(cba:news) Back on the Mend

Joe Patterson jop at astro.columbia.edu
Sun Sep 8 14:18:43 EDT 2002

Dear CBAers,

    Time for the full story.  I sure owe it to the Kiwis, who watched
me vanish so fast from their country.

    I arrived in Auckland feeling a little off... perhaps nuthin'
special after 23 hours of flying.  Jennie writes that I didn't seem to
know what day it was or when the conference was.  A day later I was
visiting Bill and Rosemary Allen at Blenhem.  Splendid hosts, but I
recall long periods of silence there; people who know me well can guess
what that means.  (I can guess it too, but judgment gets cloudy - I
thought I could battle through it).

    Arriving at the conference town of Nelson, I was worse.  I
sporadically knew that I was supposed to talk the next day, but I don't
think I knew much else.  Anyway I saw Marc (Bos, the conference
organizer) at a reception and told him of my worries.  He said
something comforting, but several people asked me some easy questions,
which baffled me.  The next morning at 5 a.m., I get dressed and look
for a hospital.  There's no help available (NZ hotel desks seem to
close) but in about an hour I manage to call a taxi and go to the
Nelson hospital.  They appeared to turn me away because I was a
foreigner.  I might have misunderstood this, but anyway they told me
about another health-care facility that would treat me.  I walked back
to the hotel and was elated to see Fred and Jennie, who had a car and
had the previous night offered to help.  On the way over, she said my
hand was cold and clammy.

    I see the doctor pretty soon, and within two minutes I throw up ~25
times in rapid succession.  A truly impressive performance... it's just
too bad I wasn't six years old.  I feel better, and manage to explain
my problem.  But in twenty minutes I feel big-time dizzy again.  I just
have to fly home.  I suppose a mistake... but judgment gets awfully

    Grant Christie meets me at the Auckland airport.  I was totally
thrilled to see him.  Not only do I recognize him, but he is so calm
and level-headed and knowledgeable.  I feel better immediately.  I
have no idea what we talked about.  Then I board the plane for LA.

    About halfway into the flight, my head reaches a new level of
distress.  I take an extra pill (to ward off epileptic seizures).  The
medication is oral and takes ~12-24 hours to be absorbed into the
bloodstream... but there's nothing else to do.  It's basically past the
point of no return.  A few minutes later, I can't remember if I took
that pill.  I might have taken another.  I stumble forward and tell a
flight attendant.  I score a quick seat upgrade, and various people
hover around and talk quietly to me.  I knew my name and profession,
but not much else.  I keep asking when do we land, and the answer is
always two hours.  Someone told me they would divert to Honolulu (she
made it sound like a threat! - how bad is it, Jonathan?).  Maybe that
explains the time invariance of 2 hours... or maybe it's just the
common pattern of repitition associated with epilepsy (I might have
asked 30 times in a row).

    I hear a public announcement that seems to refer to me, and soon a
Good Samaritan is sitting next to me.  An unforgettable guy, although
I'll never know his name (I've tried - no dice).  I thought I heard an
Israeli accent.  He seemed to know a lot about seizures and a lot about
talking to people in distress.  I'm talking with incredible slowness
now.  Going downhill, but because of him I'm not feeling in any danger
(very helpful, since one flight attendant looked at me like I was a

     The plane lands in LA, and paramedics take me away.  Now I can't
talk at all.  I have the gran mal seizure in the ambulance, or possibly
the airport ER, or possibly the second ambulance.

    The total seizure experience, at least mine, is like a very fast
nova - two days up and seven days down, with a long tail.  The gran mal
component is very brief but is a convenient t=0 marker (the analogy to
maximum light).  Despite the swashbuckling name, it's not a very
dramatic phenomenon - to the victim, it's nothing at all, just a
dreamless sleep accompanied by perhaps a minute of small tremor.
Thrashing about is mostly Hollywood stuff, I'm told... but admittedly,
I've never seen a gran mal.  There are many different seizure types,
but mine are dominated by thousands of petit mal seizures, which last
for about a week and are basically unobservable except with an EEG.
The dominant component is really CONFUSION (and quietness - it's really
hard for me to squeeze out entire sentences).  Since I always get an
"aura" or advance warning, I don't have risk of hurting my head in a
fall (the principal real danger of epilepsy, unless the disorder comes
from a more ominous underlying cause).

    I wake up two days later in an Inglewood hospital.  Typical
hospital - dozens of tubes connecting you to machines and IVs and what-
not.  Terribly unpleasant.  I can stammer a few words to the nurses -
really just my name, but after they tell me the answers ("you live in
New York"), I can feel, and say, that it's probably right.  I still
don't know the names of family or friends.  Eventually they bring a
phone, and the sound of familiar voices chokes me up and reduces me
again to gurgling sounds.

    Remember the LA riots of 1991?  Inglewood was a major site of arson
in '91, and allegedly there was shooting at incoming aircraft
approaching touchdown (it's on the final approach pattern, and pilots
refused to land at LA for ~4 days).  This was a really bad neighborhood
and bad hospital.  Run by some chap named Mengele...  anyone ever hear
of him?  Anyway, you got almost no attention; and even when a doctor
was actually in the room, possibly through taking a wrong turn in a
corridor, they seemed to be incapable of listening.  The treatment was
just awful.  I'll spare you the equally long story of how I struggled
to get RELEASED from the damn hospital...  that's the Iliad, the
violent part, whereas you're done with the Odyssey.  After another day
I was able to speak to my neurologist back home, and her exact advice
was "get the hell outta there".

    I stayed in LA two more days, and struggled with some odd post-
seizure phenomena - incredibly heightened emotions and powers of
hearing - which decayed away.  On September 6 I woke up in my own bed,
to a beautiful late summer day and the sound of songbirds.  What bliss!
Within a day I saw that CBAers had been hard at work studying LS Peg
and V1432 Aql round-the-globe.  Presto, even an observation from the
HST appeared magically in my inbox!  That was really joyful, to think
about all the nights CBAers stared at these stars while I was coping
with my human problems.  It made me feel like I had dozens of friends,
with the friendships oddly cemented through the light of stars hundreds
of parsecs away.

    I'll write again tomorrow, mostly about astronomy.  My main goal in
travelling to NZ - networking with Kiwi and Aussie CBAers - was mostly
unachieved since I was so terribly compromised.  But at least I learned
to be more careful about unaccompanied trips crossing many time zones.
(My last seizure was in Taiwan January 2001.)  I'm gonna stay close to
home for a year, then maybe venture somewhere with more help available,
and/or a decent plan on how to avoid a repitition.

    Thanks for listening!


More information about the cba-public mailing list