That Led Zeppelin song “Communication Breakdown” is playing in my head as I write this post today. It’s hard to communicate or write anything when that hard-driving tune with Robert Plant screaming at the top of his lungs is blasting in my brain. If only Zeppelin had written a softer, melodic song titled “Communication Rebuild” with Jimmy Paige playing his mandolin or twelve-string acoustic guitar. After all, that’s what’s going on with my son Christopher, as he ever so slowly rebounds from his traumatic brain injury suffered in January 2021.
Christopher is rebuilding little by little. How long will it take for him to communicate more, how far will he progress, I have no idea. But we watch. We observe and we listen for ways in which my son communicates. We are keeping the lines of communication open and are on call 24 hours a day.
Don’t get me wrong. Christopher has been communicating ever since the TBI. His pulse and blood pressure communicated that he was alive throughout the ordeal. His ability to breathe on his own within a few weeks of the injury told us some level of healing had occurred at the base level of the brain.
Still, a well-intentioned though insensitive nurse at the hospital was not impressed. She said to me at Christopher’s bedside just weeks after the injury: “Only the reptile portion of his brain is functioning.” When I shared this troubling account with Dr. Robert Potter (M.D., Ph.D.), our family medical consultant whose expertise is in palliative care and medical ethics, he replied: “This is hardly the time for lectures on evolutionary biology. Besides, healing has got to start somewhere. And what good does high-level consciousness do if Christopher can’t breathe on his own?!” Here is a keen example of communication breakdown and communication rebuild with the medical community.
Another example of communication dynamics early on featured fevers. Christopher’s autonomic nervous system communicated it was haywire when his temperature would erupt to 107 degrees or so. While he would have died if the very alert medical staff at the same hospital had not gotten those fevers under control quickly, nonetheless, at least my son’s body was telling us that parts of his system were operating, just not well. Even now, there are occasions when Christopher experiences fevers on one side of his head, but not on the other. It varies from side-to-side, time to time. Dr. Potter reasons that it is likely the result that the temperature gauge in the autonomic nervous system is not yet stable. It is still going through a process of reorganization since the TBI incident.
Recently, I have written about other communication dynamics. Christopher will blink his eyes in response to yes-no questions. Just the other day, one of his favorite nurses asked him if he wanted to remain right where he was. He immediately responded with a feverish, repeated blinking of the eyes to communicate “Yes.” She reported the incident to me and imitated Christopher’s movements. The blinking of the eyes was so animated and emphatic that it reminded me of one of Kramer’s sudden, exaggerated facial reactions on the TV series Seinfeld. Christopher’s nurse and his social worker standing nearby chuckled when I mentioned that Christopher was doing a Kramer.
I have also mentioned how a couple of CNAs could have sworn Christopher told them “No” when they were repositioning him recently. But I have not told you how one of Christopher’s favorite CNAs and I were trying to teach him to say “Hello” the other day. She’s from Hawaii and was also trying to teach him to say “Aloha.” I videotaped his facial expressions, as he was opening his mouth. It looked as if he was trying to form a word in response. There have been other times when Christopher is moving his lips as if he is attempting to speak.
Christopher’s nurse at his rehabilitative care facility also shared that one of the therapists stopped by to speak to Christopher the other day when he was in his wheelchair in the hallway. The therapist encouraged Christopher to speak more, to which he smiled. I love how his care network encourages and cheers on my son and the other residents. They are keeping the lines of communication open and hope alive.
It’s observations like these that led Dr. Potter to write to me last week: “These are good signs that Christopher is processing at some level of communication. I continue to remember that the speech center is left-brained, and we have the best expectation from the left side of the brain” given the location and nature of the injury.
Speaking of level of communication, I want to process at a higher level of communication myself. I watch how my wife interacts with Christopher. She picks up on so much more than I do. She told me last night that she could sense his warmth and tenderness for her by his facial mannerisms during their visit. In contrast, I’m a bit clueless. You have to spell things out for me much of the time. No wonder Mariko would have to tell me at the dinner table when the kids were small and I was zoning out, lost in my thoughts: “Honey, ____’s speaking to you.” My state of oblivion was child neutral. How I want to get better at listening to my kids! Communication breakdowns will drive families insane, to adapt a line from Led Zeppelin’s tune. I need to become a better listener.
It reminds me of an exasperated father who told a counselor “I don’t understand my son. He won’t listen to me.” The counselor responded: “If you want to understand your son, you had better listen to him.” This advice carries on to other relationships: If I want to understand people, I had better listen to them. It’s so vitally important that we keep the lines of communication open at home, in hospitals and at rehabilitative care facilities, and in society at large. Rather than circle the wagons and shut out and shout over people, we need to listen deeply to one another. In place of communication breakdowns, let’s rebuild communication. It all starts with listening to understand.
Whether it is with Christopher or someone else, I want to communicate better by listening and observing more. I hope some medical expert like Dr. Potter will say to me someday: “These are good signs that you, Paul, are processing at a higher level of communication.” Those individuals like the nurse, CNA, and Mariko, who are inquisitive and intuitive observers, have much to teach me. So, too, does Christopher. I just need to listen.