Health & Fitness

Critical-care doctor writes of families’ health choices and realities

Excerpted from “You Can Stop Humming Now: Doctor's Stories of Life, Death, and in Between,” a collection of family health narratives written by critical-care doctor Daniela Lamas:

Andrea DeMayo-Clancy bustled about her comfortable kitchen. It was a scorching summer day outside, but inside it was pleasantly cool. The espresso machine hummed with the morning coffee. The family’s dogs barked and begged underfoot. Andrew’s middle child, 20-year-old Greg, clumped down the stairs, muttered good morning, and grabbed a bagel from the fridge.

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Daniela Lamas Beowulf Sheehan

Amid all the movement of this ordinary morning, Ben Clancy was still. At first glance, he looked like a healthy 24-year-old guy, brown hair cropped close to his head, dressed in a Boston T-shirt, plaid shorts, and running shoes. But there was something about the stillness — even before Ben got up to practice walking and faltered for an instant, his physical therapist grabbing his belt to support him — that hinted at the events that had thrust him and his family into the murky world of recovery from brain injury.

It had been just over five months since the overdose. When Ben’s eyes had first opened afterward, his gaze appeared empty and uncomprehending. Now there were pockets of blankness and confusion where memories had once resided, but he was home. He passed the time pleasantly with his mother, watching television and laughing at the shows when they were funny. And it had only been five months. He would keep getting better. That much seemed clear. But “better” is such a vague word. Does it mean that Ben will be able to live on his own and drive a car to work and go out on a date on a Friday night? Or does it mean something more modest, like walking without someone there to catch his fall, remembering to make lunch, turning the stove on and off again, and maybe putting away the dishes?

This is the mystery of brain injury, and what led me, a critical care doctor who wanted to better understand the lives of those who had survived medicine’s most aggressive interventions, to the Clancy kitchen that morning. How much of the essential essence of Ben — that big, booming laugh that could fill a room, the flirtation and charisma, quick wit and intellect — lay dormant but would one day return, and how much of it was gone forever?

When I asked Ben’s mother what she was hoping for, she told me, without hesitation, “Everything.” She knew that things would be different from the life that she had once imagined for her son. But when she closed her eyes and let herself look into the future, she still saw Ben going to work each day at a job he enjoyed. He’d always told her he would drive a Ferrari, and maybe that wouldn’t happen, but she imagined her boy as a man behind the wheel of his own car. The visiting nurse had been talking about a different set of goals, such as a group home and a simple job. That was probably more realistic, Andrea acknowledged, but she wasn’t ready to see that as her son’s future. It had been only a few months, and she was still hoping for something bigger.

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Before the overdose, Ben and his mother had been “like gas and a match.” Ben could be a funny, loving guy, but he had a temper, too, and mother and son set each other off unlike anyone else. Now, in a way, being with Ben was simple, and their quiet moments together were tender and good. Still she missed her son, that charmer who felt so deeply, who made her laugh in a way no one else could. It is a strange thing to miss someone while he is sitting next to you, maybe even to mourn him a little bit. “I’d love to be able to have the kind of interesting conversations we had in the past,” Andrea told me. “I look at him sometimes and I think, ‘What is it going to be? Are we going to get there?”

Andrea knew things could be far worse. Ben’s heart had stopped. He was dead, but modern medicine had intervened to start his heart again. Doctors had cooled his body until it was freezing, and then they warmed his body back up. Now he was home in shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers, sitting at his kitchen table. With all the uncertainty ahead, there was that one remarkable fact and the summer day, and the present, lunchtime, and Ben was going to make a sandwich.

Dr. Daniela Lamas is a former Miami Herald medical writer.

You Can Stop Humming Now

By Daniela Lamas

Little, Brown and Company, 256 pages, $28

If you go

Daniela Lamas will read from her book, “You Can Stop Humming Now,’’ at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. The event is free.

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