Michael L.

One Year
By: Michael L.
August 16th, 2010

One year ago from today, my life changed forever. At the time, I didn't know my life would change forever. I wouldn't realize for days, weeks, even months that my life would be so impacted by what happened one year ago from today. I thought the situation would go away as quickly as it came. Although it didn't, I have no doubt that I will be physically back to my old self eventually. But mentally and emotionally . . . I have been impacted forever, in so many ways. It gave me a deep appreciation for life and reminded me to never take anything or anyone at all for granted. I wouldn't trade that for almost anything. Although most of you have heard the story, I will tell you a little bit about what happened one year ago from today.

Before I begin, I just want to say that I get the chills whenever I think of last summer, summer of 2009. It just seems so strange to think that not I or anyone knew what would happen next. Whenever I see pictures or videos of last summer, I always think about how different I am — both physically and emotionally. In the month of June, I worked a lot around the house and in July I was in Florida for three weeks as a camp counselor. At the end of July some of my family and I went to Washington and Philadelphia. Then from August 7th to the 9th I was in Charlotte at my cousin's house, and we went on this cool whitewater rafting theme park. Then I was just looking forward to going back to college at Mercer on the 21st.

But the event that occurred on August 16th, 2009 changed my life's direction — for a little while, at least. I was at a high school friend's house and we were watching a movie, Gran Torino. I was really concentrating and pondering about the movie that I wasn't thinking of anything else, but I wish I was. After the movie finished at about 4:30pm, I hung around my friend's house a little then said good-bye to him. Carefully, I walked down his driveway, as it was steep. My car was at the bottom and I got into it. I clicked on my seatbelt and turned the engine. Although the time from when I put the key into the engine to when the car actually started was quick, I vividly and clearly remember it, because the observation I made was a bit astonishing and started my journey:

I had a headache.

Which was really surprising, because I rarely get headaches. I haven't had minor headaches in at least 8 years and I faked most of them. But there was something strange about this headache, something different. I remember driving out of the neighborhood trying to figure this out, thinking maybe I had been focused on the television too hard or something. I vividly remember driving along Lower Roswell Road, trying to shake the headache off. It was the weirdest headache I had in my life; it was so hard to describe it. But I was not a complainer, so I shrugged it off.

I went home and took a nap. When I woke up, my headache was even worse. I don't remember much about that night except telling my mom about my headache. She said if it wasn't better by tomorrow I should probably see a doctor. That night however, I was on my laptop and I noticed my right eyesight had gotten a little blurry. That was weird, I thought, but I ignored it and went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up and my eye was very blurry. This time I pondered over it . . . what in the world was going on? I told my mom about it and she reminded me that I had an eye doctor appointment that day . . . how lucky was I? That was in the afternoon and I was home by myself in the morning because everyone was at work or school. I don't remember much about that morning, just that I tried to do random things around the house but gave up because of my throbbing headache and blurry eye. When I drove to the doctor, I was concentrating very hard to drive with my hazy eye. At that point, I really wasn't in any condition to drive. I missed the turn for where the doctor's office was so I had to make a U-turn. There was no left turn entry to the eye doctor so I had to make another U-turn. I remember trying very hard not to miss the turn the 2nd time around.

When I finally arrived at the eye doctor I had to wait a while so I dozed on the couch. I really wasn't feeling good and I couldn't figure out why. The eye doctor then saw me and she checked my eyes out. She confirmed my prognosis, that my right eye was really blurry. If it happened all of suddenly, she said, maybe I should go to the emergency room. I winced at that idea. I would be fine, I said, it'll probably go away. I drove home, trying very hard to pay attention to the road. I had no idea it would be the last time I drove that year. When I got home I looked for more things to do. I started playing Guitar Hero, which I haven't done in a while. But I was having a hard time seeing the screen and a little difficulty in moving my arm. I didn't really pay attention to that, so I gave up and took another nap.

I woke up in the late afternoon and wondered around my house a bit and went back to my room. I was sitting on my bed when my dad came in. He asked me if I was all right. I told him I was fine, but at this point, the right side of my mouth had stopped moving. So my speech was slurred but I didn't notice it. My dad did and he looked at me. He asked me if I knew I was talking weirdly. I told him maybe I was, but I was also talking normally. But I vividly remember just closing my eyes and turning away, because I didn't know what else to do . . . it was all too much for me. I didn't want to worry anyone though. My dad just gazed at me some more and said maybe we better go to the hospital. I reluctantly agreed. I was sure it was nothing serious but I wanted to find out what was wrong with me.

It didn't feel like we were driving to the emergency room, because we weren't rushing. The same feeling lingered when we got there, we just walked into the emergency room of North Fulton Regional Hospital, we didn't run or anything. We told the front desk that something was wrong with me but wasn't sure what. I asked my dad to fill out the forms for me because I wasn't feeling up to it. However when I had to sign some papers, I tried signing with my right hand, just like always. But my arm wasn't moving properly. I looked at it and strained to sign it. This was the point where I knew something was deeply wrong with me and I was scared for my life. I showed my dad and he boggled at it also. We told the people at the front desk that now my arm wasn't moving. They said okay, we will see him in a minute. My dad and I sat down, so incredibly confused. This is where I thought maybe I was dying, but that couldn't be . . . I was too young to die.

The nurses finally checked me in and gave me a room, where I just lied down. I just remember a lot of waiting, the doctors, CT scans, the whole nine yards. My dad and I just waited there. But during that night I tried to move my right arm and it wouldn't budge. I could feel it just fine, but I couldn't move it. I told my dad and he tried moving my arm. He could move it but I couldn't. It was limp. This boggled me and was so scary, but I was sure it was just temporary. It was during that night or the next day that I discovered I couldn't move my leg either. Was I dreaming? Or did my entire right side stop moving? Wow. The nurse had to check in on me every 30 minutes that night, so I had a hard time getting to sleep. I finally fell asleep around 4 in the morning, which was very ironic, because exactly one year ago from that date, around that exact moment, I woke up because I first felt the pain from my kidney stones.

I woke up and knew it was morning because my mom was there. She said it was 10:30 and they were taking me to Emory because they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. She asked me if I was all right. I said I felt no pain at all, just my right side wouldn't move. It was then that I was in my worst condition — headache, very blurry eye, and my entire right side paralyzed. Lip, arm, and leg, it was all gone. It was crazy and I had never felt as worried or as confused as I had been at that time. I remember riding in back of the ambulance, looking out the window, wondering when and if I would ever see Roswell again.

When I got the Emory, they put me in ICU (Intensive Care Unit). It was awful. I had all these tubes in me and couldn't move at all. They didn't feed me or give me anything to drink for about 48 hours, mainly because I had to have surgery in order for them to do an MRI on me. The hunger was intense and all I could do was sleep. I tried to think of a moment when I had been in this situation before, but none came to mind. I had never been in ICU before and I never wanted to go back. One of my friends said she was in ICU for three weeks but couldn't remember it because she was in a coma. I'd much rather have that than live through it for two days. But they finally diagnosed me there. I had a cerebral cavernous malformation, which is like a combination between a stroke and an aneurysm. What it means is that a capillary in the basal ganglia area of my brain, which is a blood vessel, had malformed wrong when I was being formed in the womb. No one knows why, no one knows how. I grew up without knowing anything about it, but then without much warning, it randomly bleeds in the brain and caused these problems for me. And most people have many capillaries in their basal ganglia. I only had one and it bled. The human body is truly amazing. A cavernous malformation is extremely rare, and the only case I was able to find of it was Red Sox player Ryan Westmoreland.

I was in the ICU for two days and then they moved me to a regular room, where I was for four days. I just remember hardly being able to anything for myself, except eat. The nurses had to give me daily sponge baths and I needed assistance in getting to the bathroom. One thing that stands out in mind: On my last night there, neither of my parents spent the night, so I was in the room by myself. I needed to use the bathroom so I lifted myself up to travel the 10 feet it takes to get there. I was holding on to anything I possibly could find and I almost didn't make it. But I made it, went to the bathroom, and got up to get back to bed. I was about halfway there when I fell down. I tried getting up, but I failed to do so. My right leg wouldn't budge, it was just laying there limp. I scooted myself next to my bed but still I could not get up. That's when it really hit me: I couldn't walk. It was so depressing. Finally after 5 minutes of trying I pushed the button to call the nurse. She came in, and I thought she would rush over to me like any good nurse would but she just stared at me with a look that said, "What are you doing?" I was like, "Uh . . . can you help me get up?" It was really weird. But she and another nurse came and it took both of them to lift me up.

After Emory, I was in the Shepherd Center from August 24th through September 23rd. It was the longest 30 days of my life. I was so supervised there — I was locked in my bed or my wheelchair literally the whole time. It was a real nightmare and time went by so slowly. The beds had sensors on them, so if you tried to get out, the alarm would go off. But even if you just shifted your weight a little, the alarms would still go off. So I had to lie perfectly still on my bed for hours at a time, and the bed had a belt to strap me down. Sometimes I would notice that the nurses forgot to turn the alarm on, and if the belt was loose enough, I would crawl out of bed and make my way to the bathroom. There were surveillance cameras so sometimes I got caught but other times I didn't even make it to the bathroom without falling. Being locked in my wheelchair all day was horrible too — I wanted to get up and walk around but couldn't, which made me so frustrated. After I got out of the Shepherd Center, I rarely sat down. I was always walking around, trying to stretch my legs out after a month of sitting down. I can't tell you how good that felt. But the Shepherd Center was a very good hospital and they did an excellent job with me, so I would recommend it to anyone.

For the first couple weeks after I had my brain injury, I was a little woozy and out of it. But when everything became clear again, and I fully understood what happened to me, out came the tears. I couldn't believe this happened to me at such a young age. But I knew everything happened for a reason and I was a realist. If I couldn't change it, I just accepted it and moved on. I worked hard in therapy and did a lot of exercises. The happiest moment of my recovery came on September 18th. By this point, my arm hadn't moved for a full month. Every day I tried to move it but it wouldn't budge. I was doing therapy with my OT (Occupational Therapy), when I noticed a couple of my fingers moved a little bit. We initially thought it was gravity pulling it down, but I tried it again and they moved! There was finally a connection between my brain and my nerves. My therapist whooped for joy and I was so happy. I kept trying to move it all day, but it got tired easily. My leg wouldn't move for about a week, but I don't remember a specific moment when I started to regain function. It just slowly came back, but I never thought I'd have to learn how to walk again. When I first started walking, I couldn't even walk 50 feet without getting tired and having to sit down. I had to do all kinds of exercises for my leg and it slowly recovered. My lip recovered progressively with all the exercises I did for it. My eye ceased to be blurry after a while, but I think there is a small blind spot somewhere. My headache went away and I am sad to have recently discovered that I cannot wiggle my ear anymore.

After I got out of the Shepherd Center, I felt very free. There was no more constant supervision, nurses, sensitive beds or anything like that. I immediately went to Shepherd Pathways, which was a day therapy program, where I go for about 6 hours a day and come home. It was in Decatur, which was a long drive but I really liked it. Most of the same patients from Shepherd were there but it didn't feel like a prison like the main hospital did. You were free to walk around (if you could walk and my walking greatly improved during this period), talk to other people and still got the same rigorous therapy. When I finished Pathways on October 30th (I was actually kind of sad to leave all the good friends I made), I went to North Fulton Regional Hospital, which was much closer to my house. Each place where I went for therapy became less strict. But at North Fulton, there was no interaction with other patients like Pathways had, and I very much missed that. It was around this time that I began to get ready to go back to school. There were a lot of doctor appointments and forms to fill out, and I almost thought I wouldn't be able to go back. But I did, and was very glad to be back at Mercer. I made the best GPA in my college career so far, a 3.5, and I loved the people I worked with in therapy.

At the beginning of the summer, I took the test to get medically cleared to drive. I thought I did so well, and the lady proctor made me think I did well, but she didn't pass me because she thought some of my turns were too wide and I didn't have good control of the car. I was so mad and it felt like my complete freedom was so far away. But I just practiced a lot more and finally got medically cleared on June 24th. I was very happy. This summer I've been helping (a lot) around the house, going on a couple of vacations, going camping and being a camp counselor. I tried to get a job or internship but it was hard because at the beginning of the summer I couldn't drive. I've also been doing hand therapy at a place near my house . . . it might sound easy but I'm always sweating after I finish!

Well there's my story. One year ago from today, my life changed forever. But I will not let it bring me down. I've come so far since last year. I had to wear a big brace on my leg for a couple months, then a smaller brace and now I've been running a couple miles a day for the past few months. My arm just slowly progressed and I had to wear a brace on it for a few months. I took the brace off when I got back to school and have been using my arm more and more. By now, it's just my hand and fingers that are having a hard time functioning. I can slowly type with my fingers and barely write. I have been practicing writing with my left hand for some time now and it's actually pretty legible. That is probably the biggest thing that has come out of this; I never, not in a million years, thought I would be left-handed. It is pretty amazing how the brain heals; on the outside we're all just skin but on the inside we've got the brain that controls everything we do. It's incredible and we'll never completely understand it all. But that's why I always tell people to be thankful for every limb they have, because you never know if it could be taken away from you. I know it sounds silly and I never even thought about being thankful for being able to move all my joints, but I never thought that I would have a brain injury. On August 16th 2009, I was just a normal teenager hanging out with his friends . . . I could have never, not even in a million years, guess where I would be in 48 hours. So don't ever take anything for granted. This situation has made me a lot more appreciative of life and everything it has to offer. Life is really short, it really is. Live it to the fullest. The one-year anniversary of any major event is a huge milestone, so today I was just thinking about everything I've been through the past year. It was a crazy journey . . . but I am glad I have changed for the better.