On Sept. 27, 1999, my world as I had known it for 43 years ended.
I was sitting at a stoplight at the intersection of Oakton and Gross Point Road in Morton Grove, Ill., on my way to give a lecture at one of DePaul University’s suburban campuses, waiting behind two other cars. A steady drizzle was falling.
Without warning, a Jeep skidded on the wet pavement and slammed into the back of my Mazda sedan. My head bounced off the headrest behind me and then was flung forward. I saw stars and blacked out for a second. I was groggy, but I pulled my car out of the busy intersection, drove around the corner and parked on the side of Gross Point Road. I felt shaken up, but only in the way anyone who had been in a relatively minor car crash might.
A Morton Grove police officer arrived to take the accident report, and I got out of my car to meet him.
“Get back in your car and sit there until the ambulance comes!” he said after he got a look at me. “I’m calling them now.” This was puzzling to me. I couldn’t understand why he was so concerned.
The ambulance came, and a pair of young paramedics, a small man and a large one, had me sit inside it as they examined me.
“Do you know your name?” asked the bigger one.
I thought about it. It seemed like an easy enough question. But nothing immediately came to mind. I was reaching into the usual place in my mind, and retrieving nothing at all. How odd, I thought. After a minute I managed, “Sure. Clark Elliott.”
“Well, Mr. Elliott, I think you’d better come with us to get checked out at the hospital.”
“Whoa!” I said. “I can’t do that. I have to get to class.”
“Listen, Mr. Elliott,” said the smaller paramedic. “Pardon my expression, but you’re pretty f---ed up here. We really need to take you to the hospital.&rdquo
“Thank you for your concern,” I said, smiling at him, “but I’m fine. I really can’t go with you because I have to teach tonight.”
I didn’t hurt very much. I’d given a thousand lectures over 12 years without ever missing one. It would take a lot to make me miss class. My students were expecting me to show up shortly and teach for three hours. I felt strange, but I could not recall what it was like to not feel strange.
I couldn’t make sense of what they wanted me to do. I couldn’t see it in the normal way. So I refused to go to the hospital.
“OK,” said the larger paramedic. “We can’t stop you. You’ve got to sign these release forms, and then we’ll let you go. But you are doing the wrong thing.” I climbed out of the ambulance and went back to my car.
The back of my Mazda was all smashed in, but the car was still running fine. So I drove to work, mindlessly following the path I had taken many times before. Later that evening, I thought it odd that I could not remember a single thing about the rest of my drive to work. The details of my evening-class lecture were spotty, but I remember I worked on autopilot and lectured sitting down. There were difficult moments when I stopped midlecture and had to rest my head down on my desk. But DePaul’s graduate students are a bright, multiethnic, salt-of-the-earth sort of crowd, and we joked about my loopiness being caused by the automobile accident. None of us took it seriously.
When I finally arrived home, it was hard for me to get up out of the car. It was hard for me to walk from the car to the house. I had a strange and persistent difficulty unlocking my front door. The next morning, I was still physically exhausted. I tried to get up and start my day, but I couldn’t move. I was giving the command to my body: “Get up!” but it was not listening. Finally, after a long three minutes, once I was able to manage the smallest initiation of motion, I was able to stand up and move normally.
Over the next hour, I noticed several more instances of my being unable to initiate action. I brushed any concern aside, telling myself that my muscles had just been “shaken up” more than I realized the day before in the accident, and that since the muscles were sore and tired, it was hard to get them to respond. It would take me four more days — and a puzzling episode where it took me six hours to realize that I had my shoes on the wrong feet — before I finally got myself to an emergency room for the diagnosis: a concussion.
Concussion and Balance
Unless you have experienced a concussion and lost efficacy in your balance system, you probably have no idea how devastating the effects of this can be in one’s life. Because of inner-ear damage — yet another result of the crash — I had to deal with balance issues every day.
Roughly speaking, the balance system uses three overlapping components: the vestibular, or “inner ear,” system, the visual system and proprioception, the feeling of our bodies in the space around us — a position-movement sensation. While the vestibular system is primary, the other two are also important, and the interaction among the three systems is far more complex than we generally consider.