A Stroke of Genius

Hyung-Oak Lee

“On December 31, 2006, the sky was blue, there was snow on the ground, and I was in the parking lot of a hardware store with my husband.  I was thirty-three years old … I had woken up with a headache.  I complained of great pain.  I curled up in bed and squeezed my eyes tight, wishing myself back to sleep … We thought it was another one of my migraines … Maybe I just needed some fresh air.  Maybe Adam and I could run an errand and drive with the windows down, the frosty, pine-scented wind crashing into our faces …

That drive was a waterfall of sensation during which I lost my grip on meaning.  I heard things but could not take in the sounds and imbue them with any significance.  Somewhere between noise and meaning, vision and meaning, touch and meaning, communication broke down.  Numbers became squiggles, colors lost their names, and music had no melody.  There was a cascade of sensory input … I could not make sense of any of it ..

But when we parked and I stepped out and saw the red snowblowers in the parking lot rotated ninety degrees and doubled, I finally had a complete thought.  I was able to comprehend what I was seeing before me: red snowblowers but sideways.  Strange.  In fact my whole world had rotated ninety degrees …

Red Snowblowers

Later, when I went to the hospital, even the doctors did not at first think I’d had a stroke.  In the transcripts of my medical field, I now read:

The patient is a 33 year-old-female who presents to the hospital with complaints of memory impairment, diplopia, inability to write and sensation of dizziness without imbalance concerning for CNS vasculitis.  Migraine is unlikely as this is atypical for her typical migraines.  Ischemic stroke from cardiovascular disease is also quite unlikely.

Sometimes I wonder.  What if I’d died that day instead of having survived, if the clot had lodged for a moment longer and sent me into a permanent coma?  If I’d never woken up from my nap?  If instead of having gotten up from the sidewalk, I had collapsed?  If the least thing I saw was the world tilted on its side?  If the last thing I thought had been, When will everything go back to normal?”

I know that I tend to fawn over certain books, and don’t expect you to run out and read (yet alone buy) every one that I recommend.  But I will twist your arm to read this one, as Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is not only a brilliant writer, but has pieced together her recovery from stroke by co-mingling of past, present, and anticipatory events in the finest tradition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  You can gain a flavor of her thoughts from this NPR interview.

slaughterhouse five

One of my mentors in stroke rehabilitation, Dr. Irwin Suchoff, is a huge Vonnegut fan.   I’m thinking of getting him a personally inscribed copy of Ms. Lee’s book from the author herself.  But don’t tell him.  It’s a surprise.



2 thoughts on “A Stroke of Genius

  1. Thanks Len, it is available on Kindle as well as hard copy, so I have my copy already. This experience of rotated vision came up in a post on our Australian list recently, and I came across this article, which is illuminating:
    Reversal of Vision Metamorphopsia Clinical and Anatomical Characteristics.
    Yaron River, MD; Tamir Ben Hur, MD, PhD; Israel Steiner, MD, Arch Neurol. 1998;55(10):1362-1368.
    Steve Leslie

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