What we aren’t hearing is what she can’t yet do. Nor have we heard about those reversals of progress that virtually all brain injury patients encounter at some point along the way.
When my son regained consciousness in the intensive care unit of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., after five days in a coma, he started to “talk,” then swallow, then suck on an ice cube.
But while we were thrilled with this great progress, about 85 percent of what he said was impossible to understand. He was lethargic and seemed to be in a fog, and we didn’t know how much or how quickly his brain would heal. We were also worried about whether complications would develop.
Indeed, after a day and a half of progress, he slipped back into a less responsive state. His temperature rose. He started to have trouble breathing, which led to additional tests. And we grew more worried about what his new baseline would be a year from the accident.
Five days later, he came around again. After a total of two weeks in the ICU, he was transferred to National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. This is standard procedure. Once the patient is stabilized, doctors like to get them to rehab as soon as possible. It beats lying in a bed all day, we were told.
Like Giffords, my son had made “amazing” progress that made his transfer to one of the best rehabilitation hospitals in the country possible. Still, trying to understand what he was saying was a chore. He couldn’t lift his head, roll over, feed himself at anything more than a snail’s pace or do a million things that you and I take for granted. He certainly couldn’t start thinking about whether he would ever be capable of mounting a race for the Senate.
Just three weeks after his accident, my son was speaking as if he had never been in an accident. But there were still plenty of deficits to overcome and questions to answer.
The lack of anything negative — or even an acknowledgment of any deficits at all — coming from the Congresswoman’s family, friends and medical team makes me wonder whether the widespread reports of progress tell the whole story. I know what it means to have a “conversation” with somebody who has serious verbal and cognitive issues.
My wife and I started using the free CaringBridge website about 10 days after my son’s accident to keep family and friends up to date on his condition. We noted when and how he was progressing, as well as where he wasn’t.
Each family (and each person in a family) responds to such situations differently, and I’m certainly not suggesting the way we dealt with a traumatic brain injury is the right way for others to handle things. But I would think a Member of Congress might have an obligation to be more forthcoming with information, not less.
Obviously, my son’s experience and the Congresswoman’s are very different, and not only because of the nature of the brain injury. He was unconscious for days; she apparently was conscious the entire time, except when briefly in a medically induced coma.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.