What I Wish I'd Known About Stroke Recovery, From Jill Bolte Taylor

This brain specialist and stroke survivor learned that the most important aid for recovery is in short supply at conventional stroke rehabilitation centers.

In the midst of suffering a stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor may have been the only person who ever thought, "Wow, this is so cool!"

Or maybe not. The way that Taylor, then a Harvard neuroscientist, describes her euphoric, ethereal state after a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain, they do sound pretty cool.

Unfortunately, as she writes in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, her encounters with most hospital staff and medical professionals in the following days were in sharp contrast to her inner bliss. Unable to speak, walk, read, or remember any of her life -- reduced, as she writes, to "an infant in a woman's body" -- she was jarringly prodded, pierced, touched, and probed with each shift change. Busy doctors and nurses spoke to her too quickly, yelled as if she were deaf, or didn't even bother to speak directly to her. One nurse who never made eye contact with her shuffled in with Jell-O and milk and shuffled back out before checking to see if Taylor was capable of opening them. (She wasn't.)

Taylor's description of the lengthy, harrowing process of trying to answer the standard "Who is the president of the United States?" question -- and her explanation of how useless it is in assessing a stroke survivor's cognitive ability -- is alone worth the price of the book. The experience was almost enough to make her give up trying to recover.

With the insightful care giving of her mother, G.G. (nicknamed for her maiden name, Gladys Gillman), Taylor fully recovered over an eight-year period. In the process, she and her mother learned that the most important aspect of recovery is simply sleep. "If my caregiver had not given me sleep, nothing else would have gone right," says Taylor. In fact, had Taylor been at a traditional rehab center -- where, she says, patients are often forced to stay awake in front of a TV, given Ritalin to make them alert, and obliged to participate in rehab on the staff's schedule -- she might well have shut down.

Instead, Taylor's mother adjusted to her daughter's schedule, sandwiching in learning and cognitive exercises between long hours of sleep. "When I was in a good mood," says Taylor, "it made a big difference -- the difference between 'I'm fresh and ready and you've got 20 or 30 minutes to do something really worthwhile with me and then I'm out' and 'I'm absolutely exhausted and I don't want you to be here. You're hurting me -- it's physical pain for me to try to focus my mind on you when my brain has this incredible headache because it wants to go to sleep.'"

Read the full interview with Jill Bolte Taylor.

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