Essays on Technology and Culture

On Brain Damage

I have always been a heavy sleeper, and I have trouble with alarm clocks. This is probably why I wasn’t terribly surprised six years ago on the morning of my Astronomy final to find that I had exactly zero minutes to make it to campus. I was in a panic, just not surprised. Everything was a blur, in that just woke up kind of way. I rushed through the routine: get dressed, put on glasses, tie my shoes, pack my bag, grab my keys. I ran out the bedroom door, and down the stairs. No thinking, just doing what I had to do. It would be better to show up late than not show up at all.

Then, everything went black.

When I came to, I was on a gurney in the corridor of a hospital, my friend Alex next to me, and with a very large lump on the right side of my head. I didn’t know where I was, how I had gotten there, or what happened to me at all. Hours had passed in the space of a black instant. Alex filled me in: I was at Jefferson Hospital. I had a concussion. And, yes, I’d missed my Astronomy final. Eventually a room opened up, and they wheeled me in, sticking electrodes to my chest and hooking me up to monitors. There was nowhere to go, but I had a book, my cell phone, my iPod and headphones. Alex had to leave but I was joined by another friend, and eventually my oldest sister. I called my girlfriend, desperate to hear her voice. At the time, my parents were on vacation, having just arrived in Florida after driving from Philadelphia. When they heard what happened, they immediately turned back around for home.

I had to stay overnight for observation. By the time things had settled down, the hospital kitchen had closed, but they were able to get my a roast beef sandwich. Sleep was almost impossible with the things stuck to me, but somehow I managed. The next day, I was set free, and taken home by my sister. I got a call, almost immediately from my Astronomy professor about the missed exam. I ended up taking it at home, after explaining the situation—an automatic open book exam that I aced. Despite being told to stay home and rest for 24 hours, I went to campus the next day for my Humanities final, knowing there was no way I could reschedule. The professor was leaving for Japan the next morning. Word had, apparently, gotten around about my accident, and my Professor seemed surprised to see me. I aced the exam, despite my unsteady state.

The attending physician had told that the memories I lost in the concussion would, eventually, return. They did not. Even today, the entire morning is a complete blank in my memory. Chance encounters in the following days and weeks helped me fill in some of the blanks. Another student told me that he’d found me wandering the building where my astronomy class was held, confused and clutching a check that I couldn’t explain. (I had won it in the semester’s creative writing competition.) He was the one who called 911, and sent me to the hospital. Alex would later tell me that I spent my time in the hospital hallway calling for my girlfriend Kassandra. Weeks later, a man on the El recognized me and told me that I had fallen down the stairs of the Spring Garden El station that morning.

I remember none of these things happening. Once I left my bedroom, everything just went black. In my memory, that morning does not exist. Lost time. A reel of blank film with no soundtrack. Damaged sectors on a hard drive. I wish I knew what happened, but I don’t think I ever will. If the memories haven’t come back by now, they never will. The accident itself stays, however. All I have to do is touch the right side of my head, about two inches above my ear. There, under my hair, is the knot from where my head made impact. Unlike that morning’s events, it has never gone away, and it probably never will.