Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Git along little doggie

At the other end of that leash stood Keith's mom Joella.
Rehab walking Tumblrs: Paramount Ranch

This Sunday, we hiked the famous Paramount Ranch, which is now a national park. There were no gun fights, but in addition to the Western sets, we hiked through rock outcroppings and desert scrub that could've been scouted by cinematographers trying to set the scene.

While we were out of place in a Nineteenth Century Western town, we weren't the only ones who didn't belong in that setting. Just before we headed home, Joella spotted these birds perching above her resting spot. Call them the Parrots of Paramount, Polly want a cameo?


Thursday, December 24, 2015

SfMCR: My Voice, Amputated

Though my trach looked awkward, it didn't hurt, But the inability to speak was truly painful.

I have a habit of thinking out loud. Normally, it just makes me seem a little crazy, or annoying, or both. But when, out of habit, I spoke to myself in the ICU, I suddenly realized that I could whisper roughly for the first time since my awakening.

I had been escorted back to ICU from my first nursing home, All Saints Healthcare, via sirened limo to repair my hemorrhaging gastric tube incision. Once I arrived it was Old Home Week, as the medical personnel who had taken care of me during the six weeks of my coma filed in, one by one, to tell me how good I looked. By that they meant, I didn't look like I was a corpse lying in state.

I had spoken during a lull in the parade.

"Am I really talki...?" I tried again, losing gas toward the end. Nope, I wasn't imagining it. I had actually produced sound, despite my tracheostomy. I was, as you can imagine, overjoyed. Being unable to talk was torture for a talkative person like me.

I thought I remembered that some people gain enough mastery to speak despite their trachs, and I figured I had thankfully gained this this ability early.

Over the next few days, my barely audible (and often incomprehensible) speech slowly improved. It was exhausting to produce the sound, taking all my might to force the air out. I could rarely complete a sentence before I ran out of air. This problem was compounded my warp-speed speaking style, which I have difficulty controlling.

Because of this, I still had to resort to mime, exaggerated mouth movements, tracing words on my bedsheet, and all the other silent means of expression I had been employing. But this slight ability to speak nonetheless remained a huge advance for me. Surely, with enough practice, I would eventually get good enough at it to fully regain my ability to communicate.

My hemorrhaging stanched, the hospital prepared to transfer me to my new nursing home, Country Villa Sheraton, which didn't have an opening until then.

A respiratory therapist on his rounds walked into my room. Like all the RTs did, he poked around my trach to inspect it. "Oh, the cuff is deflated," he remarked. "Don't worry, I'll fix it." He then reached into his pocket, then did something to my trach I couldn't see.

I smiled and gave him a nod of thanks as he started to leave.

I had gotten into the habit of deliberately talking to myself to improve my awkward speech.

Nothing came out.

I tried again.

Not even a squeak.

Whatever he had done to me, he had stolen my voice.

Postscript: After I was transferred to Country Villa, I was eager for Keith to inform them about my lost speaking ability. Ricardo, the supervising RT for the afternoon shift, reached into his pocket, then fiddled with my trach.

"Try to say something," said Ricardo.

I was surprised that it could be that simple. I paused a second while I tried to think of what to say. "Can I talk again?" I weakly croaked.

A big smile spread across my face. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

My trach had a kind of dam called a cuff that prevents air from leaking around the air tube. When deflated, it allows air to be stolen for speech. Cuffs are often deliberated deflated for this reason. In my case, the cuff had become deflated accidentally, but it hadn't been noticed until that RT checked my trach. Even though being silenced felt like an amputation, he was just doing his job when he took my voice away,

Later Ricardo took away my voice again. And again, and again. But that's another story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Personal War on Christmas


The Secular Spectrum: My Personal War on Christmas

'Tis the season for conflicted feelings for nonbelievers. But after I started dating the Christian-raised Keith, my attitudes softened about Christmas. I have to admit, I even began to enjoy the Christmas music he played around the holidays, though Keith was also careful to include some Hanukkah music in the mix. My favorite was the klezmer-inflected versions of the songs Woody Guthrie wrote for Arlo and his sister. Keith even bought my very first menorah!

Monday, December 21, 2015

I think I can, I think I can....

Reseda is peeking through the Santa Monica Mounains

My latest rehab hiking picsTumblrs

My legs are still sore from our 2.6 mile hike up the mountain trails of Topanga State Park, through terrain Keith worried might be too tough for me. But the reward was magnificent vistas of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the knowledge that I was indeed strong enough to hike it.

My recovery has indeed been a difficult climb. But as Keith remarked, I couldn't have done this before my coma. I replied, I wouldn't have even tried.


Friday, December 18, 2015

SfMCR: Gaining the Power of the Pen


Days later, tapping out words one letter at a time on my Kindle. You can see the awkward way I was grasping the stylus, just as I was holding the pen.
I've always been talkative. So you can imagine what hell it was for me when I woke up from my coma unable to speak due to my tracheostomy.

I immediately began mouthing words. But more often than not, even with my exaggerated mouth motions, I was misunderstood. I became adept at mime. I traced words on my bedsheet. In short, I did everything I could think of to communicate. Yet too often, it was just not enough.

Even after I gained the ability to speak roughly in short, barely audible whispers when the cuff in my trach was deflated, my speech was so difficult to understand that it was often no better than complete silence. (It's a long story that I will write about in a future post.)

My inability to speak was a particular problem because I was often in a lot of pain. I simply couldn't communicate what would make me feel more comfortable.

Because I had a pressure ulcer--also known a bedsore--from my six-week coma, CNAs would shift my position every hour or two. They did this by propping me up with pillows. At first it would feel okay, but soon I would start cramping up from the awkward position my muscles were forced into. I tried to indicate with arm movements the pillow position I thought might relieve the pain. But because I couldn't speak, they frequently couldn't understand what I was trying to suggest. This, understandably made me feel incredibly frustrated.

One time, as pain shot through my hip and thigh, I tried yet again to indicate where to place the pillows. The CNA placed the pillows in exactly the right spot...to increase the pain. As usual, it didn't hurt at first, but the pain soon became unbearable. I pressed the call button, and when she returned, I attempted to indicate how I could be made more comfortable.

She tried again. The position wasn't what I was thinking of. Even though didn't think it was right, I decided to give a shot. And speaking of shots, that's what the pain soon did through my body. I didn't want to complain right away, so I waited, hoping that the pain would eventually subside, Instead, it grew and grew until I couldn't stand it any longer. I pressed the button yet again.

"Yes?" the CNA said with a sigh when she showed up minutes later.

Suddenly, an inspirations struck. I laid my left hand flat, held the pointed index finger and thumb on my right hand together, then mimed squiggling above the left hand. In other words, I was attempting to get her to understand that I wanted to write down a note.

"Do you want me to change you?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"I want a pen and paper." I repeated the pantomime.

"You want to be turned?"

I shook my head vigorously. Slowly, I mouthed, "Pen and paper," annunciating and exaggerating every syllable, as I performed the scribbling motions.

"Your arm hurts?" she guessed.

"NO!" I mouthed. "P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r," I said, drawing out the words. I drew my imaginary pen across my mock paper once again.

My loved ones had a rotating schedule of visitation, and it was Joella's shift. "You want a pain pill?" she hazarded.

I shook my head so hard that I felt dizzy. "Pen and paper! Pen and paper!" I said. I traced the words on my bedsheet for good measure, substituting an ampersand for the and.

"Let me get the nurse," the CNA said. She was obviously feeling almost as exasperated as I was.

 Several minutes later, she brought back a nurse.

"What seems to be the problem?" the nurse asked.

I held the invisible pen between my fingers and mimed a cursive note on my flat palm yet again.

"Do you need to be changed?"

"P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r! P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r! P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r!"

"It's okay. Calm down."

I decided to try a different tack. I air wrote without my imaginary paper while I mouthed, "W-r-i-t-e! W-r-i-t-e! W-r-i-t-e!"

"You want to be turned?"

"Argh!!!!!!" I said, or rather tried to say. It was kind of hard to transmit via mouthing.

"I'll go find someone," Joella said, standing up.

I smiled and gave her a nod of thanks.

She returned with Ricardo, the head respiratory therapist on duty.

I returned to pretending to write on my hand/paper. "P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r! P-e-n a-n-d p-a-p-e-r!"

Ricardo's eyebrows drew together. "I'm not sure...."

I decided to switch to air writing. "W-r-i-t-e! W-r-i-t-e! W-r-i-t-e!"

He thought for a moment. "Do you want to something to write with?"

I nodded so vigorously that the room continued bouncing even when I was finished.

Ricardo left to continue his rounds, and in a few minutes, the CNA handed me a pen and a piece of paper. The wheeled bed tray became my desk. My hands were still barely functional, so I balanced the pen between my fingers awkwardly as I roughly scratched down my thoughts. I kept misforming letters, so I was continually crossing out words.

In the end, the resulting scribbles looked like they had been written by a first grader. But finally, I had the power of the pen.


This post is

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Because the Bible Tells Me So


The Secular SpectrumBecause the Bible Tells Me So

Some kids feel anxious about their first day in junior high; others are excited. I was a little of both. I had the usual worries about finding new friends, the new teachers, the schoolwork, etc., but I was also eager to be able to stop praying before lunch. I was sure once I left my elementary school, the praying would stop.

This was a major source of anxiety for me as a secular child. I was picked on and/or beaten up on a daily basis, so I couldn't afford for the other kids to know that I wasn't really reciting the words to our lunchtime prayer. So, I mouthed the words, sneaking glances to see if anyone seemed to notice that no sound was coming from my lips. Fortunately, I was never found out.

But in my new junior high homeroom, I chose a desk, put down my book bag, and as I settled into the chair, the teacher asked who wanted to read their favorite passage from the bible.

My heart sank.

I sunk down in the chair and tried to remain invisible. Another girl raised her hand. After the teacher handed her the bible, the girl read. I heaved a sigh of relief.

The same scene repeated every school day until my mother and I moved to LA.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Zebraitis


In medical school doctors are taught, "When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras." It means that you should first consider more common diagnoses when confronted with symptoms. That makes sense...unless they're actually dealing with a zebra. Sometimes when doctors see zebras they only hear horses.

I've confronted this phenomenon repeatedly, as well as another common issue, the fad diagnosis. My two-year "walking pneumonia" when I was in my early teens was misdiagnosed as anorexia, which was first becoming widely publicized. I was still in the normal weight range, albeit near the bottom of the percentile. When the pediatrician said that, my mother told the pediatrician that I ate fine, though I had always had a small appetite. I'm actually notorious for my sweet tooth, yet I have a metabolism that people would sell their souls for (if souls actually existed). But the doctor couldn't figure out the cause of my persistent pneumonia, so he trotted out anorexia as the diagnosis.

It was allergies for a while until that too was ruled out. I was eventually referred to the pulmonary department. After a lung biopsy, they discovered that my lungs had been scarred by the mysterious virus that struck me when I was 11. Yes, my health has been bad for that long.

Years later, I found to my horror that I matched almost all of a long list of potential symptoms of dermatomyositis (DM) down to the last detail--included the disgusting photos of the characteristic Gottron's papules. Yet the dermatologist I saw laughed at the suggestion that I might have DM. He instead gave me a laundry list of skin disease diagnoses. Each area of rash had a different one. I forgot to ask him why I would suddenly develop these separate condition all over my body at the same time.

My muscles continued to weaken, and I was referred to a rheumatologist. She told me I was smart for identifying DM as a likely cause of my constellation of symptoms. But she thought DM was the second most likely diagnosis, behind the far more common psoriatic arthritis. She said if I had to have one, she preferred it to be psoriatic arthritis. After all my research into DM, I knew why. But when I returned home and looked up psoriatic arthritis, my heart sank. It didn't really fit my symptoms at all. The blood tests she ordered showed that I almost certainly had DM.

I was sent back to the laughing dermatologist for a skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. The dermatologist looked at my hands and said, "Now it looks like classic Gottron's papules." Actually, the rash had improved quite a bit by this time due to my treatment. He was obviously weaselling out of his cavalier dismissal of the possibility that I might be have dermatomyositis.

When I came down with Legionnaires' disease--thanks to the increased prednisone dose prescribed by that same dermatologist--and I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain, which caused me to fall into deep coma, my doctors played the odds and decided I was a hopeless basket case. This is a related phenomenon to zebraitis. Most people in my situation never wake up, and if they do, they're left irreparably brain damaged. No need to listen to the reports of their loved ones of improving awareness. They all say that, doctors tell themselves. Just continue jotting down "poor prognosis" and move on to the next patient.

The problem with playing the odds with patients is that some will defy expectation or turn out to be a zebra, after all. Well, have a zebra, which is common enough that zebra is also a term for those unlikely diagnoses nonetheless suffered by a small minority of patients, like DM. But who's to tell which is which if you don't look?

I really wanted to be told I didn't have DM, yet a voice in my head told me that there were too many similarities with my symptoms to be a coincidence. That's why I kept bringing up the possibility to different doctors. And unfortunately, it turned out that I did have a zebra after all. My creatine kinase test--the one that diagnosed my DM--tested in the normal range when I first went to my primary care physician. I guess it was too soon. If the dermatologist had recognized my "classic Gottron's papules," treatment would've been started before the muscle damage had progressed. Or, if I had continued being tested, the muscle damage wouldn't have become so severe that I think I'm still suffering from it.

And, yes, it was most likely that I wouldn't recover from the coma. But because they were convinced that I wouldn't, they refused me therapy that could've hastened my awakening and reduced my recovery time. Every time I was moved or stimulated--for the MRI, GI tube insertion, or the move to my first nursing home--my awareness improved.

This is why I'm so eager for the development of bedside covert awareness detection using EEGs. There's no cure for zebraitis, but if it's cheap enough, doctor will have no excuse not to test the comatose. At the very least, they would be able to tell the patient's loved ones whether they're really aware or not.

When doctors play the odds sometimes it's the patients who lose.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Riding the Hippocampus Hobby-Horse with Santa and the Coca-Cola Polar Bears

The Secular SpectrumRiding the Hippocampus Hobby-Horse with Santa and the Coca-Cola Polar Bears

I didn't realize that everyone wasn't sometimes aware when they were dreaming until several years ago, when I read an article about lucid dreaming. Later, as I was researching my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," I learned that according to the REM intrusion theory, my lucid dreaming meant I was far more likely to have a near-death experience.

I even lucid dreamed during my NDE. I noticed that my "new" boyfriend looked a lot like Keith--even down to the klugey repair of his glasses he was forced to make when they broke in Sicily. But Keith didn't have a full beard, so he couldn't be the person telling me all about his plans for us when I was better. I went through various names for this new boyfriend (which meant that I thought it was an ordinary dream). I finally settled on Ricardo, for some reason. Perhaps the name was inspired by Ricardo Montalban. I have no idea why, but I did note that he seemed to be exceedingly polite. He kept saying "Thank you, sir" to people. Oddly enough, Keith does that too, though I never really noticed it before my coma-dream.

Later, after my awakening, I was greeted by a respiratory therapist at my new nursing home. His name was Ricardo. Pure coincidence, of course, but weird nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Walking While Others Fly

An osprey soars overhead.
For anyone interested in following my rehab progress, from now on I'm going to be posting links to the Tumblrs of my walking pics. Once a week, Keith and I walk through beautiful gardens and nature reserves. Sometimes the photos show me climbing steep inclines and uneven terrain, more hikes than walks. And they're often filled with wildlife, such as last Sunday's walk at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve.

Sepulveda is one of our favorite places to walk. It's part of the Pacific Flyway, and as such, it's usually chock-a-block with birders. And in the case of last Sunday, as we walked with Keith's mom Joella, the reserve was carpeted with large birds of different stripes...or spots.

Here's the linkhttp://comachameleon2013.tumblr.com/

PS: The ground is perfectly flat at Sepulveda, but the hiking sticks are basically double canes which allow my to walk farther before I grow tired.

Friday, December 4, 2015

SfMCR*: After the Awakening

This is the only photo taken of me at All Saints Healthcare. It was snapped on the day of my transfer, five days before my awakening.
I awoke from a dream of man-eating office machinery right out of the Twilight Zone, only to learn that I had actually been re-enacting Sleeping Beauty. I've told the story of the first moments after my awakening before, but the rest of the day was almost as surreal.

A female doctor walked in to evaluate the state of my cognition. Since I couldn't talk, all she could do was give me a multiple choice quiz. Which of these is the current president: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama? This was my first inkling that brain damage was still suspected. I shook my head on the first two and nodded on the last. I made a mental note to make sure everyone could tell that I was completely there.

My mom had explained that my doctors had written me off as a basket case. "The nurses hinting that I should let them pull the plug," she added in her typical blunt manner. She also stated that I had been a quadriplegic. Though I could barely lift my arms and legs, I did have a slight amount of movement. This didn't make any sense to me. My spinal cord had obviously not been damaged. How could this be? This statement only added to my perplexity. [She still says this. I think she bases her conclusion on my lack of movement during my coma. As a hyperactive person, I had always fidgeted and moved while awake. Though I was covertly aware during my coma, I wasn't fully awake. If I had been conscious, but paralyzed, I would've been in a lock-in state, not vegetative.] 

Though I was sure I had no signs of brain damage, confusion reigned as I tried to make sense of the mish mash of the details that trickled out about my illness.

Soon, a priest appeared and told me, "God is good," as I've written about before. My mom, who is also an atheist, was trying to be polite when she allowed him to come to my side. I, in turn, acquiesced with a slight nod of my head when he as asked me if he could pray for me. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Thankfully, he soon left.

My mother was obviously excited at my awakening, but sometimes she talks so much that details can get buried in the mix. This only added to my confusion. I was already getting an inkling of what my loved ones had gone through, however. My mom told me there had been a constant vigil by my side, a fact which a nurse confirmed. Keith would be coming by after work, my mom informed me. I couldn't wait for him to get there. I knew he would be happy.

When Keith arrived, I could hear the joy and relief in his voice. I only wish I could've seen his expression; I'm extremely nearsighted and I didn't have my contacts or glasses. A vegetable has no need for corrective lenses. Keith vowed to bring my glasses to me the next day. Though I couldn't see fine details, I could make out the breadth of his smile.

He told me that all my friends on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer were rooting for me, and there was a separate cheering section on Facebook. "I can't wait to tell everyone you're back. Completely back." The relief in his voice was obvious.

Meanwhile, I mugged like a silent movie actor, trying to seem as vibrant and aware as possible. I did my best to display my sense of humor, through exaggerated facial expressions, comically timed looks, and a few mouthed words, which were often misunderstood. I wanted everyone to know that I was still completely me. Given my limited comic palette, I was at a considerable disadvantage in this endeavor. My humor is usually verbal.

As I continued to overemphasize my thereness, I stayed so animated that I quickly became exhausted. Yet I kept it up, anyway. I had to make sure everyone knew my mind was undamaged. Keith clearly couldn't get over the fact that my mind was still clearly intact. He had heard all the same discouraging things from my doctors.

And all the time, I struggled to piece together the picture of what had happened. Had I been in a coma six months or six weeks? [I think the confusion stemmed from my mother rounding up to two months, while Keith referred to it as the more precise six weeks. My mind conflated the two.] Why were objects labeled as belonging to "All Saints," when I had spent my coma in the Kaiser Panorama City hospital? No one thought to inform me (because they already knew) that I had been transferred to a nursing home only five days before my awakening. [As I've referred to repeatedly, it was the very activity involved with that move which sparked my awakening.]

Eventually, Keith had to go home and scarf down a quick dinner, then catch a few hours sleep...as he'd been doing for the previous six weeks.

I felt all but dead, wrung out by my forced activity in my coma-weakened state. But I awoke the next morning. And the next morning. And the following morning as well.




*SfMCR stands for Scenes from My Coma Recovery. This post is part of a continuing series of vignettes from my recovery.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Myth-Taken by Santa


Myth-Taken by Santa

"Santa is a fake!" I said to my mother, outraged.

Those are the words I uttered to my mother after I had noticed the gap between the mall Santa's beard and his face. My mom reports that she could see the little wheels turning in my head as I thought about the implications,

"And all the Santas, in all the malls, they're all fake too!" I added.

Keith wondered how many malls I could've seen Santa in. But as my mom and I cruised through Miami, we undoubtedly passed countless malls, all with their own Santas.

I was indignant about this fraud, though my mom had never intended me to believe in Santa Claus in the first place.

Years later, I eventually convinced my mom to give up her own myth--that God might exist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for my blessings though there's no one to grant them


Biting off more than I could chew at a Halloween festival last year.
November 20th was the anniversary of my first blog. It was about covert cognition, a theme I've returned to again and again in the year I've been writing Coma Chameleon. October 30 was the second anniversary of my return from the nursing home, and August 25 was the third celebration of Coma Day--the day of my awakening. Thursday will be Thanksgiving, they day Americans are supposed to be thankful for our blessing.

I obviously have a lot to be thankful for. Not that I don't do plenty of kvetching, which is one of the perks of being a member of the people who invented that ever-useful word. Whenever I complain about some minor frustration, Keith usually says something along the lines of, "Oh, I'm so not in a coma. I'm so not dying. I'm so not in a wheelchair," or something along those lines.

The truth is, until my coma, I never really thought about what I had to be thankful for during Thanksgiving. After all, I didn't believe there was a god to bless me, to hand me good fortune. It's not that I was ungrateful, it's just that I never really bothered to count my blessings.

But ever since my first Thanksgiving back from the nursing home, mere months after I returned from the brink of death, I have thought about about my blessings--and not only on Thanksgiving. They are many.

I think about all the people in my dire circumstance who weren't so lucky. I think about all the covertly aware patients who haven't been discovered or managed to wake up on their own. And I think about what might have been.

If my doctors had been right and I was profoundly brain damaged, I would've been irreparably brain damaged, a shell of my former self. That's the reality for far too many people. There but for the grace of the God I don't believe in go I.

And that's assuming I even survived. A doctor discussed with Keith what they would do when, not if, I started going into cardiac arrest. He overheard one doctor asking another if I was a candidate for lung transplant. The second doctor replied, "No, we should save it for someone who has a chance."

But I did have a chance. And so many others didn't. And tomorrow, as we sit down at the table Thursday, I will spare a thought to those in my situation who weren't so lucky. I think prayer is a waste of time because there's no one on the other end of the line to receive the call. But I will do something that's a lot more effective: I will pledge to do my best to inform the public about that the one in five consciousness disorder patients with covert cognition. And I will spare a thought to the family and friends who didn't get to see their loved ones wake up.

I have only my doctors and providence to thank for my recovery, but that is enough.

I Was a Jewish Hitler in the 5th Grade

My latest post for the Secular Spectrum: I Was a Jewish Hitler in the 5th Grade.

No really, I was. I was given an assignment to profile a famous person in history class. I picked Hitler because I was curious about the Holocaust. I always picked subjects I was curious about for my book reports. If I had more consciousness about my heritage, I would already have known more than the bare essentials about the genocide of my people by the Nazis.

But it was my ADHD to blame when I missed the rest of the teacher's instructions. I heard the part about how we were supposed to write the report as the person we were profiling. The part I missed was when she said we had to read it out loud in class.

When it came time for us to read the reports, I was appalled. I went to the teacher and asked her if I could avoid readed my report. She refused. I then told her that my subject was Adolf Hitler. Still, she wouldn't let me avoid read it aloud. So, I got up in front of that class filled with fundamentalist Christians and pretended that I was Adolf Hitler, the man who murdered six million of my people.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Wearing the scarlet "A" (for anxiety)

My usually shapely calves look pillowy in this pic taken during my hospital stay. Note the blood pressure cuff left on my arm due to the constant heart rate monitoring.
I've had ADHD all my life. The H stands for hyperactivity, which is often accompanied by an anxious disposition. But having anxiety is not the same as suffering from an anxiety disorder. This propensity was probably what led my primary care physician to write anxiety disorder on my medical chart, after I began exhibiting high blood pressure whenever I saw him. When I tested my blood pressure at home, it was much lower, so I was diagnosed with white coat syndrome. That's when the label of anxiety disorder was added to my chart. I have to admit that I was the one who first suggested this diagnosis, since the only time I had ever had suffered from high blood pressure was when I experienced what was called a paradoxical reaction to a blood pressure medicine given to me because it can help control chronic migraines. Instead, I suddenly developed blood pressure so high that I could see the blood pulsing through the veins in my wrists. After I was taken of the meds, my BP returned to its usual level, slightly below normal.

But the problem with my self-diagnosis is that I didn't really feel all that nervous when I saw the doctor. My natural nervous energy does indeed increase my blood pressure readings somewhat, but I believe something else was going on.

This was in 2012, a time when I was beginning to show the symptoms of what would be eventually diagnosed as dermatomyositis. Indeed, the extensive rashes and muscle weakness I was suffering from were the very reason I had set up the first appointment. Unbeknownst to us, DM was in the process of attacking my muscles. The heart is a muscle.

But the damage was done. The label of anxiety disorder remained on my chart even after my DM was finally diagnosed. It rankled me every time I saw it in my after visit summary, but I never did anything about it. It was annoying, but seemed relatively harmless. That is, until I entered the hospital in February 2014, after coming down with a second bout of the (usually) rare Legionnaires' disease. Thanks, prednisone!

Beyond the Legionnaire's disease, which was fortunately caught before I slipped into another coma--been there, vegetated that--the ICU doctors were concerned about my soaring heart rate. Indeed, it was far higher than it had been when I had been mistakenly diagnosed with white coat syndrome. Tachycardia can be fatal, so the doctors were right to be worried. They tested me to see if it was positional tachycardia syndrome. In other words, if sitting up caused the problem. Nope. Their other tests could find no other cause.

And that's when one of the docs saw the words anxiety disorder in my chart. Aha!

He marched into my room, as Keith and I chatted, and abruptly told me that he was going to put me on an anti-anxiety medication.

I calmly told him that I didn't have an anxiety disorder.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," he said. "They're quite safe. Many people take these medications and find them very helpful for controlling their anxiety."

"But I don't have an anxiety disorder!" I insisted, my vehemence perhaps reinforcing his conclusion. "I have ADHD, which means I'm often hyper. Sometimes I do experience mild bouts of anxiety that pass quickly, like when I'm late for an appointment. That's a common symptom of ADHD. But having occasional bouts of anxiety, that don't affect my life in any real way, is not the same as having an anxiety disorder. No psychiatrist has every diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder." As I said this, I kicked myself for not doing anything about that galling diagnosis in my records.

"But we have to do something about your heart rate. It's too high; you're at risk for heart attack or stroke," he sputtered. Then he reiterated his previous comment.

Keith jumped in, "Could you please explain what qualifies you to make this diagnosis?"

"Her heart rate is dangerously high. We haven't been able to find a physical cause for her symptoms."

"And besides that?"

As Keith Socratically probed, it became evident that the doctor was simply assuming that I had to be suffering from anxiety. Suddenly, we realized why the doctors and other medical personnel kept telling me to relax. I was about as relaxed as possible for someone with a tube down her throat.

Round and round the conversation goes; where she stops, nobody knows. It didn't quite degenerate into shouting, but the atmosphere was charged enough to explain the hackles raised all around. Eventually, the doctor left, apparently miffed at how these two unreasonable people had reacted to his perfectly rational diagnosis. He struck us both as extremely arrogant.

But I will give him credit. Instead of pushing the point, he apparently went back and studied my charts more closely. And when he did, he noticed that I was on two very powerful blood pressure medications, at levels usually prescribed for heart failure patients. I had been taking those meds ever since I awoke from the coma, so I hadn't questioned them. He couldn't have known about my previous paradoxical effect experience because it happened when I was with a different medical group, so he came to this conclusion on his own. History had just repeated itself.

He began stepping down the meds while I was still in the hospital--discontinuing them immediately could've been dangerous. Instead, I was put on a regime that would eventually eliminate the meds entirely after I returned home. By the time the dose had been halved, the swelling in my legs apparent in the above photo had receded significantly. Suddenly, I found that my walking had improved by leaps and bound, without any actually leaping and bounding, of course. The pain and pressure my feet felt in shoes lessened, then finally disappeared completely. And finally, my blood pressure dropped. It's now back to slightly below normal. When I next saw my PCP, I asked him to remove the scarlet A from my records.

I'm now anxiety-free, or at least my records are.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Devil Lies in Ourselves


When Keith read The Devil Lies in Ourselves, my latest SecSpec post, he didn't deny making a puzzling comment to my declaration that I believed in evil, which is all too evident. but not sin, a mere religious concept. As I relay in the post, he said, "I would've thought it would be the opposite." But, as it turns out, Keith was also mystified by his statement. In fact, he had no idea why he said it. This conversation happened many years ago, but the reason I still remember it is that the comment deeply perplexed me. I pondered it for some time, eventually deciding that the reason he felt that way was he was raised a Christian, while I, as someone raised without religion but of Jewish ancestry, grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust.

But now neither of us knows what was in his mind at that moment. Still, as we watched the live news reports of the Paris attacks streaming from the English language news of France 24 last Friday, my thoughts returned to the ever-present reality of evil.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Another view from the other side of the bed

This was taken as I was being transported to All Saints Healthcare, five days before my awakening.
I've read some truly heartbreaking comments from people who have faced the wrenching situation of having loved ones in comas. They came when my Skeptical Inquirer article, "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience" was posted online and after SI shared a link to my VICE Post Mortem column interview on Facebook. One woman was forced to pull her father's plug because he had a DNR, and another hoped that his son, who had been in a coma since he was 14, wasn't aware of his situation. And those are just two that were moved to comment on Facebook. How many read my article or the interview and mourned anew, but never commented about it?

In my post about this, The view from the other side of the bed, I expressed regret that I had caused them emotional distress when I wrote about the potentially one in five patients with disorders of consciousness who are covertly aware. I vowed to be more sensitive in the future to the family members who have faced this impossibly painful position.

Though my consciousness, so to speak, had been raised, the truth of the matter is that I still feel my greater obligation is to the covertly aware patients who can't speak for themselves. This issue is becoming more pressing by the day as methods of bedside covert cognition detection inch closer to reality.

One story I recently learned of, however, left me feeling heartened that not every loved one of comatose patients was pained by reading my account. Indeed, some may have felt consoled, like the sister of a Facebook friend who had been forwarded my post for the Secular Spectrum, "Please Put a Blanket on Me"--I Was Aware in My Coma. She was confronted with the same heartrending situation with her mother as the other daughter, in which she was also forced to disconnect her parent from a ventilator due to a DNR. But instead of wrestling again with her painful decision, she felt comforted by the information I gave about covert cognition and specifically my own experience.

While I was in the coma, Keith set up a pillow speaker so he could play my favorite music for me. He wanted to keep my mind engaged even when no one was there to do it for me. The music, like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and documentaries, seeped into my coma-dreams. I had wondered why I was able to "daydream" the music in such perfect detail.

As it turned out, my friend's sister had played soothing music for their mother as she lay in her coma. Knowing that it was possible that her mother could hear it gave her considerable solace. It's heartening to know that in relaying my story, I'm not hurting every loved one who has been placed in a situation that no one ever wants to face.

The fact is that there is no way to know if her mother was among the one in five covertly aware patients. The odds are against it, but does it really matter? Few sign a DNR unless there's a good reason for it. But if her mother did indeed have an island of awareness left, she went out surrounded by loved ones, listening to peaceful music as she drifted off for the last time.

Could any of us hope for anything more?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Winning the Everlasting Gobstopper of Life

My latest post for the Secular Spectrum: Winning the Everlasting Gobstopper of Life

This is my brain on strokes. But despite what my doctors proclaimed, the damage wasn't "profound." They knew that my damage was in the watershed areas--as my hospital records attest--but didn't take into account that my relative youth and the nature of watershed-area stroke damage gave me a better chance of recovery, which they listed as poor.

My neurologist told me that the watershed areas tend not to control the most vital systems and they tend to bounce back faster after they've been damaged. My relative youth also meant that I had a better chance of recovery.

To me, the fact that the less important systems blink out first and recover better strongly suggests that this is an evolutionary triage system,

Natural selections saved my life, even though I was hardly the fittest.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Unpacking from a Trip to Heaven

shutterstock_145225978
For months, I've clung to the idea that one of my favorite pair of sandals were still in a hidden pocket in my suitcase. Keith had unpacked it when I was in my coma, and it was understandable that he might miss them in that fraught time. After all, surely I couldn't have left them in Sicily--we checked all the drawers and shelves as we packed up from the hotel. But when I was writing my latest post for the Secular Spectrum, I was forced to check the suitcases. They were indeed missing from those hidden pockets. Gone forever, since it's unlikely the hotel would've kept them for two years.

I think the opposite happened when Eben Alexander "unpacked" what happened during his near-death experience. I think many of his "memories" became distorted by his later research and other influences.

As I've said before, memory is not like Memorex; it's more like Play-Doh.

Here's the link to the post: Unpacking from a Trip to Heaven

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A major advance in covert cognition detection

Both the left and center scans are of vegetative patients who were behaviorally identical. The scan on the right was of a healthy control.
Somewhat amusingly, I learned about a recent breakthrough in covert awareness detection using EEGs while I was researching a future post for the Secular Spectrum that will in part be about Eben Alexander (yes, him again). After all, I contend that he was simply experiencing a form of covert cognition during his NDE, much as I was.

In a related stories link within a typically sensationalist Daily Mail article about Alexander's story, I found an article that I initially dismissed--after a quick skim--as only being about Adrian Owen's tennis study and the Owen Lab's Hitchcock study, both of which I'm a intimately familiar with. But I'm a terrible skimmer, and it turns out that the article was really about a 2014 Cambridge study (the university where Dr. Owen conducted his famous tennis study) that had employed the tennis technique to test a method of using EEGs to map patterns of brain activity in vegetative patients. Using graph theory, they detected coordinated signals of brain activity, which indicated that the neuronal networks of the subset of patients who were covertly aware connected in similar patterns as the study's healthy controls. They were able to cross-reference their results with fMRI scans by asking the same patients to imagine playing tennis while having their brain activity measured by each form of scan. The same patients whose fMRI scans indicated that they were imagining playing tennis also showed the signature signs of that activity during their EEGs. The above image shows two vegetative patients on the left and in the center. The one on the right is a healthy control. As you can see, the one in the center is virtually identical to the one on the right.

This is what co-author of the study, Tristan Beckinschtein, said about the detection of covert cognition:
This data gives you a different way to think about what the patients can do. You can do the classic test to see if the patient is responding or not. But even if the patient shows nothing, you may see a well-informed information processing network using EEG. And if that is the case, regardless of any other test, the clinician can say, "This guy has the potential to process information. I don't know why he's not processing information, but maybe we can find out." And hopefully, knowing that capacity is there will make physicians keep their eyes open and less likely to write the patient off.
As my doctors did.

For those who aren't regular readers of my blog, I should point out that I received an EEG, which not surprisingly showed that my brain was functioning. Yet it couldn't detect my covert cognition. Eben Alexander hasn't released his medical records, but if he had his EEG would undoubtedly show that his brain was functioning, as well. If it hadn't been, that would mean that he was brain-dead, and he wouldn't have been able to write his two books about his near-death experience, just as I wouldn't be typing this sentence now.

Oh, and by the way, when I clicked on the link to the study, whose name do you think I read listed among the researchers? I'll give you a hint: it's an actual neuroscientist, instead of declared "scientist" who throws out everything we know about neuroscience. Yup, it was none other than our old friend, Dr. Adrian Owen. He's still working with Cambridge University, though he's now at Canada's Western University, ever striving for the advancement of covert cognition detection.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Origin Story

there-is-no-god
My latest Secular Spectrum post tells the tale of how I transitioned from agnostic to atheist and finally evolved into a skeptic. Here's the link: Origin Story.

I was raised an agnostic, so when I realized I had become an atheist when I was 13 or 14, it was hardly a wrenching transition. But I reveled in tales of the supernatural and such pseudoscientific subjects as ESP and clairvoyance. I even thought I might be a bit psychic. Something changed when I began identifying as an atheist, however. Slowly, I began seeing the world through a critical filter. So long ESP, hello confirmation bias.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

On This Day


Two years ago, yesterday, according to the On This Day Facebook app, Keith shared the above photo of me on my four-hour tour of our house during my second furlough, as they called it, from the nursing home, Country Villa Sheraton. Furlough, as if I were getting out of prison. Country Villa was far from the Sheraton, but I was receiving desperately needed physical therapy. One of my most difficult exercises was to stand. That was it. I would just barely struggle to stand up, over and over again. "That's ten," Denise, the occupational therapist, would say. I would rest a bit, then she would say, "Let's do another set." It was like musical chairs without the music...or the fun. The prize was that I would be able to get up from a chair without help. It was utterly exhausting for me--that's how weak I was. Only a month before I could barely lift my head from the pillow.

I have many more readers than the last time I wrote about this, but this previous post makes a good primer about what I went through as I struggled to walk: A Journey of a Thousand Miles. As it details, another physical therapist confided to me that the other therapists thought John Silva, the main physical therapist helping me to relearn how to walk, was rushing my walking.
John Silva helping me on my first walk outside the nursing home.
But if John hadn't put me on such an aggressive program, I wouldn't have even been able to leave the nursing home when I did, and I would've lost my Kaiser Permanente health insurance. I had to be out by November or my coverage would've gone bye-bye. As woefully unprepared as I was to return home, I needed that coverage, considering that I still had a serious autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis. I could've continued with non-Kaiser Medi-Cal coverage, but my quality of healthcare would've suffered without Kaiser's superior care. And, we would've had to pay the nursing home out of our own pockets because it's likely that Medi-Cal wouldn't have paid to keep me there either. A Kaiser social worker who worked at the nursing home confided to me that in a few months time, what Kaiser was doing to me would be illegal. That was because the unfairly maligned Affordable Care Act--better known as Obamacare--would be taking effect then.

During that first furlough, I slipped and hit my head on the toilet because I wasn't used to a four-wheeled rollator. Don't worry, I wasn't hurt; I have a hard head. I'm lucky I didn't crack the toilet. John had instructed me to sign out a walker to be used during my furlough, but he was off for the weekend. A tightly wound physical therapist who disagreed with John's methods refused to allow me to sign out a walker (though this was a common practice). Without John there, I was at her mercy. So Keith went to a large local drugstore to buy one for me, but they only had four-wheeled rollators. The kind of walker I had been using had only two wheels, with rubber stopper ends on the front legs. I later learned that four wheels aren't recommended for people with little physical control. But Keith didn't know that either. If that therapist had allowed me to take a walker with me, I wouldn't have hit my head. As I said, I was okay, but that was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
After I returned home, I tricked out the walker with a tote and a cupholder.

The second home visit went smoother because Keith had ordered a two-wheeled walker from Amazon, which I continued to use until I was strong enough to handle the rollator. To the right is a photo taken on one of my first rehab walks using the walker Keith bought. And below is a photo taken on our first rehab walk at Vasquez Rocks, when I was finally strong enough for the four-wheeled rollator. The rollator opened up areas like Vasquez Rocks that would've been too difficult to manage using the walker, which created a lot of drag, even with the ski glides we put on it.
I wasn't walking fast; it's really windy at Vasquez Rocks.
This Friday, we will be carving pumpkins for Halloween. We'll also be holding a belated birthday celebration for Joella, Keith's mom. During her birthday, she was away on her annual summer pilgrimage to visit her other two sons and their families. Friday will also be the second anniversary of my return home. My homecoming was on the day before Halloween. I did not, as our custom, carve a pumpkin. A knife in my feeble hands was not advisable. I didn't want to return to the hospital so soon after leaving the nursing home. I was still recovering from MRSA pneumonia and I was experiencing painful spasms in my right foot that were eased somewhat by vibrating slippers. Thus, instead of my usual jester costume, I wore a warm sweater coat and matching vibrating slippers, since wearing only one would've looked weird. Yes, it was Halloween, but it wasn't that kind of fun-weird. I was dressed as a sickly person who had just gotten out of the nursing home after a six-week coma. I think the bandage on my tracheostomy site was a nice touch. The gloves were to hide the open sores on my hands, which had not yet healed, a legacy of my dermatomyositis. Maybe I should've used my hands as part of a zombie costume....
Handing out candy and toys to the trick-or-treaters with Joella the day after my return.
Last year, I was strong enough to carve two pumpkins and I wore the jester costume.

Last Halloween with Joella and her dog Sadie. Traditionally, I hand out the toys and Joella gives out the candy. Sadie handles the sniffing.
This year, I will have fuller hair, but more importantly, I won't need to use a cane. I only use it now when I'm out to provide stability. Everyone needs a bit of stability in their lives. I would've benefited immensely from a few extra weeks in the nursing home, but it was certainly nice to be home.

Friday, October 23, 2015

“Please Put a Blanket on Me” — I Was Aware in My Coma

This photo was taken on the day I was transferred to a nursing home, five days before my awakening.

My second post for the Secular Spectrum explores covert cognition, like I experienced, and explains why it negates the arguments for mind-brain separation. NDE true-believers insist that the brains of experiencers couldn't generate what they perceived because their brains weren't functioning. Well, my doctors claimed that I was profoundly brain damaged and wrote me off as a vegetable even as I was experiencing a rich fantasy life. My brain certainly was active enough to produce my coma-dreams.

Here's the link to the post“Please Put a Blanket on Me” — I Was Aware in My Coma

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Coma chameleons

Now that I'm a contributing writer for The Secular Spectrum, I have a new outlet for my skeptical and humanist writing. Therefore, I feel free to write more directly about my recovery again in Coma Chameleon again. This blog is subtitled, My Recovery Chronicles, after all. This post, however, is also a continuation of some of my recent subject matter.Yes, that's right, my fellow coma victim and experiencer, Eben Alexander.

A few months ago, I finally received my hospital records from my 6-week coma in 2013, after being mistakenly given the records from my two-week 2014 hospitalization. Both were due to Legionnaires' disease, caused by immunosuppression. Thanks, prednisone.

The 2447 pages of the PDF (I received it on CD) is a treasure trove of details, sandwiched between mountains of repetitive information. I don't have the space to go into all the information, and I've only skimmed through parts of it. But I did learn one juicy tidbit. I knew that my lungs and kidneys were failing, but apparently my liver wanted to get into the act, as well. When I mentioned this, Keith joked that my spleen was doing fine, as was my appendix. Everything else was going south. My impression is that the liver problems weren't as severe as the other organ failures, a speculation my neurologist later confirmed. Otherwise, I would've been given a Charlson Comorbity Scale of 3 instead of 2. Think of what it would've done for the miracle-believers if I had managed to survive a score the maximum of six out of the twenty-two frequently fatal conditions that make up the scale.

In Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander actually implies that the very rarity of E.coli meningitis in an adult is evidence that God chose him as His Special Messenger. After all, as a neurosurgeon, he was the perfect emissary to the disbelieving medical and scientific community. Yeah, right. Wouldn't neuroscientist Sam Harris have been even better? I suppose his argument is that God chose a rare condition as a sign that this was an act of God. Isn't he special? According the famous Esquire expose, Alexander has a reputation of arrogance. And he hides it so well.

At any rate, he seems convinced that the severity of his illness is another sign of God's hand. But as someone who was at least as close to death, you'll have to forgive me for not being impressed. My doctors were every bit as convinced that my death was imminent. I'll take one life-threatening bacterial infection--in my case, Legionnaires' disease--and raise him multiple strokes on both sides of my brain, severe sepsis, lung, kidney, and liver failure, as well as another potentially fatal bacterial infection, listeriosis. And compared to his measly seven days of coma, I was comatose for six weeks.

Take that, Eben Alexander, messiah to the scientific world.




Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My first Secular Spectrum post


The theme of my first post for the Patheos Atheist Channel group blog The Secular Spectrum will be somewhat familiar to my regular readers, but I took a particularly satirical tack to introduce my story to a unfamiliar readership. It's not hard to satirize the fact that so many believers think God bestowed a miracle upon such a committed atheist. Here's the link: Miracle Girl?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Without tunnel vision, but on a new path

Eben Alexander didn't see a tunnel either.
One of the complaints I've heard most often from near-death experience true-believers is that my NDE wasn't one because I didn't see Heaven. Needless to say, that's about as circular an argument as is possible without passing out from the centrifugal force. They also complain that I didn't have a life review or see dead relatives. Or, that I didn't die.

Eben Alexander didn't experience any of these either, except for the first (unless you count the iffy identification of the girl on the butterfly, and she wasn't waiting for him in the tunnel, as in classic NDEs). He writes that he would've liked to have seen his father, but Dad was MIA. Maybe he something better to do instead.

Indeed, when you read Proof of Heaven, it becomes clear that it's only his later interpretation of his NDE that categorized it as Heaven in the first place. He saw butterflies, an idyllic landscape, and an orb that emitted an "om" sound. That's more like what you might expect from a New Age guru, not a Judeo-Christian God. And have any of those true-believers ever wondered why other NDErs haven't flown on butterflies or languished in the Earthworm's-Eye View? If this is the afterlife, shouldn't all NDErs see these realms too?

He claims that his NDE was typical, but was it really?

Of course, I've viewed my NDE through my own filter, but as a skeptic, I not only didn't see anything with a spiritual quality, I didn't search for any larger meaning in what I experienced. I think we both had elaborate coma-dreams. End of story.

The back matter of the book is filled with thanks to the flakey New Age and near-death experience groups he's joined since his NDE. There are acknowledgements to NDE researchers and his fellow experiencers. He's obviously drunk deeply from the New Age Kool-Aid cup. In Proof of Heaven, Alexander repeatedly claims that he was a skeptic before his NDE, but he also refers to his wife's supposedly psychic and "intuitive" friends. Yes, spouses can have completely different views on these subjects. Indeed, there are many atheists with religious spouses.

And speaking of which, I will soon be a regular contributor to The Secular Spectrum, a group blog on the Patheos site's Atheist Channel, home of the Friendly Atheist. My editor is Dale McGowan, author of Atheism for Dummies. Do they have a Religion for Dummies or is that redundant? Sorry, I had to make that joke. At any rate, Dale wrote a cogent post about his wife, who was an evangelical when they married. So, of course it's possible that Holley Alexander could've been associated with beliefs Eben doubted before his NDE. But I can't help wondering how firm his skepticism could've been if he so readily rejected the more scientifically sound explanations for his NDE. I mean, come on, the neurosurgeon in him must surely know that his brain couldn't have been offline during his NDE. After all, how could he remember his experience if it had been?

At any rate, as I mentioned, I am now a blogger for The Secular Spectrum, nicknamed SecSpec. I'm also still in recovery, and I have to devote hours every day to rehab. I therefore have no choice but to reduce my blog rate here at Coma Chameleon: My Recovery Chronicles. After all, it wouldn't make sense to have my recovery blog cut into my rehab time.

I will continue to post at least one full blog a week, plus links to my SecSpec posts, with behind-the-scenes content. I'm not abandoning my first love just because it's now an open marriage. ;-)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

About face


Today's blog harks back to some points I made in a previous post about the claim that Phyllis and Betty Alexander saw a "perfect rainbow" heralding the awakening of Eben. This was proven to be impossible by the famous Esquire expose of Alexander. I argued that they could've I either mixed up the timing of the rains and the rainbow, or the memory could've been implanted in their minds by the very suggestion that it had happened. My hypothesis was based on the groundbreaking research misinformation effect research of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and many others.

This is a related phenomenon. Alexander claims that soon before his awakening, he saw six faces in the muck of the Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View. All but one of them had been praying for him that day or the night before. He draws the conclusion this this is due to their prayers reaching him in Heaven. I would counter that he was simply hearing their voices, just as the voices of my loved ones leaked into my coma-dream. These were all people familiar to him, after all.The other face belonged to Susan Reintjes, a long-time friend of Eben's wife. She calls herself an intuitive and claims to be able to psychically reach people in comas. I intuitively think she's a flake. She says she contacted him remotely from her apartment, and Alexander believes he picked up the call in Heaven. Coincidentally, he learned about this after his awakening.

Proof of Heaven ends with what is supposed to be the big reveal. The girl on the butterfly was actually his long-lost dead sister Betsy, whom he never met because he was raised by adoptive parents. How does he know it was her? He was sent a photo of Betsy. So, he immediately recognized her when he saw the photo, right? Nope. He says that the next morning he was reading Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book On Life After Death when he was struck by the story of a young girl recounting her near-death experience to her parents. She tells them about being comforted by her brother, only she didn't have a brother. Wait for it...yup, it turns out that she did have a brother who died a few years before she was born. (You think maybe she could've overheard something about the brother, or that it's a complete coincidence?) Then, suddenly, it dawns on Alexander that the woman in the photo--the sister he never met--was the very girl on the butterfly! Wooooooo! It was the clothes that threw him off. Yeah, that's it. It couldn't be that image the girl on the butterfly, after all those months, suddenly morphed in his mind into his dead sister? And perhaps the same thing happened after he was told the story of Susan reaching his spirit while he was in the coma?

Nah.


Monday, October 12, 2015

I guess his brain fell out

"Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out" is a popular saying among skeptics. Eben Alexander continually proclaims himself to have been a skeptic before his coma-based near-death experience. But his writing throughout Proof of Heaven proves the lie to that claim.

I'm the one who was labeled as profoundly brain-damaged, but if Alexander truly was a skeptic before his NDE, then I can't help wondering about the extent of his meningitis brain damage. Has he had an MRI of his brain since then? And would he release the results if he had? After all, he's yet to show the world the medical records he claims proved that his brain wasn't functioning during his NDE. If it's that incontrovertible, you would think he'd release the records to silence the doubters. Finally, proof of an actual Miracle of God! If his mission is truly to inform the scientific establishment of his important new discoveries, then what's holding him back? Doesn't he have an obligation, as he repeatedly states, to give witness to this groundbreaking development in the understanding of consciousness and reality itself?

I know that this argument is a bit at odds with my recent posts that suggest that Alexander's NDE is basically a hyped-up and retrospectively interpreted coma-dream. And, to be honest, I'm not completely convinced that his story isn't an absolute crock, instead of simply a deluded one. Still, if he's utterly convinced that what he experienced really happened, isn't it odd that he hasn't presented the proof of what he states is his new-found calling? Isn't this supposed to be the reason he was sent back to earth, a messianic prophet spreading the word of God's love? Indeed, he all but states he's on a mission from God...just like the Blues Brothers.

He believes it's no coincidence that God booked a neurosurgeon a return flight to Heaven. Who else would be better suited to spread the word to the unbelieving masses in the neuroscientific community. I dunno, maybe give the same experience to an actual neuroscientist like Sam Harris? Sorry, I don't mean to give ideas to the god we agree doesn't exist.

But then, Sam Harris would've undoubtedly filtered his experience through a skeptical lens. Certainly, he wouldn't have spewed the kind of Deepak Chopra, New Age, pseudoscientific claptrap Alexander does, claiming quantum mechanics proves consciousness affects matter. He states that he now believes in such psychic phenomena as--cue the theremin--remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance. Perhaps instead of dying, his brain really did fall out. Alexander actually states that there is overwhelming evidence for these phenomena. Um, no, unless you think flakey supernatural "reality shows" constitute evidence. If so, watch out for old houses with attics.
Here are a couple of other candidates. They would be at least as credible apostates to the skeptical cause. And they're certainly adept at making magic appear believable....

Friday, October 9, 2015

Casting about for an answer

As I've stated before, the first dateable element in my coma-dream was the MRI voice. It was July 22, 2013--the day my brain began to reboot. "Hold your breath...exhale," reverberated the calming baritone. I couldn't make out the words, nor could I hold my breath because I was on a respirator. But I recognized that distinctive low monotone once I awoke. It's clear from reading Proof of Heaven that Eben Alexander did much retrospective interpretation of his near-death experience of his own. I believe that the bulk of my coma-dream occurred in the last few weeks before my awakening. Those MRI voice segments tended to be brief. Interspersed with the more detailed coma-dream serials of my increasingly conscious mind, they were dispatches from an earlier, barely aware state.

I feared a serial killer had implanted a chip in my head. But that voice was different from the stalker/serial killer who kept whispering all those encouraging things in my brain. Could two serial killers have implanted chips in my head? The second one was a kinder, gentler sort of serial killer, praising my every movement. "Good job! You're getting stronger every day. I will always love you. And I will never leave you." That last one certainly sounded like something a stalker might say. It didn't make sense that a stalker/serial killer would say such positive, supportive things, but who else would plant a chip in my head? My brain was instinctively trying to make sense of what it was perceiving, grabbing ideas from movies and TV shows I had watched.

My awareness was likely flickering in and out at this point. At first my eyes were closed, as they would've been during the MRI. Later, when they were open, I couldn't focus my gaze. As often as not, I was still hearing instead of seeing the people around me. In the earlier state, I sensed only a deep, sonorous voice and a feeling of being dragged. This vague memory remained with me as that encouraging voice morphed into my "new" boyfriend (who wasn't Keith because he had a full beard), Far from being a stalker, he planted soft kisses on my forehead and told me all about his future plans for us. He, too, said he would never leave me. And he hasn't.

You may say that this is nothing like what Eben Alexander experienced. But his NDE--or coma-dream--started out simple, vague, and confused. It became progressively more detailed...just like mine did. Needless to say, it took me weeks longer to slowly emerge than his piddling seven days. And like Eben's NDE, I alternated between scenes from a higher state of consciousness and ones where I was barely aware, covertly or otherwise.

Alexander claims that his cortex had been destroyed, a medical impossibility considering that he's not lying in a hospital, a candidate for organ donation. On the contrary, his brain was every bit as functional as mine was. If it weren't, he wouldn't be able to remember his NDE. That requires a working brain. Duh. His brain was straining to piece together a story, as mine was, cobbling it together from whatever it could perceive, based on his own influences. He may not have been religious before his coma, but unlike me he grew up steeped in the Christian tradition. He says so himself in Proof of Heaven.

Was the first segment of his NDE--the so-called Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View--simply his brain's attempt to visualize its struggle to emerge from a vicious bacterial attack? That's close to what Alexander once thought before abandoning the idea. Yeah, like that's less likely than flying on the wings of a butterfly. Gee, that kind of sounds like a dream, doesn't it? He actually calls his consciousness at this time "limited." Exactly. To me, his NDE seems more like a long coma-dream than a pitstop in Heaven. It even had revolving segments, as he travelled back and forth between the realms of the Earthworm's-Eye View, the Gateway, and the Core. I had some control over my set group of coma-dreams, as well. When I got bored, I could switch the channel to another favorite program. Perhaps, like me, his coma-dream occurred near the end, as he was beginning to emerge from his coma. And it began with an element from his earlier state...one where his consciousness was still mired in muck.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Did they feed him Miracle Gro brain food?

This was Eben Alexander on Oprah. He looks awfully articulate for someone without a cerebral cortex.
Proof of Heaven is far from it. But I'm going to take a different tack from the Esquire expose of Eben Alexander. To me, what Eben Alexander claims to have experienced was nothing more than a coma-dream. Certainly, fraud comes to mind when you consider his indefensible assertion that his cerebral cortex was basically dead. As neuroscientist Sam Harris said in a cogent blog post, that would imply that his brain grew back. Now that would be a miracle. Though Alexander continually asserts that he's a man of science, his approach to his own case shows that he's anything but.

If he could acknowledge that his brain was still functioning during his near-death experience, he might be able to see patterns that parallel my own coma-dream. When I began reading Proof of Heaven, I was immediately struck by his description of the continual, deep, rhythmic pounding that rang out in his Earthworm's-Eye View segments, which he likens to a distant blacksmith pounding an anvil. That blacksmith must get around, because I heard him too. But then, I imagined the sound coming from as a giant bell that slowly struck out the melody of "Rocky Mountain High." Usually, that is. Sometimes it would lose the beat, but if I listened long enough, it would eventually pick up the melody again. (I was of course imagining the pattern in the first place.) I would often focus on the sound as I attempted to lull myself back to sleep. As I mentioned in my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," a running theme of my coma-dream was that I was in suffering through a miserably sleepless night. That sound was undoubtedly the machinery keeping me alive. But this supposed man of science never considered that as a possibility. I had my own personal production of Stomp performed in my honor, with my ventilator, heart monitor, feeding pump, and dialysis machine, all rhythmically whooshing, clicking, and beeping, punctuated by the frequent wailing of alarms. It's no wonder that I dreamed I couldn't sleep.

Coming up in Friday's blog, the rest of the low-down on Alexander's so-called Earthworm's-Eye View segment of his NDE and what it has in common with my coma-dream.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.