By Nancy Harris
With the recent shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, a lot of attention has been focused on the issue of traumatic brain injury. But Mollie Dunn, a Duxbury resident and busy mother of three teenage sons, first thought about the effects of brain trauma more than 20 years ago, when a close friend suffered a stroke at the age of 30.
Dunn says it was overwhelming at first to consider how hard her friend would have to work to regain the strength and skills that just days before, they both took for granted. "It was an uphill battle, but my friend persevered, and I admired how she got through the terribly rough time and achieved full recovery," Dunn says.
Thus, when friends of Dunn, who are avid readers like herself, both happened to recommend a new novel about a young mother who incurs a traumatic brain injury, she felt compelled to pick it up.
"Left Neglected", the second novel by author and Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova, was not, as Dunn had assumed, about a stroke victim. Instead, it was about a neurological condition called left neglect syndrome; in which patients lose all ability to perceive anything from the left side of their body.
Left neglect syndrome basically occurs when an injury sustained in the right hemisphere of the brain causes it to behave as if the left side of sensory space simply does not exist. In some cases, a patient might fail to eat food on the left side of their plate, and would have difficulty with left side movement and probably speech.
Though Genova's book may sound depressing, Dunn says, "it is anything but that! It is an inspirational, motivational and at times even humorous story."
When Dunn reads, she likes to "lose herself in someone else's life" and is particularly interested in reading about women who face life-altering challenges, but manage to keep going. Genova's novel, she says, is a "gripping story about one such woman."
The story is about Sarah Nickerson, a quintessential high-powered executive in suburban Boston, married, mother of three, whose life involves constant multi-tasking. Like many highly driven and successful women, when Nickerson says, "my life is just SO crazy," she wears it almost as a badge of honor.
Then one day, this totally stressed young woman gets behind the wheel of her car, and while hurtling down the Mass Pike, grabs her cell phone as it rings and fails to pay attention to the road.
From there, " Left Neglected" tells in Nickerson's own voice, about her arduous and poignant journey to recover from that one horrible moment of inattention. The reader soon learns, like Nickerson herself, that her condition not only brings her life to a crashing halt, but ultimately forces her to realize that in her 24/7 rush to succeed, she stopped paying attention long ago to her relationships and her own well-being.
Mollie Dunn easily related to Sarah Nickerson, when just a couple of years ago, she, too, got in a car accident, rear-ending a car in front her as she looked down at her cell phone for just a "split second."
Fortunately, unlike Sarah Nickerson, Dunn and all involved were spared from injury. But she says, "I got a wake-up call that day and realized that I needed to change my habits in the car and recognize the real priorities of life -- my family and myself."
Dunn says that one element of the story that struck her so powerfully was that the main character has a son with ADHD, and now finds herself in the same position, in that "they both discover that it's not that they can't learn, but rather that they have to learn differently, from others" and see "there is no stigma in getting all the help you need."
Dunn recommends this book to everyone who wants to learn more about the left neglect syndrome, but especially to those around us who live these crazy-busy and out-of- control lives.
The book offers the reader "a powerful wake-up call,'' Dunn says, "and not just one that comes with the devastating cost that a cell phone call, taken at the wrong time, can potentially have!"
Nancy Harris is a clinical psychologist with practices in Wellesley and Norwell. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org