–by Grace Dammann (Jan 03, 2014)
Pavi Mehta: One of the things, just listening to you—the standards that you set for your life and the way you live are, for most of us, they’re hard to fathom. When you were describing yourself earlier you used the phrase “party girl.” Then just that image of you committed to stitching your own robe—those seeds were in you, it sounds like, from the beginning, whether you were serving the AIDs community or whether you were sitting on the cushion or whether you were going through rehab. And where did that come from? That inner fiber that you have?
Grace: I don’t know, but I am very grateful. As long as I can remember that’s been part of who I am. And I got a wonderful wonderful education with a wonderful set of parents, so I’m very grateful for that. For example, I went to a Quaker school that really taught me to meditate, to be quiet, and my family was always one of service. […] The fact that I’m alive was about everybody giving energy—you know doctors not making typical mistakes, the community really loving me for whatever reason. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. But my body survived and therefore I have an obligation as a result of that to put forth. How can I do that? That’s always the question. How? Not why, or what, but how can I do what I need to do? And what is it that’s being asked of me?
Susy Stewart: Grace, could you talk a little bit about how you overcame the post-traumatic stress and how you got your brain back—because it wasn’t quite right at first. How did you work with that after the accident?
Grace: Well I’m still getting my brain back [laughter]. I’m back in neurocognitive rehab, and everybody should get neurocognitive rehab. It’s all about Stop. Refresh. Relax. Refocus. How often do we hear that? Stop. Refresh. Relax. Refocus. So I spend a lot of time in rehab, gratefully. I also play Luminosity games on the computer, and I did the brain rehab program —Brain Gym. Any one of those is helpful. […]
I was kind of lucky. You know when I first woke up they gave me all kinds of tests. So I was looking the other day at the results, which aren’t so different from what they are today. So however it happened, when I woke up I really woke up. I’ve still got some cognitive delay, but it’s what I had when I first woke up.
Only recently, for example, have I come to realize that I am disabled. My big aha! experience—and when I knew that I was really coming back to my true cognitive self—was when I realized that I should factor in the fact that it takes me twenty minutes to get from point A to point B because I use a chair. I didn’t have that self-perception. That’s not feeling sorry for myself; that’s just dealing with what is. Somehow my cognitive lapse, actually, was so positive. I mean, I had wonderful, wonderful experiences, like the shower, that went on for hours. I spent days in that kind of awareness—two years, probably.
So coming back from that I’m not sure has been so wonderful. I feel like I’m losing that kind of bliss state. But on the other hand, I am more normal. I mean people would come to me because they were expecting to hear the word of a transfigured human being. They would come and see me and I would get really bored with talking about myself. So I would ask them, “How is your relationship? How is your work?” Everybody would talk about all of those things, and if they were not happy in their relationship, I would say, “Just get out. Either get married, or get out. You don’t like your job? Stop doing it! Find something you love doing.” So I had a long list of people who would regularly come and sit at the feet of the Brain Damaged One. [laughter].
Richard Whittaker: Truth telling!
Grace: Truth telling.
Dr. Lueker: Would you talk about “stop, refresh, relax, refocus”? That sounds like something we could all use.
Grace: It’s actually this program that they are doing with me that was designed for brain-damaged people. It’s supposed to increase executive function. That’s one of the things that goes promptly with brain damage, our ability to make good decisions that are self-monitoring, that take into account both our gifts and our foibles. You know how a hyperactive child will often run out into the street without looking both ways? That’s the thing we want to avoid. So we’re trying to learn techniques to stop doing that. As they age, most people get overwhelmed with multi-tasking—meaning thinking about patient A, trying to remember the labs on patient B, trying to remember to call the doctor for patient C—you know. So at that point, what you do is you stop. You say, “I’m flooded.” You stop. You breathe. You don’t proceed without relaxing first. Then you try to refocus. It’s a no-brainer—unless you get lost in your feelings, lost in the anxiety of not being able to do it. Which is what happens to most of us.
Sam Bower: First of all thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and for the chance to be witness to this. I’ve really been struck by what it must have been like for you to have so many patients during the AIDS crisis when it first came out. It seems like at best you could offer them your presence.
Sam: And it struck me that after your accident you had essentially the same type of experience. These were losses and many things you had very little control over. You could just witness them and, with your determination, decide to continue. But there seems to be a parallel for me just in your inability, because of the severity of the accident, to do a whole bunch of things. Yet there is the intensity of the experience at the same time.
Grace: I’ve never thought about it that way, but that’s actually a wonderful analogy. We would always say that it was such great work— even though we couldn’t do anything. We got to just be with people. I mean, we tried to do stuff, definitely we tried; we didn’t know who was going to survive and who wasn’t. I just saw one of the people, one of the last patients that I admitted to that ward. He was in end stage and dying when I admitted him thirteen years ago, and now he’s vibrant! We just don’t know.
–Dr. Grace Dammann. Excerpt from the interview as it appeared in Works and Conversations: Before and After. Watch the latest trailer of the film States of Grace about her remarkable recovery after a serious head-on car crash [Creative comic above by Dharma Comics ;-)]