A Blow To The Senses

** This post was originally scribbled in late September 2016.

I recently discovered I have no sense of smell. Weird, I know, how could I not have noticed? I knew in hospital my sense of taste was off as nothing tasted quite right and I had a constant taste of pepper on my tongue. This persisted for weeks but I have now, slowly, begun to differentiate some flavours. Whilst it makes tasting what I cook somewhat risky, thankfully, I can still taste chocolate, so it’s not a complete disaster.

As to discovering the loss of my smell-ability, that came whilst mum and I were taking a stroll outside and spotted a bush resembling lavender. I mentioned that there was a plant here that looks like lavender but isn’t. Reaching over I ran the flowers through my hand to capture their bouquet, sniffed my hand and stated there was no smell and it mustn’t be lavender. Mother, being ever so believing, reached over for her own test, turned to me with a quizzical face, offering her hand to me, saying, “Yes, it is lavender”.

Confusion ran through me as I ran my hand over the flowers and tried again, expecting to smell lavender this time, thinking that somehow I must not have been paying attention the first time but again, I could smell nothing.

Resuming our walk, I tried to make sense of it. I knew what the flowers should smell like but nothing registered in my brain when I tried to smell them, it was as though there was a blank in place of scent.

Upon returning home, we began a sniff-athon, testing my nose against a range of smells; we tried perfume, my favourite incense, and coffee grounds, all with strong and easily recognisable aromas, yet nothing registered for me.

Concerned, I contacted the lead Nurse Practitioner (NP) of the surgeon’s team to ask how long I should expect it to last. After consulting with my surgeon, she informed me it is unlikely to recover; that’s right, unlikely.

As the realisation of this information sinks in, I am brimming with sadness and a sense of capitulation. Where’s the bloody white flag?

My conversation with the NP went like this:

Me:

“You may recall that I lost my sense of taste after the op, whilst that has improved slightly, I have realised I also lost my sense of smell. Anyway, I figured this is probably one of those things that should resolve over time but wanted to check.  I mean whilst I don’t mind having to pass on the job of checking if food is off by sniffing it, it is impacting me.” Note my complete lack of understanding as to what had occurred.

Nurse Practitioner:

“I wanted (surgeon’s) opinion too. Seems unlikely that it will improve, but need to give it up to 18-24 months to be certain.”

Me:

“I find myself shocked at the idea that the loss of smell and changed sense of taste may be permanent.  I understand that with time things may improve as I’ve been through that with my stroke deficits.  I guess the question I have now is, how did this happen?

Nurse Practitioner:

…“Anytime you manipulate the olfactory bulb (on the under surface of the frontal lobe) you can loose sense of smell from that side; there is one on the under surface of each frontal lobe. So if you lost the right one from the previous surgery, you had the other one that still worked. When we went in on the other side, that manipulation may have taken out the other one, causing loss of smell as the other one was already gone.  These are such sensitive structures…I know it’s not what you want to hear.”

The idea of having brain surgery is daunting, due largely to the possible complications. I know that when the doctors rattle off the standard list – bleeding, stroke, loss of limb function, change of personality, death, I generally can’t be objective about it. The death part doesn’t worry me anywhere as much as possible stroke and brain injury, as having had a stroke, I have an intimate understanding of what that means and it ain’t much fun; but sign the consent forms I do and trust to the steady hands of my surgeons, knowing there are no guarantees.

With each of my craniotomies, there have been unexpected outcomes and I’ve worked really hard to deal with that, manage around new limitations as best I can and investigate therapies that may offer some help. This time despite a very experienced surgeon, my left olfactory bulb was damaged perhaps irreversibly (and with hindsight, I now also know the first surgeon damaged the right one). With it goes my ability to smell anything) including burning toast, gas leaks or food of any kind) and with smell affected, so is my ability to taste. It makes flavour checking something I’m cooking a huge challenge and knowing if food is spoiled – well, that’s a whole other adventure!

I live in hope that my brain will heal and that little bulb will one day soon start to fire up and send out it’s oh, so important signals. It is with this vehement hope in mind, that has me continuing to sniff things, attempting to keep the pathways between nose and brain working.

It may seem to be a trivial sense to lose but for me it has been deeply upsetting. As someone for whom cooking, baking and eating good food bring enormous pleasure, it has impacted the very heart of me. My place of solace has always been the kitchen and now half the picture is missing.

 

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Imagine  not being able to smell or taste your favourite foods.

Insight – Living with a Brain Injury

I stumbled across this anonymous post online and it spoke so strongly to me, that I wanted to share it.  The following is someone’s genuine attempt to explain a little of what life is like living with a brain injury.  I can relate to every single point.

Courtesy of an Anonymous Guest Blogger

I need a lot more rest than I used to. I’m not being lazy. I get physical fatigue as well as a “brain fatigue.” It is very difficult and tiring for my brain to think, process, and organize. Fatigue makes it even harder to think.

My stamina fluctuates, even though I may look good or “all better” on the outside. Cognition is a fragile function for a brain injury survivor. Some days are better than others. Pushing too hard usually leads to setbacks, sometimes to illness.

Brain Injury Rehab takes a very long time; it is usually measured in years. It continues long after formal rehabilitation has ended. Please resist expecting me to be who I was, even though I look better.

I am not being difficult if I resist social situations. Crowds, confusion, and loud sounds quickly overload my brain, it doesn’t filter sounds as well as it used to. Limiting my exposure is a coping strategy, not a behavioral problem.

If there is more than one person talking, I may seem uninterested in the conversation. That is because I have trouble following all the different “lines” of discussion. It is exhausting to keep trying to piece it all together. I’m not dumb or rude; my brain is getting overloaded!

If we are talking and I tell you that I need to stop, I need to stop NOW! And it is not because I’m avoiding the subject, it’s just that I need time to process our discussion and “take a break” from all the thinking. Later I will be able to rejoin the conversation and really be present for the subject and for you.

Try to notice the circumstances if a behavior problem arises. “Behavior problems” are often an indication of my inability to cope with a specific situation and not a mental health issue. I may be frustrated, in pain, overtired or there may be too much confusion or noise for my brain to filter.

Patience is the best gift you can give me. It allows me to work deliberately and at my own pace, allowing me to rebuild pathways in my brain. Rushing and multi-tasking inhibit cognition.

Please listen to me with patience. Try not to interrupt. Allow me to find my words and follow my thoughts. It will help me rebuild my language skills.

Please have patience with my memory. Know that not remembering does not mean that I don’t care.

Please don’t be condescending or talk to me like I am a child. I’m not stupid, my brain is injured and it doesn’t work as well as it used to. Try to think of me as if my brain were in a cast.

If I seem “rigid,” needing to do tasks the same way all the time; it is because I am retraining my brain. It’s like learning main roads before you can learn the shortcuts. Repeating tasks in the same sequence is a rehabilitation strategy.

If I seem “stuck,” my brain may be stuck in the processing of information. Coaching me, suggesting other options or asking what you can do to help may help me figure it out. Taking over and doing it for me will not be constructive and it will make me feel inadequate. (It may also be an indication that I need to take a break.)

You may not be able to help me do something if helping requires me to frequently interrupt what I am doing to give you directives. I work best on my own, one step at a time and at my own pace.

If I repeat actions, like checking to see if the doors are locked or the stove is turned off, it may seem like I have OCD — obsessive-compulsive disorder — but I may not. It may be that I am having trouble registering what I am doing in my brain. Repetitions enhance memory. (It can also be a cue that I need to stop and rest.)

If I seem sensitive, it could be emotional ability as a result of the injury or it may be a reflection of the extraordinary effort it takes to do things now.

Tasks that used to feel “automatic” and take minimal effort, now may take much longer, require the implementation of numerous strategies and are huge accomplishments for me.
We need cheerleaders now, as we start over, just like children do when they are growing up. Please help me and encourage all efforts. Please don’t be negative or critical. I am doing the best I can.

Don’t confuse Hope for Denial. We are learning more and more about the amazing brain and there are remarkable stories about healing in the news every day. No one can know for certain what our potential is. We need Hope to be able to employ the many, many coping mechanisms, accommodations and strategies needed to navigate our new lives. Everything single thing in our lives is extraordinarily difficult for us now. It would be easy to give up without Hope.