After a head injury, a woman asks 'Where was I when I wasn't here?'

Where was I when I wasn’t here?

That’s the question I first asked two years ago when visiting a friend up in Maine, and it’s one I thought of again after reading about John Urschel ’s decision to quit the Ravens.

On a bright afternoon two summers ago, a friend and I decided to go clam digging — homemade chowder was the highlight of my annual visit to her home. I have a vague recollection of her checking the tide charts, getting some buckets and parking in her regular spot under the pine trees. But then, memory ends.

I can’t remember walking to the beach, searching for telltale air holes or thrusting my trowel into the sand to extract the basic ingredient for that evening’s dinner. Nor can I recall scrambling up a boulder, losing my footing and hitting my head. Far more serious than the cut over my left eye was the damage to my brain.

The human brain is like a dandelion puff on a long stem and encased in a glass globe. An impact on one area sends it swaying on its slender spinal cord to smash against the skull somewhere else. These secondary impacts can’t be seen externally but frequently result in a more serious injury than the initial impact had and can cause the loss of memories preceding the trauma. Several years before, I had written an article about how this loss of memory can extend backward several hours, so, I wasn’t especially upset that I couldn’t recollect whether I had found any clams. Or even how I had cracked my head.

However, what happened after the event, or at least what I’m told happened, troubles me to this day. Apparently, I was able to change my clothes, get my handbag and buckle my seatbelt so that my friend could drive me to the hospital. There, I’m told that I conversed with the doctors, submitted to tests and, what I find most disturbing, paid my bill. Evidently, I had the presence of mind to differentiate between my library, credit and insurance cards, present the appropriate ones, and then return them to my wallet.

Except, you see, I had no presence of mind at all. Throughout all that activity and for some time afterward my mind was completely absent. I functioned like a normal adult while lacking any integrated awareness of where or who I was. The unique consciousness constituting Patricia Schultheis was gone. Nor do I know the person who found my insurance cards and paid my bill. Like an avatar, she may have moved like me and talked like me, but she certainly wasn’t me.

Later that day, toward evening, my two selves found each other and reunited into the singular being comprising my identity. My friend’s son-in-law is a physician, and my first memory is of him peering into my face and saying, “There she is.” And I was there. Wobbly and a little dazed, but definitely, there.

Mr. Urschel’s announcement came within days of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s report about a study of deceased football players’ brains. The study found that out of 111 NFL players whose brains were studied after their deaths, 110 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — horrendous odds.

When I read that, I thought about my own concussion and wondered if a football player could be as concussed as I was and still function as I had. If years of repetitive practice could hone his body to the point where it performed automatically even while his consciousness was elsewhere. If he could do what he’d been training to most of his life — make the play, maybe even win the game — while he himself didn’t know where or who he was.

Or remember the names of his children, as I couldn’t mine that day in Maine.

John Urschel is one of the lucky ones. Brilliant both on and off the field and only 26 years old, he’s left the Ravens to pursue a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But many football players don’t have such bright post-football horizons. For them, playing in the NFL represents the fulfillment of whatever potential they have. These are the ones I wonder about, the ones who stay the game because they don’t know where else to go. Do any of them ever walk off the field, leave the locker room and drive away from the stadium and ask, “Where was I when I wasn’t here?”

Patricia Schultheis (bpschult@yahoo.com) teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins University and is the author of “Baltimore’s Lexington Market” and of “St. Bart’s Way,” a collection of short stories about the families living on a fictional Baltimore street.

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