Recovery is long and hard, Sinai patients stress after viewing Harrison Ford film


July 26, 1991|By Craig Timberg

They've been bashed with bats, shot in the head, crushed in cars. And they've spent months, sometimes years, recovering from the peculiarly debilitating effects of brain injuries.

Eighteen outpatients at Sinai Hospital's Return! program for victims of brain trauma took a trip yesterday to the Senator movie theater for a special showing of "Regarding Henry," the slick Hollywood simulation of a struggle they know much too well.

In the movie Henry, a heartless father, adulterous husband and unscrupulous lawyer (played by Harrison Ford), discovers the joys of life, love and goodness while recuperating from a gunshot wound to the head.

James Moore, a 27-year-old husband and father of four, said he enjoyed the movie but expressed a common reservation: "It didn't show how long you stay in therapy."

Last November, robbers cracked two holes in Mr. Moore's head with baseball bats. Six months in the hospital followed, and the last several months have been devoted to outpatient care.

Though the physical effects of the injury are obvious -- he speaks very deliberately and his eyes seem distant -- he credits his recovery from the wounds with teaching him a new patience and flexibility. "Before it was my way or no way," he said.

And while his family has struggled with him, they have grown closer as well. "Before the injury, I used to be out doing a lot of things, on the go a lot. Now I'm at home a lot, [I] take care of my family first," said Mr. Moore.

Among the 30,000 to 50,000 traumatic brain injuries a year nationally -- including 2,100 in Maryland in 1989 -- changes like Henry's are relatively rare, according to Vincent P. Culotta, a psychologist at the Center for Living, which specializes in brain injury.

A victim is much more likely to develop a shorter temper and say socially inappropriate things than suddenly become the perfect '90's male, as Henry did in the film. In most cases, said Dr. Culotta, "If he was a jerk [before], he was a jerk squared after the injury."

Judging from the patients who saw yesterday's special showing, however, recuperating from brain damage does give patients a special insight into their lives.

In July 1989, Bob Maresca had a steady job as a carpet installer, and he played bass guitar and sang for a band called Skyfly.

But he felt stressed out and considered his life "very dismal," so he stuck a rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

He didn't die, but the wound left him almost completely disabled. He couldn't speak or talk. Simple tasks such as tying his shoes became impossible.

Two years later, he narrates his tale with the slurred, intentional speech of a man who has only recently learned to talk.

Although he faults the movie for allowing Henry to progress too quickly and easily, Mr. Maresca said he, too, has come to appreciate his life more since his injury.

"I'm able to do things more for myself without feelings of constant pushing or someone telling me to do this, do this. I think I'm slowing down. I can enjoy life more, where before I couldn't," he said.

Mr. Maresca graduates from Return! in August, and he hopes to go back to school and take up a career in computer programming.

But these insights and growth come at a horrendous price. Lingering paralysis, language problems and memory deficiencies often follow these victims after recovery programs have ended.

Psychological and socialization problems are common. Dr. Susan Zimmerman, director of Sinai's Traumatic Brain Injury Unit, said that blunted emotions, as are frequently seen in stroke victims, also are common to those with brain trauma.

The most frightening consequence, however, may be the loss of self that some patients report.

"I didn't even know who I was for over a year. I didn't know who anybody else was either. I was at a total loss," said Kim Muth, who slammed into the back of an 18-wheeler on Liberty Road back in October 1989. Automobile collisions are the leading cause of brain injuries in Maryland.

Since her accident, she has settled down and become more thoughtful. "I used to like to go out and party, drink, smoke pot and do drugs. . . . Now I don't even want to think about doing that anymore," she said.

But she still faces serious limitations because of the injuries. Her vision is weak -- she can't see out of her left eye at all -- and she can only do things very slowly. Ms. Muth said it sometimes takes her four hours to wash the dishes.

Recovering for these patients is a constant, and probably endless, battle, which is why a two-hour screen rendition struck most of them as an entertaining but ultimately unreal gloss on the ordeal.

"It's always hard," said Mr. Maresca. "You have to keep pushing on. It's all you can do."

For more information on head injuries, call the Maryland Head Injury Foundation at (301) 747-7758. The National Head Injury Foundation can be reached at (202) 296-NHIF.

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