A Sit Down – with Patrick McDowell
For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
My final diagnosis was a Traumatic Brain Injury and damaged Left Optic Nerve. Vertigo, Marty Feldman eyes, nausea, Migraines, depression, and mood swings. I was in Vision Therapy for over 6 months.
Can you help us understand how your symptoms began?
On October 9, 2014, I was wrapping up a server rack, being very aware of the steel top and side brackets attached to it. I bent over to wrap the cardboard with packing tape in the middle, and as I broke the tape with my teeth (dumb move on my part) my head snapped up and struck the steel bracket with my left side of my head. Instantly everything turned purple in my eyes and in my ears I heard a ‘pumping sound’ and everything went completely black. Possibly 4-7 minutes later I regained consciousness and realized I was still standing and my hands were gripping the top of the metal cabinet. I slowly lowered myself down. Sat on the floor of the garage for several minutes, then went inside to get an ice pack.
It was during the next day at work that I began to experience slurred speech, and my vision was all off – everything in the room was spinning and warping. I could not focus my eyes on any single object, and at that time I left work and headed to my primary physician. Upon her testing, she determined that my left temple was swollen and purple, and sent me to an immediate MRI, as she feared a possible minor stroke as well. Final determination was that I had suffered a major blow to my left temple, and resulting concussion, and was sent home for 6 weeks to rest. I was still unable to walk without losing my balance and when I went back to see my doctor, she decided, on MY insistence, to have me see a balance specialist where it was also determines that I had damaged my left optic nerve in the initial head blow. I was now at home due to a TBI.
Did you visit the ER?
I scheduled an immediate visit to my primary physician, who then sent me for an MRI – the day following of my injury.
How did you come to discover Vision Therapy?
After almost 3 hours of testing balance and a Field Vision Test. At that point the doctor there referred me to a Developmental Optometrist for further testing and treatment.
Can you describe your experiences in Vision Therapy?
WOW, describe my experience that is a hard question to answer. I was doubtful, hesitant, and really did not think this was more than a “snake-oil treatment” at first. I met with an amazing team, all very concerned about my symptoms and they had me undergo an hour of eye/vision testing. After explaining what was determined about my injury – more importantly, what THEY were willing to do to try to resolve my vision and balance issues – double vision, low to mid- migraines, blurry vision and my eyes not tracking at the same time, I accepted their help. I then proceeded to continue treatment for the next 6 months weekly. I had been removed by my doctor from all activities, work, and driving- and my mood was ‘iffy’ at best some days.
Although no two head injuries manifest identically, one common theme seems to be the sudden and dramatic effects on a patient’s quality of life. Did you experience any of this?
I experienced a major change in my quality of life; in fact I might say that my quality of life ceased to exist. I was unable to drive, I sat a home doing nothing, my sleep was inconsistent, I was unable to work on my home that was getting built, and when I did I’d hurt myself without meaning to. I suffered financially also as I had to cash in most of my Stock and 401 K to sub-contract getting our home built in time. THIS caused me frustration in that my nest-egg was gone and will take years to recover and build back up. Most importantly MY music seems to be forever lost.
Often times, patients who suffer a head injury become overly emotional during their recovery process for a variety of reasons. Did you have this experience?
I absolutely experienced a change in my emotions. I became irritated at the simplest tasks, I was overly moody, I got angry at times and other times seemed to not care at all. My doctor felt necessary to prescribe medication to adjust my depression and mood swings but I did not take them.
You have a passion for music, and in many ways, music has been your life. Can you elaborate?
I have been playing piano for over 50 years and had a mental library of over 3500 songs, in any key. I could not remember more than a dozen songs and when I sat to play them – my hands knew what to do, they knew where to place them, but they were not in sync. My eye/ear/hand coordination was completely lost. I gave it a rest for a few months but to date almost 2 years later, the music has not returned.
During your Vision Therapy program, you made an interesting observation about your muscle memory. Specifically, when discussing playing the piano, you said “it seems like my fingers have lost their way. I know where the notes are, but my fingers won’t go there”. Can you explain this?
I have always been able to p lay piano ‘by ear’ or while watching other musicians, talk to customers etc, and my hands knew where to go and what positions to be in. I could change songs at the drop of a hat, but since my TBI, I have been unable to regain that or any of my previous skills. This has caused me continued depression since I started playing piano at 4 years old, took lessons at 5 years, performing by 9 years, and had made a lifetime career as a very talented piano player for nearly 50 years. Now, I am only able to practice fro 20-30 minutes every few days as the motor skills, the mental abilities, and the nearly 4000 song table of contents is now missing from my brain storage.
Have you returned to playing music?
No, sadly I have no desire at this time to continue playing music.
Lastly, your lovely wife has been by your side through this entire ordeal, and seems to have maintained her peace of mind through it all. How important did that support system become during your recovery?
Family support is crucial to empowering a recovery, my work mates, my team managers and my family and friends all supported me, although trying to explain what was going on was confusing to them a bit. Like my doctors, for instance, they assumed it was like a football injury, however I explained to them when you are a professional athlete and suffer a TBI you immediately go into therapy, medical and support groups, 24 hours a day /7 days per week. With an average person like me, it took almost 3 months for me to convince and get my doctor to go the extra steps to re-evaluate my symptoms, and this perhaps led to a slower start in recovery, but the TEAM at Austin Eye Gym took me to a much better state of mind.
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to Patrick for openly and bravely sharing his story. During his VT program, Patrick and I discovered we grew up in the same neighborhood of San Francisco some 15 years apart, and had a lot of the same “hang outs” during our respective early years. His VT sessions were often interrupted by some obscure reference to the Bay Area, followed by 10 minutes of “hey, do you remember….?” Following his treatment, Patrick has kept in touch with many people in our office and we are so honored to consider him our friend. We continue to monitor his recovery and hope his passion for music someday returns. Please join me in wishing Patrick, his wife Sharon, and their 82 Long Hair Miniature Dachshunds (ok, ok, they only have 6) the absolute best!!