Brain Trust

Kim Lowry recovers from a severe head injury with help from Bloodhut.

"I always took it for granted that I could find words, or swallow, or walk," said Kim Lowry. She lost those abilities nearly two years ago, when she fell from an ostensibly safe spot in Utah's Arches National Park. Lowry shattered a wrist, broke an ankle and fractured the right side of her skull; upon impact, her brain bounced against the left side of her cranium, with devastating consequences.

She was incapacitated for several weeks; she couldn't talk or walk, and her short-term memory had been obliterated. Doctors told Lowry's family that she'd probably never be able to live on her own again.

Discharged from the hospital at the end of August, 2000--about a month after the accident--Lowry began her arduous rehabilitation. At the end of November she was working part-time; doctors had thought she wouldn't be able to handle a job for years.

Now, against all expectations, Lowry is back on her own, working full time--and writing and performing in a play about her accident and recovery.

This weekend, The Bloodhut, Tucson's all-women theater ensemble, will present staged readings of Lowry's Work a Head.

"During my recovery, I said, 'I want to do a play about this,'" said Lowry, a founding member of Bloodhut. "So when I was in rehab at HealthSouth, my last assignment was writing a play and reading it to the speech therapist. Once I did that, they said they had to discharge me because I was 'above the standards.'"

This does not mean that Lowry has fully recovered. She looks just fine, but her battered brain is still mending. In conversation, she sometimes pauses very briefly while neurons detour around her bruised gray matter in a quest for the right word.

Her reading and memory skills have suffered, too. "I used to read a 400-page book in a night," she said. "Now it takes me a lot longer." This didn't dissuade her from working her way through Dante's Divine Comedy a couple of weeks ago, though.

More problematic in her theater work is the related issue of memorization. "I used to be able to read a play once or twice and I'd have my lines memorized," she said. "Now, I have to work in what a lot of my friends say is a very traditional way: I have to go over and over and over the lines."

Writing initially proved even more difficult: "I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know how to write it anymore."

Her writing skills gradually returned, although her memory of the accident has not, and perhaps never will. In preparing Work a Head, Lowry obtained a description of the accident from a friend who was there, and relied on medical records when covering her surgery and hospitalization.

In fact, Lowry employs a chorus, in the manner of ancient Greek theater, to narrate the more clinical aspects of her experience. Consider the chorus' contribution to the brain-surgery scene, drawn step by step from the surgeon's report:

"Bleeding controlled with Raney hemoclips.

"Temporalis muscle opened, scalp flap retracted by fish-hook retractors."

There's a macabre humor here that you won't find on those uplifting recovery movies on the Lifetime channel. And if Work a Head lacks a completely happy ending, it's only because the story has no conclusion yet. Lowry's rehabilitation, incredibly fast as it's been, is far from complete.

"Recovery will go on and on and on," she said. "I am able to sit down and write and read now. So it takes longer than it used to--oh, well. Better than if I couldn't do it at all."

Emotions, Lowry said, typically come back late after a brain injury, and the full return of her emotions may hit her every bit as hard as those Utah rocks that slammed into her skull.

"So though I don't remember any of the accident or the time in the hospital, thinking about it now sort of shocks me," she said. "Almost every day I forget that I had a brain injury, because it isn't physically obvious. I look the same. Yet when the emotions do come back, I have no control over them. After certain brain injuries, certain things you were before come back bigger. As a kid and in college I was very self-critical. Eventually I got rid of that, but with the brain injury it decided to come back."

Perhaps Lowry is now too hard on herself. Perhaps her wit is not quite as quick as it used to be. But she isn't using Work a Head to make excuses for herself or to elicit pity.

"People come out of a recovery process like this, and their most common question is, 'Am I different?'" she said. "Well, I happen to know that I am different. I get too tired every day. It's harder to read. But I don't want to avoid talking about this, and I can't let myself feel negative about it all. After an accident like I had, it's way better than the alternative."

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