A Different Person
On the evening of Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, I began suffering a stroke while dining with friends at a restaurant in San Francisco, my longtime hometown.
The initial odd feeling — a sort of darkening of my headlights — passed, and I shrugged it off, blaming one glass of wine too many. But by the time the stroke had finished its damage about 48 hours later, I found myself in the intensive care unit of a city hospital with part of my brain dead from asphyxiation, and various mind and body functions severely disabled.
Lying in the hospital that would be my home for the next five weeks, my swirling brain felt strangely muted. I was seeing double. The entire right side of my body was partially paralyzed.
The limbs on that side felt like dead weight.
I couldn’t get out of bed without nursing help.
The left side of my face drooped. My speech was labored and barely understandable. My throat muscles weren’t functioning normally. I could only swallow ice chips one at a time and with the greatest concentration. Nurses and loved ones nervously monitored me, making sure I didn’t choke on or aspirate the bits of frozen water.
I couldn’t urinate on my own and I had to be catheterized every few hours.
I was a mess.
And yet, I felt mysteriously elated. I was alive and, after a two-day observation period, I was intact enough cognitively and physically to be transferred to the first-rate stroke ward at the Davies Campus of California Pacific Medical Center and begin to rebuild my life — and restart it.
Before my stroke, at 66, I’d felt encumbered and frantic. I’d spent the past 10 years shuttling back and forth to Hollywood, working with madcap directors and a revolving crew of producers and writers, in an endlessly vain effort to turn my history books into movies or TV series. I was driven by my family’s chronic financial needs and by a desire — deep in my Hollywood bloodline — to see my work translated to the screen.
Stuck in the Hollywood morass and nearing the end of my career, I felt doubly mired. As a journalist, author and active participant in the historic convulsions of my times, I had experienced and accomplished most of what I wanted to in life. My wife, Camille, and I had nearly finished raising our sons, Joe and Nat.
We had enjoyed and endured the mad ride of creating a family and holding on to it for dear life. For the first time, I felt I was just kind of waiting around and that my hectic, overflowing life was coming to an end.
As I sprawled in my hospital bed — feeling permanently dazed — with slurred, labored speech I tried to describe how I felt to my wife and sons. It felt, I said, like a cross between a brutal barroom beating and a spiritual awakening.
I’ve spent my life rooted nearly exclusively in the joys and toils of the material world. When I have felt transported to a higher realm, it has not been on the wings of angels. Instead I’d been soaring on love, music or a heady feeling that I’m part of some grand human movement to change the world. But my stroke left me feeling exalted in a way I’d never felt before.
I felt more alive, and yet more in touch with death, than I had for a long time, maybe ever. I suppose I felt like I’d died — because part of my brain literally had — and come back to life. It was like I was one of those mysterious middleage men you hear about now and then — saddled with debts, overwork and family burdens — who suddenly vanish into thin air, shedding the skin of their old lives, and start life anew as a different person.
At some point in the hospital, I began to realize that I liked this new me more than the old version. For one thing, he was physically braver. I used to be so phobic about medical procedures that I refused to have my blood drawn during visits to my doctor. ut after my stroke, I’d chat pleasantly with the lab technicians as they poked around looking for a promising vein. As nurses hovered over my groin with catheter tubes, wrestling to thread them, I interviewed them about their lives in my journalistic style or listened to their stroke ward gossip.
This new me was somehow more patient and attentive. Every person who came into my hospital room — neurologists, nurses, physical therapists, dietitians, psychology interns, religious counselors, stroke ward volunteers with comfort dogs for patients to pet, acupuncturists — seemed fascinating and had a unique story to tell. Being a patient taught me patience and empathy. Since my medical care lasted for many months, I had time to absorb the lessons of my infirmity.
Most of all, my stroke reconnected me with my family. My head had been violently shaken free of emotional demons and manic work habits. My life was reduced to its essentials. I was so grateful I could still set eyes on my wife, sons, family and intimate friends, although it was through blurred vision. I soon rediscovered the precious joys of their company.
David Talbot is a longtime journalist, author and media executive who was the founder, former editor in chief and CEO of Salon. He has written and edited for numerous major national publications. This story is excerpted and adapted from his book Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke.
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