapping to in my brain & compare them to “normal” brain function. It would be interesting to see where my brain is compensating for the large whole left by the bleed.

The Learning Brain

2015 felt slow for reading books. I probably had time to read more, but between finishing my BEd, then teaching at a private school in the Fall, I didn’t have much time in the evenings.

I ended the year reading The Learning Brain, which is a review of neuroscience research behind how we learn.

It was an interesting read, with parts about how we learn to speak, write, and do math. There were also parts about how the brain develops throughout childhood, into adolescents, and up to adulthood, and how our capacity to learn changes. There were also parts about more specific neurological topics like ADHD, Autism, neuroplasticity, amoung others.

Though the content of the book was interesting in an academic sense, the book itself wasn’t all that entertaining to read. I had seen several reviews that it was accessible for any level. Though followable, there were a few parts that felt needlessly loaded with jargon (especially given its apparent broad target audience). If it wasn’t for my stroke experience and DH being in the brain-science world, I would not have been able to understand as much as I did.

One thing that I was disappointed with was there were very few concrete suggestions for pedagogical strategies to use to accommodate for the issues they were reviewing. In reading the summary of the book beforehand, I was expecting more of a connection in this regard.

Overall, the subject is interesting, and the writing was decent enough. Anyone wanting to know more about the neuroscience behind learning, it’s a good place to start.

I give this book a 3/5.

Guilt Reigns

I had been struggling with the decision of whether or not to leave my current job for the past month or so. There are many reasons why I have been considering this. Some are personal, others are job-related, but mostly because other opportunities have presented themselves.

I have signed on to teach at both the university (first-year astronomy course) and the college (first-year math), and both start in January. I will also be volunteering with a high-school physics teacher. These are great opportunities to investigate more options in the field of education, and I just couldn’t pass them up.

So, even though I have many, MANY, good (even excellent!) reasons to leave my current job, I still feel THE GUILT!

“But I’m leaving right in the MIDDLE of the term!”

“Are they going to be able to find a replacement for me?”

“Is the student going to be negatively impacted because of me?”

and don’t forget the favourite:

“Everyone is going to think I’m AWFUL!”

I spoke to numerous people about this decision, both inside and outside education, at different points in their careers, and asked their advice. One central theme was that the only person who will look out for me is myself.  And if there’s one thing in the time since my stroke is I need to look out for myself.

So, yes, the guilt is there, but it will lesson with time (isn’t time amazing for things like that?). And, come January with all of its new starts, the excitement will overtake those feelings. I’m already getting excited!

Flash Backs

Today, we had a professional development day at school, and part of it was talking about the issue of students with concussions. We learned about what post-concussion symptoms can be, how they impact student learning, and potential strategies and approaches to help them return to school.

It’s something that I’ve taken very seriously for a long time, especially since my stroke. There seems to be a common misconception that it’s no big deal, but I know very well how serious brain injuries can be. It’s no joke, and students with concussions should be given the accommodations they need (instead of being accused of “milking it” or “taking advantage of it”).

Some of the symptoms we talked about hit extremely close to home. The anxiety and depression. Not being able to multitask as easily, and difficulty concentrating. Not being able to find the right words, or stumbling over words more often. Sensitivity to noise and light.

I do still suffer from some of these symptoms when I compare to my baseline of how things were before my stroke. The ones I notice the most are those associated with verbal communication, and high anxiety. Things that can’t be noticed from the outside, but things I struggle with every day.

When I look back to how far I’ve come, I’m amazed what I’m able to do now. But, thinking about what happened, how it affected me and my family, can still be traumatic.

What’s strange is that I want it to be that way. I don’t want to forget what it was like. I always want to understand and be compassionate to others who are going something similar. I want to be able to help them, and sharing my experience is one way I can do that.

We saw a video today of a women talking about her experience with post-concussion syndrome, and one of the things that really resonated with me was when she mentioned grieving the loss of herself before. It reminded me of when I started calling myself Stroke-Alyssa, and wondering when I was going to be back to “normal”. Now, I know I will never be that person again, because this whole journey has changed me in more ways than I can count. The stroke had a big impact on who I am now, and I don’t want to forget how I got here.

Hair Evolution

It’s been about one year since my first visit to my hair stylist after my stroke. I’ve had a few appointments since then, including today — here’s how my hair has evolved since it was first shaved for my emergency brain surgery (if you’re squeamish, you might not want to look at the first photo or two — especially the second one).

 Fig. 1: Late October, 2013 (about 2 weeks after my surgery).
Fig. 2: Late December, 2013 (a couple days after my second surgery to put my skull back on)

Fig. 3: Late February, 2014.
Fig. 4: Mid-May, 2014 (right after an appointment with my stylist).

Fig. 5: Mid-August, 2014 (shortly after another visit to my stylist)

 Fig. 6: January 6, 2015 (right after a visit to my stylist)

First, how awesome is my stylist? She managed to make my hair look like a million bucks at every awkward stage! She’s actually an award-winning hair stylist, and it really makes a world of difference, especially when dealing with such hair issues (I did start seeing her before all this and noticed a HUGE difference between previous stylists – she has a deep understanding of the connection between hair type, face type, personality, and style).
Second, I know it seems a bit vain to be writing about my hair of all things after everything that has happened, but it’s amazing how much it affected me throughout this journey. It was hard looking in the mirror and not seeing MYSELF, if that makes sense — I was just staring at a stroke patient. My stylist gave me ME back, even though my hair wasn’t the same as before. She helped me take ownership of it – choosing styles that I wanted, even thought I wasn’t so keen on the length. Being able to make the CHOICE instead of it being thrust upon me, really helped me feel more confident.
Never underestimate the worth of a great hair stylist!

It’s Taken a Year

It’s been just over a year since I had a bleed in my brain and required emergency brain surgery.

One of the biggest deficits I have been dealing with right from the beginning is extreme fatigue. When I was in the hospital for the first month, I needed to sleep 10-12 hours at night, and took 1-2 long naps during the day.

When I went home a month after my stroke happened, it was a struggle for me to get the sleep I needed and to get anything else done. I literally had to choose between having a shower and sleeping. It was frustrating! I just wanted to be normal.

As the weeks and months went on, I required slightly less sleep, but it did not change quickly.

Six months after the stroke, I still needed 9-10 hours at night and 1 nap during the day to function properly. At that point, I started having both kids at home a few days a week, and it was exhausting. I would go to bed at 8:30pm every night.

Once I started school in September, it forced me to cut my naps out. It took me a couple weeks, but I realized I didn’t actually need them anymore.

Just this past week, I was waking up at 5am EVERY morning and it was driving me nuts that I couldn’t get back to sleep. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it actually wasn’t a problem. It was that I was trying to get TOO MUCH sleep. Going to bed at 9pm each night, and trying to sleep until 6:30 or 7am…that’s more than 9 hours.

I was so used to needing so much sleep for so long, it was hard to understand that it was changing. Now my sleeping needs have normalized and getting 8ish hours at night is perfect. It only took a year.

One big thing I’ve learned through this process is that sleep is one of the most important things for recovering from brain damage/injury.

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