ArtCentric

Miami Art Critic Elisa Turner Wakes Up

No journalist EVER wants to become part of the story she is covering.

But as readers will see with the story I am posting on my blog today, there is really no way that I could not become part of this one. And I never, ever forget how lucky I am to be typing my blog right this minute.

To write the story that you see below, I had to face many challenges--and some I am still living with today, including the post-traumatic-stress-syndrome that accompanies a brain injury. PTSD never really goes away--as I have painfully discovered, you just learn various strategies for compensating for its presence in your life.

After all that, it was quite traumatic to be called "too artcentric" for the Herald after the very terrific publisher, whose support helped me accomplish so much at The Miami Herald, left the newspaper to lead the charge for setting in motion quite impressive initiatives for the rapidly evolving future of journalism, now that so many newspapers are in such tragic disarray.

But first things first. Artcentrically, I want to say it is very fab that the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison Street in Hollywood, has an opening reception tonight, April 29, from 6 to 9 pm for its "Fifth All-Media Juried Biennial." For more info see www.ArtandCultureCenter.org or call 954-921-3273.

This show will be up through June 5, and there are many quite talented artists in it, including Maria Font, highlighted in my May Critic's Choice for Art Circuits. See www.artcircuits.com But here are just a FEW others: Loriel Beltran, Julie Davidow, Felice Grodin, Susan Lee-Chun, Kerry Phillips, David Rohn. I am hoping I will be able to highlight at least one for my June Critic's Choice.

Another impressive event on Miami's artcentric horizon: "New Methods," a three-day symposium at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which will be "examining the practices of contemporary arts organizations providing essential educational and professional development to local artistic communities in Latin America," as the postcard I received at my home from MOCA says...still addressed to Elisa Turner, Miami Herald-Art Critic. It is May 4 - May 6. For info see wwww.mocanomi.org or call 305-893-6211.

I am so sorry that I will miss this, esp since the symposium concludes with a lecture by Dr. George Yudice, Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Miami. George offered me a very generous honorarium when I spoke to his UM class in 2010, and he has been to at least one of our ArtTable meetings. It was really a terrific class. They asked lively questions and applauded when I finished speaking.

I will miss it because I am taking a Memoir Writing Workshop May 4 - May 6, with the Writer's Institute of the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College. As a journalist, I have to say I miss writing A LOT. I still have lots to say, and I am the kind of person who needs a BIG project to keep my mind stimulated, esp now that my newspaper days are over for good. Of course, I realize I am starting on a long and uncertain journey. I hope my readers will wish me LOTS of luck!!!

As every journalist knows, there is always a backstory. So today I am posting the backstory to the poem I posted on my blog last week. Via email, I have received very touching remarks about that poem.

Because I have made so many artcentric friends in Miami after this story was published on the front page of The Miami Herald, I thought it might be especially enlightening for them--for instance, Karla F and Jerome S, and, I believe, the fab mother-daughter duo of Emma G and Susan G. I also know that my terrific senior pastor Laurie H came to Miami after this was published, so she also might also find it interesting.

I really cannot say enough about how wonderful Coral Gables Congregational Church is for all of this community. Their music program is outstanding. See www.coralgablescongregational.org

And, because I always believe in giving credit where credit is due, I want to give a major shout-out to Associate Pastor Guillermo Marquez-Sterling. I will never, ever forget how he singled Eric and me out for a welcome from the pulpit when we came together to church for the first time after our dreadful accident.

This is my award-winning front page story for The Miami Herald, published April 18, 2005.

RECOVERING LIFE, SELF AFTER COMA

It was the water's spray that nudged me back, its warmth on my skin tugging me from the stupor that has robbed me of sensation, of my self, of everything. Though still only half awake, I realized I was sitting on a chair in a shower and that my close friend Iliana Garcia was washing my hair.

But the bathroom tile, a drab beige I never would have chosen, did not make any sense. Where was I? Why was Iliana washing my hair? I will never forget the weirdness of waking up this way. Then my dim awareness melted away, and I got very sleepy again.

Back on the morning of Aug. 20, my family and I were driving through heavy rain to take my son, Grant Smith, to begin his freshman year at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. We were on Interstate 70 near Terre Haute when a Corvette whirling across the slick median slammed into our rented minivan. The impact sent us spinning twice into a tractor trailer before we slid to a crumpled stop on the roadside.

My daughter, Margaret, hair full of broken glass, was cut on her right eyelid. My husband Eric Smith would be deaf in one ear for a few days. Grant suffered a lacerated spleen and ended up slumped in Margaret's lap, blood dripping from his bitten tongue. Riding in the front passenger seat, I was knocked into a deep state of unconsciousness that left me struggling to breathe.

NO BROKEN BONES

I had no broken bones and no obvious wounds except a few leg bruises, but my brain had been so badly jolted that the right frontal lobe had hemorrhaged, and there was bleeding in a few other places. A doctor likened the trauma to "shaken baby syndrome."

In her anxious phone calls to relatives, my mother-in-law Gerry Smith refused to utter the dreadful, hopeless word "coma," but there is no synonym for the state of utter blankness that engulfed me for those first three days. I could not respond to the simplest commands: "Squeeze my hand." Nothing. "Wiggle your toes." Nothing.

I had grown up in Shelbyville, Ill., about 90 miles from the accident scene, and as friends and relatives gathered at Terre Haute Regional Hospital, I became the surprising centerpiece of a strange family reunion. Only one person was missing: me.

NO RECOLLECTION

Sometimes, I'm told, I lay with one unfocused eye open. I remember nothing of this period. If I were to walk into that intensive-care unit today, I would not recognize it. Nor would I recognize the doctors and nurses who treated me there.

Still, because I didn't have a lot of bleeding or swelling, my prognosis was said to be relatively good.

On Aug. 28, my husband, a family-medicine physician, arranged to have me airlifted back home, to Baptist Hospital. I don't remember much about the grimness that followed. Ten days after the crash, my hospital chart characterized me, with what now seems gloomy frankness, as "significantly stuporous to comatose."

At Baptist, instinctively struggling back into the world, I was often agitated, a good sign. I constantly jerked myself upright, and friends stayed with me in shifts to keep me from yanking out my feeding tube. One night Eric even climbed into bed with me to try to calm me enough so that I could rest. I lay quietly for about five minutes and then began to stir. None of this I remember.

I woke up in the shower about 15 days after the accident. I had been moved from Baptist's intensive-care to a regular hospital room. By this time I was able to hold brief conversations, but my voice was faint, flat.

A friend told me that after he heard a National Public Radio segment about an idiot savant who could recite the alphabet backward, he visited me and asked me to say my ABCs. I did it but looked puzzled when he asked me to say the alphabet backward. The next time he visited, with a doctor in the room, he asked me to recite it again. "Forwards or backwards?" I asked.

I don't remember making this little joke, a spark of cleverness I treasure now, and there were other glimmers of improvement I don't remember.

"You had small victories all the time," Eric says. Margaret and Gerry were encouraged when I asked for something on which to write, only to watch me scribble across the page and then across the bedsheet.

When Eric showed me newspaper headlines and asked if I could read them, I always said no. Then one day, pushing my wheelchair, he pointed to a sign over the door: "Neuropsychology," mumbled my small, flat voice. What a funny first word.

As my grogginess started to clear, I actually had to remember who I was.

"Oh, I'm this person," I actually remember thinking in a flicker of consciousness.

About the time I could swallow pureed meals, I started speech, physical and occupational therapy, but I was too sleepy at first to make much progress. My handwriting resembled a jumble of gray threads. My disobedient hand could not guide the pencil. It was shockingly hard to write my name.

FEELING PUZZLED

This did not make me particularly angry or frustrated. Just puzzled. When I finally understood what had happened to us in the wreck, I absorbed the news as casually as someone listening to a radio traffic report: Oh? I was hurt in a wreck? I could accept the fact, but I could not quite connect it to me.

At first, I didn't even know I was in a hospital. I was just in a strange place. Even the concept "What am I doing here?" was too advanced for me. Within the peculiar logic of what was now my world, I don't remember being particularly frustrated by how slow and hard everything was.

I just found everything puzzling. Why can't I tie my sneakers, I thought as the blue laces sifted like straw through my fingers. When a social worker asked me if my house had stairs, I couldn't remember my home. Instead, the image that floated into my mind was of a white living room with hardwood floors, my childhood house years before my parents installed carpeting.

By the time I was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 23, I could read, tie my shoes and write my name. But my speech was slow, my stiff voice unfamiliar, and I couldn't laugh or scream. A glass of water felt heavy. When I tried to apply lipstick, I drew a clownish line of Healthy Lips pink across my cheek. The wooden pegs that seemed to be my fingers could barely type the most simple email message. Driving was forbidden.

LOTS OF PATIENCE, REST

I needed--I still need--a lot of patience and sleep. [This is still the case, even now. I know I am blessed to look as if all this had never happened, but as most of us have learned by now, there is a vast gap between appearance and reality. I HAVE to take a daily nap. Sometime just about every afternoon, I can actually feel my brain slowing down and shutting off, as if it is saying, "OK, Elisa, that is all the work you are going to get out of me now. Go to bed. Do NOT even THINK of driving." Of course, I have made huge strides, and I never lose hope that more improvement is possible. On days that begin with tons of rest, my stamina is greater than usual. But perhaps there are some things that just won't come back, just as my job as art critic at the Knight-Ridder-owned Miami Herald won't come back either, because KR-owned newspapers don't exist anymore.]

I had to relearn how to walk up steps, even how to walk in low-heeled sandals. [I even had to teach myself how to type again.] I was shocked to find that reading and walking at the same time made me lose my balance and lurch like a drunk. And I was so tired. Even now I have daily bouts of bone-crushing fatigue. I can sense when the gray, mushy weariness is coming, as if watching thunderstorms sweeping in from the Everglades.

After I came home from the hospital, I continued with out-patient therapy. I walked around the lake at Baptist and did exercises to improve my balance. I learned how to swallow coffee again, and therapists plied me with puzzles to perk up my sluggish fine-motor skills.

On Dec. 15, I took a driver's test offered a Baptist for patients recovering from brain trauma and was cleared to drive again.

Today, finally, my life is edging back toward the familiar. My doctor tells me most likely I will have a full recovery although it may take two years. I still haven't regained some 20 pounds I lost, and most food still tastes kind of blah. [Actually that's still pretty much true, except for desserts!] But I type. I'm writing about art for The Herald again. My signature seems a bit wobbly, but it looks almost as if it did before.

I still have some double vision when I look down--to climb stairs, for example. Because one of my optic nerves was damaged, my maverick left eye does not always follow up-down movements in sync with the right. Its pupil is a little smaller than normal, and for a long time the eyelid drooped, especially when I was tired. [This is still the case to although only people who know me really well, including Eric, can spot this outward sign of my increasing exhaustion. They understand then that it is time for me to sleep VERY soon.]

SPEECH THERAPY

I've recently gone back to speech therapy to strengthen my voice. I haven't completely regained my sense of balance, so I am leery of riding a bike. [Still true today, but what is that to complain about? I NEVER ONCE forget that I could be dead or drooling in a wheelchair, and that my totally terrific family could be dead too. Yes, I know it often seems as if the McClatchy-owned Miami Herald is on life-support, but there is nothing I can do about that. It is a sad state of affairs, no question. But back to my award-winning story from 2005.]

These days, I shiver when I hear a siren and cringe when I see news reports of a bad accident. But today, my family and I all feel blessed to be well and walking. Two months ago Eric and I flew to Indianapolis. We rented a car and visited Grant at DePauw. His lacerated spleen has healed. I didn't want to commit a mom's cardinal sin of embarrassing her grown son by crying over him, but it was touching to see him happy and settled.

Almost eight months after I had begun the trip to see my son start college, I was so lucky to finish the journey.

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