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Cassandra M. Bellantoni

Cassandra M. Bellantoni

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Brain Expert: Turn off the TV and Let Giffords Sleep

Posted: 01/15/11 12:02 PM ET

The nation's hopes soared for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when President Barack Obama reported at a memorial for the victims of the Tucson rampage that she'd opened her eyes, and after Nancy Pelosi witnessed Giffords follow her husband's commands. But a top neuro-scientist whose miraculous recovery from her own brain trauma inspired a New York Times bestseller and a forthcoming movie.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor said in an interview that constant commands from Giffords' bedside visitors could drain her energy, and urged her loved ones to let the Congresswoman sleep and check negative energy at the door.

Congresswoman Giffords was one of twenty victims of a shooting rampage that killed six people and critically wounded 14 others. Reports stated the Congresswoman was shot through the back of her head with a 9mm semi-automatic gun. The bullet traveled, the entire length of the left hemisphere of her brain and exited out of her temple. She is currently hospitalized in critical condition at Arizona University Medical Center in Tucson.

Describing her wounds at a press conference Jan 9, Dr. Michael Lemole, the chief of neurosurgery at the University Medical Center in Arizona, said they removed bone fragments from her brain and some devitalized brain matter. Lemole gave an account of how surgeons were able to get Giffords into the operating room within 38 minutes of the attack. He said they were quickly able to control the bleeding, which was not severe or excessive.

At the same press conference, Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma director at the University of Arizona, was careful in his explanation.

"This wasn't a little grazing wound through the brain, this was a devastating wound that traveled the entire length of the brain on the left side," Rhee said.
According to Dr. Taylor there is every reason to be hopeful about a full recovery.

The following is an edited transcript of a question and answer session with Dr Jill Bolte Taylor on January 12.

2011-01-18-JillBolteTaylorwithBrain.jpg


CB: After reading all the reports from the doctors are you optimistic about Congresswoman Giffords' potential for recovery?

JBT: Yes. One of the most important aspects I've heard and read is the fact that her brain is not continuing to swell. The doctors had to go in there and clean up the mess, removing bone fragments. The body's immune system naturally wants to take over and fix the trauma, this could result in additional swelling, which can cause even more damage. I'm sure the doctors are pleased that her brain is stabilizing its own pressure. It also sounds like the bullet went through tissue and no major arteries or veins were hit.

CB: Why is it more hopeful when brain tissue is destroyed?



JBT: Where the tissue is concerned, cells will die but new connections can be built. It sounds like the motor cortex was spared. I would love to see a picture of the bullet trajectory. If the bullet was higher up it may have missed the language centers.

CB: When should the family begin to worry about her progress?

JBT: The family shouldn't freak out or worry for the first 4- 6 weeks. They used to teach us in medical school that if a patient didn't regain function in the first six months they never would.
We now know that is absolutely false. I was still regaining function for eight years after my stroke.

CB: Can the brain actually repair itself?

JBT: Yes. Studies have shown that a small but significant amount of new cell growth (neurons)
happens in the healing process as a result of trauma to the brain. But the other thing that happens is the remaining connections in the brain activate differently to compensate for damaged ones in the healing process. For instance, in a study, when an healthy eye is covered with an eye patch, the visual brain cells send out new connections to the adjacent hearing cells and contribute to those circuits. They are basically helping the brain make up for the loss. When the patch is removed and light stimulation returns, the visual cells go back to processing vision. The brain has a sort of plasticity to it.

CB: What is the most important thing you would tell her family and friends?

JBT: Let her sleep. Speak softly and leave your emotional baggage at the door. They must not bring fear, pity, anger or worry into the room. From my experience with left hemisphere brain damage, I was very much aware of body language, tone of voice, anxiety -- these are the abilities of the right hemisphere and these were very active for me. They should think of Gabrielle as a vessel that they need to fill up with their love and caring.

CB: Why is sleep so important? I noticed the doctors said they are waking her regularly.

CBT: Why is sleep so important? I noticed the doctors said they are waking her regularly.

JBT: This is necessary at first but sleep is the most important thing needed for the brain to heal itself. Sleep is when external stimulation is reduced and the brain has a chance to heal itself without external distraction. They should limit visits to five minutes. Leave the TV and radio off and don't chatter with each other in the room in front of her.

My mother, Gladys Gillman Taylor, also known as G.G, would stand guard and make sure I was getting enough sleep and not being disturbed.



CB: Should they try to interact with her?



JBT: They should really show her they are there loving her but shouldn't question her or do things like ask her to squeeze their hands or perform those sorts of things. The doctors need to ask these things but it takes so much energy for a person with a brain injury to do tasks like that, and their energy can be better spent on healing. Those types of things are really more about making the visitor feel better not the patient.

CB: Did you hear that she was able to raise her fingers?

JBT: Yes. I was particularly encouraged by that news, because the reports I read said they asked her to raise two fingers, which she was able to do. This is fantastic and shows she has some counting function and it also sounds like there is no known paralysis.

CB: What can friends and family expect as she begins to recover?

JBT: I would tell them they need to be prepared to help Congresswoman Giffords with her recovery. I was lucky to have my mom, G.G. as my motivator to keep working at building new connections in my brain. I had to relearn language and she had to begin with teaching me the alphabet. I also had 8-months paid leave from job. My co-workers donated some of their vacation time to me. That helped ease any stress.

CB: Your brain injury and the subsequent dominance of the right hemisphere of your brain brought some positive things into your life that remain -- what are they?

JBT: Speaking for myself I experienced a connection to the universe I had never felt before. I didn't have a sense of the boundaries of my body or separateness. Everything was amazing to me. It was like retuning to infancy. It's a sense of taking in the whole picture versus being focus on small details. I became very empathetic. I could sense if someone was fully present or distracted. I could sense love.

Without the never-ending noise of the left hemisphere, I experienced a stillness I had never felt before. My artistic side was accentuated and I know my music and stained glass artwork is very important in my life. The ability to tap into this creative, joyful state at will, now remains.



CB: Obviously you have a pretty complex job as a neuro-anatomist. How long did it take you to begin working again?

JBT: At about 4 months after the stroke. I was able to perform simple tasks for about 30-minutes per day.

CB: I know from reading your book that you did not suffer any depression with your left brain injury. Would it be different had the stroke been on the right side?

JBT: The right hemisphere gives us our big picture perspective while the left hemisphere focuses on critical judgment and detail. If all we have are details and critical judgment we might not be so pleasant to be around.

CB: You wrote in your book that after leaving the hospital you became fixated on attending and speaking at a conference 4-months after the stroke, which you admit was unrealistic but watching the videos helped you.



JBT: Yes. Watching myself over-and-over in a presentation helped build those new brain connections and could help Gabrielle. But it isn't the same as actually getting a question from the audience and formulating an answer. I wasn't able to do that at four months out.



CB: Are you fully recovered now?

JBT: Yes. It took eight years for me to reach the level where I could function fully.



CB: I've read that women are more likely to recover language after a brain injury than men. Is that true?

JBT: I can't really confirm that but it is true that women have more connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain than men do. That may be the reason they are better at multi-tasking.



CB: You stated in your book that after the stroke your dreams were fragments instead of characters with stories. What was that like and how is your sleep now?

JBT: Yes they were fragments of images and symbols in little black and white boxes that would scroll by but after about eight years they began to be like regular dreams. For the first few years I needed to sleep eleven hours per day and now I'm down to around eight.

CB: Has your book My Stroke Of Insight helped families and people suffering from brain injury?

JBT: I really think so. Since writing the book two years ago, I've received over 800,000 emails.
And especially the last year, the tone has changed. People are sharing success stories and thanking me for the book. It's extremely gratifying.



CB: I know you became interested in brain science because of your brother with schizophrenia and you are the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Bloomington, Indiana. Any thoughts on the alleged shooter of Congresswoman Giffords, Jared Loughner?

JBT: Yes, many thoughts. I have incredible empathy for the mentally ill. The brain is like any other organ; it too can become ill. Our health care system does not adequately care for the mentally ill.

CB: In closing what would you say to those dealing with a loved one with a brain injury

?

JBT: Be responsible for the energy you bring into this room. Everyone should consider this all the time and its what I want everybody to think about.

Dr. Taylor has inspired others with that quote, "Be responsible for the energy you bring into this room," and it is hanging above Oprah Winfrey's dressing room door, as Oprah stated in an interview with Susan Casey for O Magazine regarding her new television network.

"There's a beautiful thing Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about in her book My Stroke of Insight... that is how I look at this network: I take responsibility for the energy that I am bringing into the room. I feel responsible for the energy that I bring into the rooms of every single person who turns on this channel," Oprah said.

Dr. Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuro-anatomist is the author of the New York Times bestseller My Stroke Of Insight, which chronicles the experience of her massive stroke, her recovery and the spiritual sensitivity that resulted from her reliance on the right hemisphere of her brain.

Dr Taylor's story became popular when she gave a presentation for the TED Conference in 2008. She was on the Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People List and currently, Ron Howard is directing a movie based on her book. The script is being written by Semi Chellas and Jodie Foster may play Dr. Taylor, according to Deadline New York.

Today, according to her book, Dr. Taylor is convinced the the stroke was the best thing that could have happened to her. It has taught her that the feeling of nirvana is never more than a mere thought away. "By stepping to the right of our brains, we can all uncover the feelings of well-being and peace that are so often sidelined by our own brain chatter."

 

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