Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)
Doug Bearden paces back and forth asking his wife if he’s dead. And how did he die? And who killed him? He asks these questions repeatedly despite his wife Cindy’s reassurances that nobody killed him and that he isn’t dead. Like the other people whom author Michael Mason profiles in this intriguing book, Bearden is suffering from severe brain trauma. In Bearden’s case, a normally benign cold-sore virus attacked his brain and turned a once-active and productive father into a tortured and sometimes dangerous dependent. According to Mason, as many as 5.3 million Americans are living with a permanent disability resulting from a brain injury, a staggering figure that’s ballooning in part because of a steady stream of brain-damaged veterans coming back from the war in Iraq (see Mason’s March 2007 DISCOVER article, “Dead Men Walking”). As Mason writes, “The global war on terror has already yielded more than ten thousand survivable traumatic brain injuries to American troops.”
Despite the escalating number of brain-damaged patients, there are few brain injury case managers dedicated to helping them get the care they need. Mason is one of those specialists, and he describes in detail the devastating effects of brain damage, the myriad ways the brain tries to compensate for that damage, and the frustrations of trying to get appropriate care. Mason writes that the patients he represents “may not even know I exist.” But he is, as he puts it, their voice. With Head Cases, he has also become their public advocate.