• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— An MRI and an EEG administered in the years after Jeff's bowling alley fall show his brain to be normal and healthy, which confirms Schweller's diagnosis.

Schweller has been treating Jeff for about six months now and is proceeding cautiously. "If we can get him off his medication, it may help to get a closure to this. But at this point I'm reluctant to make that sort of a change. We need to talk about a plan. It's not uncommon to have a convulsion from the medication being withdrawn, and that's confusing" for the patient. To wean him from the anti-convulsives could take as long as five years.

"Jeff's story is so interesting because it involves such an evolution in how we have viewed medicine over the past 30 years," Schweller says, who calls himself a "dinosaur" who trained on the first CT-scan machine in the country and went through medical school before most of today's advanced technological tools were developed.

"[Jeff's original doctors] got so excited about the abnormality of the EEG," Schweller says about Jeff's experience. "The most important thing is the clinical presentation of the seizure," but the doctors in 1964 trusted their machines more than themselves.

"He came along at a time in life when a lot more emphasis was placed on electroencephalograms and a lot fewer medicines were used. In the past, when one had seizures or an abnormality in the EEG, there was a belief you were doomed to have mental retardation and end up in an institution. Although that does happen, if you're not constantly reassessing how your patient is performing, you may be misled.

"When you have someone with several medications that tend to sedate them, you may get a misinterpretation that their subdued nature is due to mental retardation rather than medication. This apparently is what happened to this young fellow."

Like many patients in today's managed-care plans, patients in the military medical system often see different doctors over the course of their treatment, Schweller points out. "When these diagnoses are made early on in an individual's life, it becomes very difficult to change them. The next person who's doing the care then tends to say, 'This is the diagnosis; I trust this more than what I'm seeing,' and continues to proliferate the same mistakes."

Schweller says Jeff has average or above-average intelligence. But his transition back into society is going to be difficult. Jeff knows this too. "Somebody who's 34 and hasn't held a job?" Jeff asks rhetorically. "Nobody wants to take the chance and hire you. They figure something must be wrong."

Once a person has been labeled with a disability or illness in his medical records, Schweller says, "It's like trying to change your trw [credit rating]. That's why they came to me."

At the same time, now that he's recovering, Jeff's disability payments -- around $638 a month -- are increasingly in doubt.

But Schweller is optimistic about Jeff's ability to adjust. "He doesn't feel that he's disabled. Many individuals who survive a trauma like this take the path of becoming very withdrawn and depressed. But others become angry and want to tell their story and be more open so people can understand their problem. That's the way he seems to be. He clearly is able to do more for himself than anybody thought."

Jeff has passed through the worst of the withdrawal. "It's supposed to be something like a person trying to get off these illegal drugs," Jeff says. His father, Bob, adds, "His face would twist up like he was going into a stroke. His head would go to one side."

Jeff has educated himself about the pills that once ruled his life. He can tick off dosages to the last milligram and recite the side effects he suffered. He realizes now that for ten years he was technically near death from taking too much Dilantin.

Jeff also suffered through the '60s version of special education, where teachers yelled in students' ears and held strong-smelling substances under their noses to stimulate them. Jeff was declared asthmatic and autistic; he suffered from a host of drug-induced ailments, including chronic diarrhea, inflamed sinuses, inflamed hemorrhoids, and tonsils swollen so large they blocked his ear canals, which filled with fluid and caused temporary hearing loss (it was restored after the canals were drained).

Most of his symptoms have abated now that the medication has been reduced.

"They stole his life," Bob Olsen says now. "They took away his childhood, they took away his teens, they took away his young adulthood. By the time he gets off all this, he'll be going into middle age. They say get a life -- what life? He still has to learn and get out; he should have been married now and had children and a promising career. That's why we've been trying to find help for Jeff. Nobody wants to do anything, nobody wants to get involved."

Bob Olsen, 66, retired from the postal service, jokes that he'll "have to live until I'm 106 to make sure Jeff gets a fair shake. I don't drink alcohol or smoke or take illegal drugs. I have to stay in shape." His three other sons have their own lives and careers.

Legally, the Olsens have been rebuffed in efforts to sue the government for restitution. Most recently, on February 3 of this year, Southern District federal Judge Irma E. Gonzalez granted the government's motion for summary judgment against the Olsens, in effect throwing out their claim against the government. The judge ruled it was invalid because it had been filed after the two-year statute of limitations for tort claims against the government.

Dr. Schrock, who practices at Sharp Memorial Hospital, counsels patients who are coping with the aftermath of brain injuries. She warned that someone who has been through an experience like Jeff's is likely to face significant emotional adjustments.

"Although this is wonderful news," Schrock says, "months down the road it may be a little hard to deal with. You can't change overnight that little Polaroid snapshot of yourself that is who you are. It's an identity crisis. He'll have an identity crisis. He'll need to adjust that snapshot to be current.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment