Saturday, March 3, 2012

Left Neglect

The last book to leap from the "staff picks" shelf at the library and into my hands was Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.  It is a novel,but the author has a PhD in neuroscience, so I figured the descriptions of the condition would be pretty accurate.  Yes, that is an actual medical condition--Left Neglect.  I had never really heard of this--at least in a way that stuck with me--until the lunatic neurologist at the hospital described someone who had the condition.  So in the book the main character is an overscheduled overachiever who went to Harvard Business School, got a job with some consulting firm, got married, had three kids, and then tried to keep all her balls in the air.  Needless to say, things did not go well.  One day, while she was feeling pretty happy because her husband was taking the kids to school and she figured she'd be able to get to work early, she decided to rummage in her voluminous bag for her phone on the highway, driving 70 mph in the rain.  Well, you know what happened next--car crash, traumatic brain injury, left neglect.  In terms of plot, the book was pretty predictable and I could see where it would end up well before the end.   Given Bill's recent experience, though, and my observations, I related to parts of it in a new way--particularly the descriptions of the occupational and physical therapy--the scanning and word search puzzles were a feature of his recovery, too.  What I found really fascinating, though, was the fact of this left neglect issue.  When someone suffers from this condition, the brain literally does not register "left" or anything that exists on the left as a concept.  In the book, it was not that her left side was numb or that she could not see properly.  It was that her brain did not realize that "left" existed, so for her, it didn't!  She did not know there was a spoon on her tray to eat her soup, for example, because it was on the left.  She could not find her left arm or leg, even though she knew she must have them.  She tried to read to her daughter and it was a jumble because she was not seeing words on the left side of the page.  She could not even turn her head to the left because when one of the medical people asked her to do so, she would say, "What is left?"  She could not walk on her own because she never knew where her left leg was.  Eventually and with training, she was able to gain more functioning through various exercises that helped her brain to consciously remember to "scan left." 

At one point, the author has this character thinking about her injury and responding, "Wow."  That is how I felt reading this.  The people who deal with this condition live in a completely different reality that their brain has created.  According to the author, not much is known about what causes left neglect and how to "fix" it, other than to retrain the brain.  I was left again marveling at the human brain, how it has evolved, and what it--and by extension, we--are capable of doing. 

So while the story was fairly predictable in some ways, it was a book worth reading simply for the description of what life is like for someone who has this condition.  It was also another reminder about how we often go along in an unconscious fog through life and sometimes it takes a major unexpected life event to make us wake up and take stock.

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