WWU Instructor Seán Dwyer Talks About Traumatic Brain Injury

Several months ago, I attended a celebratory event hosted by Seán Dwyer, a prolific Bellingham writer, champion of several writing groups in Bellingham, and an instructor of Spanish at Western Washington University.
The event was the launch of his book, “A Quest for Tears: Surviving Traumatic Brain Injury.”
Seán relates in detail his journey from the moment he was rear-ended at the crosswalk on Boulevard going toward town, to his day-to-day existence as he tries to negotiate a life plagued by headaches, light and sound sensitivity, forgetfulness, and an inability to cry.
He’ll talk about his book and his life at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, at Village Books, 1200 11th St.
Here’s my email exchange with Seán.
Margaret: After your accident, you had a huge community of support as you tried to recover. How did your writing friends, your colleagues at WWU, and your medical team help you? Do you think this kind of support is unusual? Also what was the role of Sophie the Cat?
Seán: I am fortunate to belong to at least three communities that tend to be compassionate and supportive: the local writer colony, my department at WWU, and the alternative healers I worked with after my accident. I know for a fact that I am, unfortunately, unusual in having so much support in a challenging medical situation. People did reach out, but at times, my wife, Maureen, posted on Facebook that I had a couple of upcoming appointments and needed a ride. I never lacked for volunteers. I think the overall vibe in Bellingham is one of solidarity, but I know people fall through the cracks and suffer alone. I would like to see more resources (people giving time more than money) devoted to those who have no real support network. We do some good work here, but there is more need than we know.
As for Sophie, our cat, she was a nurturer by nature. When Maureen adopted her, Sophie was a retired champion breeder, and she wanted to help younger mothers take care of their newborns. Her help was not always appreciated. In our home, she was a snuggler who would give us some time and then wander off to live her cat life. But after my accident, she sensed my fragility. At the time when I could do little other than nap or sit on the couch in the dark silence, she clung to me. She sat beside me for hours on end. If she left me to eat, she would come right back, rather than going to take a nap as before my accident. She was my shadow, and a great comfort for 15 months.
Margaret: It seemed like the limitations you had developed almost happened incrementally — the headaches, the light sensitivity, forgetting words. Is this common for TBI patients? Also, how did music help?
Seán: I learned by chance that brain injuries do not present themselves in their full force immediately. In the case of a broken leg, the bone breaks at the beginning of the incident and then begins to repair itself. In the case of a closed-head injury, a person can show severe symptoms instantly–coma, nystagmus (eye movement), slurred speech, poor gait–but bruising of the brain can worsen over time, just as any other bruise. That is when some of the issues with cognition are more likely to become evident.
I mention the case of Natasha Richardson in my book. She was skiing, and she fell on her back and hit her head. She laughed about her clumsiness, went back to where she was staying, and then experienced a severe headache. By that time, she could not be saved. When I went to the doctor the morning after my accident, he told me we didn’t need to check for a brain bleed, because I would already be dead. As for the less-severe symptoms, they probably resulted over a bit of time from swelling and bruising in my brain. In some cases, I simply didn’t know I had a problem right away. For example, I don’t know exactly when I became unable to read without headache and nausea, because I didn’t try to read for a few days. I was too miserable by the first morning to try to read.
One thing that happens is that as the brain starts to repair itself, it constricts blood vessels that provide oxygen to areas that are doing cognitive work. Perhaps it’s like a road full of potholes. When a crew decides to repave the road, it puts up a detour sign, and then no one gets to use that road. When my brain realized my visual cortex was a mess, it shut it down, leading to issues with processing light, reading, and such. My use of the wrong words and forgetting words altogether probably began the second day, but I was unaware that I was messing up until I started to get a bit of healing going.
A number of people who work in the emergency field say that, having seen my car, they would have insisted that I go to the ER in the ambulance. The EMTs here told me I would have to pay for the ride, so I declined it. Another person I know had a similar experience; he was rear-ended, told he would have to pay for the ride, and he began to get headaches and issues with cognition a couple of days later. I know the protocol exists to let people know there is no cost for having them show up, but I think there should be more stress placed on the importance of getting checked out.
I did learn over time, from summaries of books that were read to me, from working with neurologists and neuropsychologists, and from talking to others with TBIs, that my experience is fairly similar to those of others. A website, www.brainline.org, has an incredible array of information and help for TBI survivors and their caregivers. The beauty of such a website is that it can be updated with each new breakthrough, each new perspective. Books age quickly, though I tried to make the statements in my book relate more to experiences than to medical theory, for that reason.
Music: We know that music is good for the brain. At the very beginning, even my auditory processing was bad, and so music grated on my nerves, even Mozart and Vivaldi. Over a short period of time, my hearing healed, and I became able to enjoy listening to music again. But in my memory areas, and whatever connects to my auditory receptors, something strange happened. I always have music going in my head because I am by nature a musician, as well as a writer. But those annoying snippets of songs that we call earworms? They disappeared, leaving my brain completely silent for several weeks. I couldn’t even conjure up a melody from my internal jukebox; if I decided I wanted “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to play in my mind, I could not make it happen. That was one of the scariest aspects of the injury. If I couldn’t summon up an earworm, when would I be able to think well enough to teach?
Margaret: Did your teaching methodology change after your accident?
Seán: I have always thought of teaching Spanish (or any language) as a “we’re in this together” experience. I know the struggle to master a language, though the only time I struggled was when I was learning English. I don’t let my language-learning abilities make me judgmental of those who have a harder time than I do at picking up new languages. It’s not easy, especially for adults. So, there is where the “compassionate” descriptor comes in. I also know that listening to someone talk about the intricacies of grammar can be stultifying in the wrong hands. I infuse my lessons with comedy: I use quirky drawings I make myself, example sentences that are humorous, and little asides as I speak that catch the class off-guard and lead to occasional roars of laughter. I’ve been asked at three different schools: “What are you doing here?” The first time, I replied, “Teaching.” The student said he thought I should be doing standup instead. I’m not sure I could be as funny without Spanish grammar as a template as I am with it. I do know that when a quarter ends, no one is relieved that it’s over, and many look for ways to work with me again. I’m grateful for that bond, which springs solely from the hearts of those lovely people.
Since my accident, I have been transparent about my cognitive delays. If I were to go into the classroom and stumble for words, or face whatever symptom is showing up that day, my students would lose confidence in me if I did not trust them with the information about my brain health. I have experienced nothing but extreme support from the students at Western. The TBI has indeed affected my methodology. I can’t grade exams easily, so in order to get exams back to students quickly, I have a grader. In order to use a grader, I have to construct the exam in such a way that I can write an answer key my grader can follow. That leads to more fill-in-the-blank and less exam essay work. I also have my students write out an exercise from the book nearly every day, because the brain-to-hand connection has to be created. I used to look them over and return them, but now I return them after giving them credit, and we go over the answers together so they can see what’s correct, and they can ask questions. I don’t have the bandwidth to grade 90 exercises per day.
Margaret: How can you help others?
Seán:A Quest for Tears” exists solely to provide insight about TBI to caregivers and survivors. I have already used the material in it as a basis for a couple of talks I’ve given this year, and I am looking forward to hosting a breakout session at next April’s TBI conference in Tacoma. A couple of universities are seeking to host me. My book launch and future signings will be laced with tidbits about my circumstances that those connected to the TBI world will find useful. Primarily, disseminating more information is all anyone can do right now. Medical understanding of the brain has advanced quickly, but there is still no way to repair many results of physical trauma, stroke, anorexia, or dementia. Researchers know what part of my brain allows me to read, and to cry, but no one knows how to build a bridge from my vision to my storage area for novel plots, and no one can give me a pill that will allow me to cry when I want to.
Since the book became available, a number of people who do not have a TBI have written to me to tell me that my book is not just a story for those with brain issues. A high-school classmate who bought the book merely to support me wrote to tell me that she picked up the book and read it cover to cover. She said she had never read a book since leaving school, despite recommendations that it would ease her anxiety and her ADHD to read. She said my resilience and my tenacity spoke to her in her own struggles in life, and they had nothing to do with brain injuries. I also wrote the book very intentionally; I structured my book in short chapters and used cream-colored paper, rather than stark white, so people who fatigue easily for cognitive and/or visual reasons can enjoy the book in short doses.
I also want people to know I am very willing to speak to book clubs, medical groups, and support groups of any kind where people deal with struggles that seem at times to be insurmountable. I am still in the middle of my journey, but I like who I have become, because Sean 2.0 is, with some glitches, far more aware of how fragile our existence is, and I want to make a difference for those who need my help. For more about Seán, go to https://www.seandwyerauthor.com/.