Many years ago I was born again, not in a religious sense but in a medical one. A stranger had tried to kill me. During my recovery years I would meet the man I would marry, have a daughter with him and move to the east end of Long Island to begin a new life.
As a New Yorker in the summer of 1996 I was attacked by a stranger in Central Park. Newspaper articles, not memory, told me I had been walking along Summit Rock, the area near Central Park West and the West 80s, when a man pushed me down, bashed my head on the macadam path, tried to rape me, and left me unconscious. From my wallet he took the $40 I had just made from teaching a piano lesson. My right eye swelled shut, the bones above that eye were shattered, I was bleeding profusely from my ear and nose, and my brain had begun to swell. At the age of 32, I had severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Fate was then on my side. A dog walker sought help, the EMS paramedic drove me to New York Presbyterian Hospital, and I, then comatose, was treated by a preeminent neurosurgeon. Dr. Jam Ghajar follows a medical protocol for severe TBI that saved my life. Patients who survive this injury are often disabled, physically and/or cognitively. A year before my attack, Dr. Ghajar and his nationwide Brain Trauma Foundation published an answer to what they saw lacking in neurosurgery— a scientifically based treatment protocol for every phase of severe brain-trauma care. I spent the month of June in the hospital, my coma ending after the first week, and had five brain operations, including two to remove large blood clots. Dr. Ghajar temporarily removed my forehead bone in an early operation to make room for my swelling brain. Because my story had involved a sex crime, reporters referred to me not by name but as the Central Park Piano Teacher.
I knew of neither the attack nor my injuries when transferred in July to the Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation, in East Orange, NJ. The brain doesn’t awaken all at once from a coma. Upon admission I was confused, agitated and restless, needing to be tethered to my bed and wheelchair, and had aphasia, a brain disorder that had me speaking nonsensically. I relearned how to walk, eat, and speak, and was helped cognitively and emotionally by a neuropsychologist. I had expected difficulties with attention, memory, and language processing. I can’t remember any of this, as with the month of June, but I do recall my determination. Led by a sixth sense, I approached these therapies with a tacit understanding of their urgency. I didn’t feel down about my setbacks but fortunately lived in the moment, like a child, as I struggled to recover. The more I tried, the stronger and also the humbler I felt. Humility came from feeling that my brain had been set back–what once had been my asset was now a deficit—and that I had to work, hard, to get it back. No doctor can predict the extent to which a severe TBI patient will recover.
Love from my family—my parents, sisters, in-laws, and then-boyfriend—I took as medicine; my years of eschewing family assistance were over. My musician then-boyfriend both calmed me with his daily guitar-playing and got me playing piano again. When told about the changes in my life, I’d debate: classic early mentality for the severe TBI patient, who can’t remember being injured and is therefore the independent, capable person they had been. I had almost no short-term memory. I couldn’t recall my parents’ daily visits. When a therapist asked me to record in a log the dates and names of my visitors, I became indignant; I couldn’t see that she was trying to help my short-term memory or that I had none. I was a published writer, I thought–magazine articles, essays, short stories, songs—and I wasn’t going to stoop to log-keeping! My parents, though retired, brought to my care insights from their respective careers—my father, the factual approach of an engineer, my mother, the intuitiveness of a special education teacher. Seeing that my walking during physical therapy left me more alert, they started walking with me during non-therapy times. My walking improved; in late July I refused to use a wheelchair.
I left the rehab hospital briefly to return to the medical hospital. Early in August my neurosurgeon replaced my forehead bone, and a reconstructive surgeon repaired my nasal fracture and reconstructed my right eye orbit. Because the upper orbital bones had been shattered, my right eye was pushed forward in its socket, preventing my eyelid from closing, and my eyebrows did not line up. These surgeries were one more link in my chain of growths through struggle. After the surgery, I was later told, I screamed for hours. It had been my fifth brain operation–not to mention having had, as my then-boyfriend put it, my face peeled off and put back on–but the first during which I wasn’t comatose. I then returned to Kessler, my progress quickened, and I was released late that month. Of my recovery speed, the head of Kessler said he had seen nothing like it in his 35 years in the field. Dr. Ghajar attributed it to the promptness and quality of my medical care, my youth, and my determination. Surely the people of all religious denominations who prayed, responding to a request from my mother quoted in the newspaper, were also to thank.
After Kessler I lived with my parents in New Jersey, and continued to relearn what TBI had taken. Because the cognitive abilities I had to relearn began with basic skills, such as crossing the street, I seemed in my recovery like a small child. My parents never told me I was less than what I had been. Unaware of my deficits, I was unencumbered by panic or self-criticism, and progressed quickly. I felt I would recover best if I did what I loved, so around my out-patient schedule at Kessler, I played the piano, learning a Chopin nocturne that seemed to tell my attack story, and playing a Beethoven sonata that expressed my determination. Practicing wasn’t easy; in the beginning I could concentrate for only fifteen minutes before needing to rest. I had headaches along with fatigue. But playing was an ideal therapy. It engaged me cognitively, physically, and spiritually, a triple demand that refocused my mind.
I’d wanted to cry since the previous summer but tears wouldn’t come. Toward the year’s end, my sisters hesitantly shared an observation, that as well as my recovery was going, the depth my mind had had before had not returned. One night I watched a movie about a victim and at last I cried. As if by magic, my mind began to reacquire its depth. I met with the crime’s lead detective and the two assistant district attorneys who would prosecute my attacker, asked questions, and dealt with their startlingly candid answers. The following fall I went to Rutgers University to get a Master’s degree in music, another beneficial challenge. Medically, I’d started having seizures, which is common after TBI, and began seeing an epilepsy doctor.
In 1999 I moved to Brooklyn and resumed teaching piano. A few years later, six years after Central Park, a friend introduced me to a New Yorker who lived in East Hampton. He knew my story from the media and was sensitive to and supportive of my situation. Within a year or so we married, had a beautiful daughter and moved to his home in the Northwest Woods section. I’d grown up in a New Jersey suburb that was comfortable and attractive but still didn’t begin to approach the beauty of our tree-lined street in the Hamptons. I’m glad we’re here also for the sake of our daughter, now 12. She’s had extraordinary teachers in her public school each year and is blossoming in every way.
In my early recovery I was stuck on the question “Why me?”. As I recovered, though, I came to think I was dealt that hand for a reason. It brought me a renewed faith in myself and those around me, leaving me in a better position to help others. And here I am with the world’s best husband, our daughter, a preteen who is lovely from the inside out, and our home in the Hamptons, one of the most gratifying places to be.