Over My Head

Claudia Osborn, Andrews McMeel Publishing; Peripatetic Publishing
Over My Head A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out

A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out

Prologue March 8, 1989

Hello … I'm in a phone booth at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk. - Anonymous

A blast of music from WABC-FM blew my eyes open. I lay still, fully awake if not informed by what I saw. My eyes surveyed the room searching for a hint of something familiar.


I struggled upright, my protesting back announcing the quality of my sofa hide-a-bed, reached out, and tapped the clock radio into silence. Traffic noises wafted in through the open window, so I knew I was in a city.

If I had thought about it at all, I would have been surprised at how someone as curious as I am by nature could feel so little interest in waking up in a clearly alien place. Yet I sat quietly, devoid of wonder, serene in my disorientation. The most familiar part of waking up as its unfamiliarity. I was accustomed to it. I have become one of the fortunate few who could be catapulted through a time warp and arrive unruffled in Never-Never-Land in the twenty-third century. I wouldn't know it wasn't a typical day.

Rustling noises behind me caught my attention. A sleepy face appeared over the back of the sofa and mumbled, "Good morning."

Lori. I knew Lori. We had been roommates at Vassar years ago. Apparently, we were again.

Drawn by the noise of traffic and the billowing of curtains, I struggled free of the covers and went to the open window, leaning far enough out to make Lori gasp. Forth-three floors below, tiny people scurried and toy cars multiplied to jell traffic. "Manhattan," I said. "I'm in Manhattan."

"Right," she said. "It's not Tuesday, this can't be Belgium. How about closing that window."

I realized I was shivering. "This must be wintertime," I informed her.

"Whatever," Lori said absently as she headed for the bathroom.

I returned to the sofa and snuggled under the covers, seeking warmth, not wanting Lori to feel hurried to free up the shower. I lounged contentedly while she moved briskly about the large, airy studio apartment. Notes on the end table by my sofa bed spelled out the directions to 24th Street under big block letters:

BE THERE AT 9:45 A.M.!!!

I should start to get ready. It was almost six-thirty.

"You have your keys?" Lori said. "Remember, I won't be home till late this evening, I have a long deposition today, but the doorman knows you if you have a problem."

"Is it with a doctor?"

"No. Are you listening? You're sure you're set for the day? Money? Directions? My phone number in case?"

I'm set," I said. "I have everything written down."

It wasn't like I didn't know my way around. I'd stayed in this city many times … maybe years. I was adept at navigating the streets and subway system.

She was cramming filed into an already bulging leather briefcase. "All right then, As long as you're sure."

"I'm glad it's not a doctor," I said. "You'll win the case, Lori."

"From your lips to God's ear. See ya." And she was out the door.

I arose and began my own preparations, striving to imitate the efficient routine I had just witnessed.

I put my suitcase on Lori's bed and opened it. Nice. Marcia would have packed everything I needed. Blouses were neatly folded on top. I put one on. Underneath were little piles of underwear. Deodorant, shampoo, miscellaneous toilet articles were tucked in on the side.

Shampoo. I needed to shower. I closed the case, put it under the bed, went into the bathroom, took my blouse off, turned on the water, and stepped into the shower. Damn. No shampoo. I stepped out of the shower, dripping wet, returned to the main room but couldn't spot the suitcase.

It was okay. I'd use Lori's shampoo.

I lathered and rinsed my hair several times before I felt assured I'd remembered to use the shampoo, but as I towel-dried my tangled hair, I realized I have missed the conditioner.

From the bathroom doorway, I spotted the suitcase sticking out from under the bed. I opened it and took out underwear, stockings, and another blouse and dressed myself, putting on the shoes I had worn yesterday. Then I took a pair of wool slacks out of the suitcase and, after some difficulty getting them over my shoes, removed the shoes and finished dressing.

As I dressed, I checked then rechecked the notes on the end table so I could remember why I was alone in this strange apartment in this strange city. They also reminded me about food. A note from Lori suggested I have a bagel and orange juice. Then, satisfied that I had done everything I was supposed to do, I locked the door and left.

I had allowed almost two hours to make the two-and-a-half mile trip to 24th Street and First Avenue. I hoped it was enough. Time, I had learned, tended to evaporate inexplicably. Best to build in extra minutes - even hours - into any plan.

The needle-sharp March wind whipping down the street stung my eyes. I shivered, pulled up the collar of my coast, and realized my scalp felt like ice. I must not have blow-dried my hair. Too late now. I'd write it down for tomorrow.

I immediately pulled a scrap of paper from my pocket and wrote a reminder to myself while standing in the middle of the sidewalk. For the most part, I was oblivious to the buffeting of passersby hurrying to their jobs, but I responded courteously to a shabby man who touched my arm and asked with a putrid, alcoholic breath for assistance.

Poor old man. I supposed he thought he knew me. Maybe he did, but for the life of me I couldn't' place his face. He asked for help several times when I tried to figure out what kind of help he needed; then he gave up and abandoned me to speak to someone else.

Just as well. I wouldn't have wanted to misdirect him, although I had no trouble following my own directions to the bus stop, where I stood, shivering, in line. As we moved forward for boarding, I reached into my coin purse for my bus money.

"Damn," I said.

There was only the solitary quarter I kept for an emergency phone call/ I needed a dollar in change or a token to ride the bus.

I stood stiffly at the curb, struggling to find a solution to my problem, barely aware of the drunk who had apparently followed me until he stepped right into my face and said, "I need money."

I promptly put my quarter into his outstretched hand.

He turned away in disgust. "You need it more than me," he said, but didn't give it back.

What did I do now about change for the bus? I was numb with cold and bewilderment, There had to be an easier way to fix my trivial thinking problems than subjecting myself to living for months in New York City.

I comforted myself that many of my friends back in Detroit wouldn't have a clue about how to maneuver their way around Manhattan either. It was a condition I now shared with them. Temporary, that is.

In the old days, I would have hopped into a cab, or done into a store and gotten change, or even walked to 24th Street. None of these answers occurred to me.

When I calmed down, my thinking cleared and one idea emerged - return to the apartment and get change. It seemed a reasonable choice. More to the point, it seemed to be my only choice.

I walked back into the warm apartment building. Which was good. Now I could dry my hair and put myself together to look professional.

When I used the mirror to style my hair, I realized I'd never combed it that morning. A tangled mass of brown curls stuck out in every direction - as though I'd stuck my wet finger in a live socket, my grandmother would have said. The mirror also revealed the fact that I wore just one earring and I had forgotten a belt.

I searched my luggage for ten minutes for a belt and discovered he mate to my sapphire earring, all by itself in the middle of the bathroom counter. I was definitely going to have to remember to look carefully in the a mirror. Still, I left the apartment feeling much more in charge.

The bus change still sat on the dresser.

Fifteen minutes later, after a third trip to the apartment, I deposited my change in a crosstown bus farebox and clung to the pole, swaying with the motion of the bus, rigidly attentive to street signs. It was only a mile to Second Avenue, where I would transfer to a downtown bus. I was not going to miss that stop. "Second Avenue," I whispered fiercely to myself. "You want Second Avenue."

I made the transfer seamlessly and settled into my new bus seat, now relaxed. I watched the teenager across the aisle apply another coat of mascara. Her face as a kaleidoscope of color, buried under layers of beige pancake; cheeks of an improbably pink and eyes ringed with a violet that matched her jacket. The lipstick was a harmonizing fuchsia.

I licked my own lips, which were chapped. I wasn't much on makeup, but surely I must be wearing some. I wanted to look attractive. My fingers assessed the dryness of my face. No moisturizer. I felt a trickle of sweat roll down my side. Could I have actually forgotten deodorant? No makeup, maybe, but deodorant? It was part of showering. Still, this situation was vaguely familiar.

I ran over my notes again. After shower and dress came bagel and juice. My stomach growled. I was starving., so I must not have eaten the bagel. What if it was still in the kitchen, attracting roaches? Lori would kill me. I pushed my way toward the door and jumped off at the next stop.

The street signs read 14th Street and Second Avenue. Whoa, I was no where near that bagel. I sat down against a store wall and tried to collect myself. When my thoughts began to clear, I read my notes again. I was supposed to have gotten off the bus back at 24th Street and then walk a block east to First Avenue.

I still had enough time if I forgot about the bagel. Maybe it was still in the refrigerator. Maybe it never existed despite what the note said. Notes in my experience were often wrong. I didn't know why, but nothing in my life could be taken for granted anymore. I knew I was doing everything as usual, but here I was hungry and probably stinking as much as the old many dozing next to me. Go figure.

I rose and headed back up Second Avenue at a brisk pace. I should have skipped the buses and walked the whole route that morning. Exercise always made me feel better.

The traffic lights that decorated each Manhattan intersection frustrated me at every block. I would barely reach my stride before I had to stop at a crossing. As I reached 20th Street the light turned read against me. Again!

Ah, but the WALK signal lit up across Second Avenue and the person next to me quickly turned and headed toward Third. I followed, obeying the command - WALK. I swiftly overtook fellow pedestrians and made good progress till I caught a read light a Park Avenue.

Wait, what was I doing? I had faithfully read all the street signs, but their clear message that I was heading in the wrong direction hadn't registered. Somewhere I had forgotten that the point of this trip was no continuous motion, but reaching a destination. I was no longer early. I would have to hurry while maintaining course. That should be easy.

But would it? Success had such a random quality.

I was flushed, sweaty, and ragged when I arrived at the beige brick dental school on 24th Street, one of many undistinguished-looking buildings accommodating a sprawling New York University. I threaded my way through the crowded lobby to the elevator bank. When I stepped off at the eighth floor, I was a tad disheveled to be sure and, at a mile-per-hour speed, not your average marathon walker, but as I pushed open the door labeled HEAD TRAUMA PROGRAM, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, I glanced at my watch with grim satisfaction.

I was right on time.

Excerpted from Over My Head: A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out by Claudia Osborn, DO. Reprinted with permission. Third-party reprinting restricted. Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, 1988; Peripatetic Publishing, 1998. www.claudiaosborn.com.

Posted on BrainLine August 11, 2008.