Jennifer Henley

My Major Medical Event

My first solid memory after the ‘event’ is a nurse helping me put socks on my chilly feet. I regained consciousness about sixty hours after entering the hospital. I was cold, my brain a shaky sponge sopping up the memories of others that germinated over the past couple of days. I was seeing the prior two weeks with new eyes. Here’s what I learned and remember happening.

On September 25th, 2019, I had a seizure in my office at the San Francisco SPCA. I didn’t realize it was a seizure; I thought I’d just passed out. I was on a chair in my office when the EMTs revived me. They wanted me to go to the hospital. There was a misunderstanding, though, and I thought they wanted to take me to the psychiatric hospital. I refused. They left, after having me sign an Against Medical Advice form. My friend Cynthia drove me home as I was kind of out of it and I booked an appointment a few weeks out with my doctor.

Then, exactly two weeks later, on October 9th, 2019, I remember having had lunch with my dear, late, friend Boothby and our friend Laurie. I got back to the office and was griping to my trainee, Tina, about my lackluster $25 salad. $25! I had a meeting coming up and was killing time.

Suddenly, while in the reception area of my department, I started seizing and collapsed. When I went down, I crashed the back of my head hard onto the floor. Tina called 911 and, when the ambulance arrived, Alice, my supervisor, told them to take me to Kaiser. Then she went upstairs and called my husband, Michael, to tell him I’d been transported to San Francisco Kaiser’s ER.

Michael had been teaching, but when he got the message, he left work. After getting checked in and seeing me, he texted his parents and asked them to get Estelle, our daughter. I was not conscious, still having seizures so restrained on the gurney, and they were trying to stop them with an IV pumping Ativan into me. They didn’t know what was happening in my head; they couldn’t do the scans they wanted because I couldn’t stop moving. They intubated me—which was hard because I was thrashing around—because they were concerned my airway would collapse from the medicine. They kept giving more.

Several hours later I was stable enough to move to the Intensive Care Unit. As they moved me to the ICU, Michael went with me. His parents came back and they let Estelle into the waiting room. She was worried. My husband reassured her that I was going to be okay and that she’d go stay with grandma and grandpa that night.

At this point the doctor came out and wanted to know what had happened to me, because it was unclear from my colleagues which had been first, the fall or the seizure. They were finally able to do some of the scans and said I had a fracture in my skull but there was no brain damage.

I vaguely remember the start of the MRI. I was asked to lie very still and I was on my back. They kept reiterating that I must lie still. That’s when I knew these people didn’t know me—and wondered who they were—because I’m never still. That’s the only memory I have of being in the hospital until I “woke” up when the nurse was helping me put on socks.

That was Wednesday. By Friday night I was well enough to move down to the regular care ward. Michael made this move with me as well. It was just before I moved to the regular ward that my memory starts up again. Michael explained to me what happened, and it sounded pretty gory. They had thought they might lose me. I was in a state of shock. My head was broken and I could feel it. He got kicked out, so to speak, so I could rest and when he arrived Saturday to see me, the doctors decided to discharge me.

As for medicine, they first put me on Keppra, but, due to my history of psychotic symptoms, I was taken off and started Vimpat. I also stopped taking all of my other (psychiatric) medicines. This was hell for me. My intrusive thoughts came back full force and I was highly suicidal. I hadn’t been so bad off in ages. But it was not all for naught: the suspicion was that my medication combination had contributed, along with the extreme stress I was under, to my having the multiple seizures that they couldn’t get under control for hours.

I started neuro rehabilitation and was told it would take at least six months for me to feel back to my baseline. I felt so foggy and tired; I couldn’t do much. Six months turned into two years. That’s how long it took me to feel like myself again. I haven’t had a seizure since. I’m on low-dose vimpat and doing well. But they also revoked my driver’s license, which resulted in my not driving for two years until I retook the entire test again.

I was so debilitated for the first year, though, I couldn’t handle basic things; e.g., brushing my teeth and taking a shower regularly or making food for myself. I relied heavily on my husband and endured three psychiatric hospitalizations during my recovery. These were for suicide attempts and probably unrelated to the events of fall 2019 as I’d suffered from them prior.

It’s been nearly three years since this all happened, but it’s still jarring to me to think that I have had a Traumatic Brain Injury and, when I was 45, I got diagnosed with epilepsy.

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About the Author

Jennifer Henley, PhD was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 17, just after her senior year at boarding school. Despite that diagnosis, she went on to earn her PhD in philosophy, successfully serve in Peace Corps Cameroon, and run the Animal Assisted Therapy department at the San Francisco SPCA for fifteen years. This is among her first publications of Creative Nonfiction, though her poetry is anthologized in Poems for the Ride (edited by Angel Rosen, 2021). Jennifer lives in San Francisco with her partner and their young daughter, and she is currently a student at UC Berkeley.