Grateful to Be Back

Actress Kim Lowry returns to the stage after recovering from a traumatic brain injury

Sometimes, life seems to offer up a heartening symmetry, or perhaps a mysteriously timed sense of balance.

Friday, Aug. 3, holds such symmetry for actress Kim Lowry, who returns to the stage after an absence of more than a decade. She is part of the cast of The Body in the Bath, a new adaptation by Tucsonan Joan O'Dwyer of mystery-writer Dorothy L. Sayers' first book featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. The show is being produced by the Next Theatre at Beowulf Alley.

Aug. 3, 2000, was the day that Lowry and her hopes, talents and skills took a devastating plunge—quite literally. She and her partner were visiting Arches National Park in Utah. While standing in the North Window Arch, Lowry was taking pictures of the unusual landscape from various angles. She wasn't moving in any significant way, simply shifting to record another point of view.

Her recollection stops there. Witnesses report, however, that she tumbled 25 to 50 feet. They say Lowry's wrist was twisted at an abnormal angle; both of her ankles were swollen; her kneecap was exposed through ragged, dirty skin; and she had numerous scrapes and lacerations.

But what those witnesses could not see was the traumatic brain injury, a subdural hematoma—a massive bruise spreading beneath her skull. From what she has gathered from her medical records, her injury was considered "severe" on the scale of traumatic brain injuries, which ranges from "mild" to "catastrophic."

Three days after her fall, she had surgery on her battered brain, and her family wanted her to go to rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries as well as TBIs. But the hospital was unable to admit her immediately. So her stepfather lobbied for a return to Tucson "where she could be with her own stuff, a place she was familiar with, with her own friends, her own life," Lowry recalls. She came home for a yearlong outpatient rehab at HealthSouth. For three weeks following her homecoming, her friends assembled a team that divvied up shifts to help care for her 24/7. She had learned to breathe, swallow and walk again in Colorado. Here, she would take on more complicated tasks, like relearning language, which, she says, was the most difficult.

"My injury involved the temporal and frontal lobes, where language, emotion and memory work together, essentially to make a person who they are," Lowry says. "There were moments I was a person who seemed to be me, although I didn't know exactly what was supposed to be me, and there were huge gaps in who I thought others were." As she writes in her memoir, which helped complete her master's degree in creative writing four years ago, "I would forget the names and often the identities, the bits of character essence" of friends, family and even her partner, whom she called "Advil woman" for a while. For months, her response to questions that required a withdrawal from her memory bank was borrowed from a character on the 1960s TV show Hogan's Heroes: "I know nothing. I see nothing."

What does that mean for a person for whom language is so central? Lowry, a writer and actress, had earned a BFA in theater at the College of Santa Fe in 1983. Now it would be impossible to practice something that requires so much of what you no longer have—a command of language and memory.

"The injury took my voice away," she says.

Temporarily, at least. As part of her rehab (and beyond), Lowry wrote a play, Work a Head, "my perspective of my TMI and my beginning a different, amazing life. ... For example, I was standing—it was during monsoon season—and there was so much rain and clouds and rainbows and all kinds of stuff, and I said, oh, I love this. I understood the feeling of it. That was a magnificent piece of happiness; I understood all the sensations of what was going on around me. And on top of that, I understood I hadn't had that for a while."

But she confesses there were definitely times when she was angry and frustrated. "But that's another thing—those are emotions you have to figure out, and you go, oh, OK, I get it. You learn about so much in every moment. And I'm so glad I got that."

Work a Head was given a full production in 2003. But Lowry had to create for her character someone who had to carry a script, because she couldn't remember her lines. She resigned herself to being unable to act again.

Esther Almazan, who has known Lowry since their time at Santa Fe, recalls her despair at what had happened to Lowry's "brilliant mind" after her accident. "It was like talking to a small child," Almazan said by email. "Then she surprised us all by bouncing back with Work a Head." Almazan says that she and others have encouraged Lowry's return to acting, but Lowry was fearful of the memorization required.

"Then several months ago, I was asked to direct A Body in the Bath and recruited some friends to read through the script with me ... and Kim was there." Lowry read a couple of parts, including the role of Bunter, Wimsey's valet. "I told her how I wished she could act again. She shocked me by telling me she thought she could ... and asked if she could audition. ... It turns out her magnificent brain has had no trouble with memorization . . . and her magnificent mind finds the spirit and essence of the character. ... I honestly thought this day would never come."

So has claiming this moment of symmetry been a bit nerve-racking for Lowry? "No, not really." She confesses learning lines takes more time than it used to. "But the intense amount of work it takes . . . gives me another chance to be grateful for being able to work at all."

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