The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Imagine for a moment, Nerdy Book Clubbers, that your reading world, one of your most cherished places, goes dark.

That became the reality last September for our oldest, a fourth grader and an avid reader, when she fell and hit her head on the school playground.  Tall, as she’s nicknamed, took an ambulance ride and had a CAT scan. ER staff pronounced it a minor concussion. The hospital issued a treatment plan: Rest. Ease back into school after a day or two.

Upon returning to school, it became pretty clear this was not a minor concussion. She couldn’t recall info that she knew. She was dizzy. But worst of all were the headaches, which were migraine-like with their pain and sensitivity to light and sound. I’ll never be able to shake the image of her walking into our room in the middle of the night, several weeks after the accident, in tears, clutching her head in clear agony. A child in horrible pain.

Her pediatrician, rightly, was very concerned and got us into a rehab specialist at the local Children’s Hospital. He quickly ordered an MRI, and fortunately concluded there was nothing to indicate permanent brain damage. His directive for healing, however, was complete brain rest until she felt better. No school.  No TV.  NO READING.  A whole lot of nothing sprinkled with doctors’ appointments as we tried to alleviate the headaches with chiropractors and osteopaths.

What does complete brain rest look like with a ten-year old? Baking, simple crafts and games, and thankfully audio books, which didn’t trigger headaches. She gobbled up Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson and Boston Jane by Jenni Holm, and was comforted by old friends like Judy Blume’s Peter and Fudge. Listening to books helped, but understandably she felt isolated from the things she loved like school, soccer, and reading on her own.

After six weeks, despite the rest, the headaches continued. We finally were directed to an eye doctor who specialized in brain injury rehabilitation. Keep in mind that Tall had no vision issues prior to the injury. Right away he declared her eyes nearly 20/20, but he noted that the brain and eyes were no longer working well together. Tests showed she was tracking like a kindergartner learning to read, bouncing from word to word, line to line, often with one eye doing this and the other doing that. She was seeing double of anything within three feet of her face. No wonder reading was such torture for her.

Quickly he got her into glasses to help with the focusing. The relief from headaches was almost instantaneous which meant we could slowly increase her time at school. She finally returned to full-time attendance ten weeks after the accident.  The doctor also started her on eye therapy, which now means weekly therapist visits and daily exercises at home to strengthen and improve the efficiency of her eyes.

But were we back to normal? After about a month or so of glasses, I noticed she still wasn’t reading for pleasure the way she used to, when you’d find her reading far past her bedtime, or curled up on the couch with a book.   Her face crumpled up in tears when I asked her about it. “It’s so hard, Mom. The words jump. They’re blurry. It’s so hard.” So clearly, things were better, but not perfect. My heart just broke as a mom, and as a reader.  We all knew there was still a lot of hard work ahead.

We talked to the doctor and he changed her prescription and some of her exercises. I became a “book talk” machine recommending dozens of books hoping that something would spark her interest and motivate her to keep trying to read, even though it was tough. She found and loved Apothecary by Maile Malloy and the May Amelia books by Jenni Holm.

We’re learning to rethink when and how reading time happens. More daytime reading, avoiding the evenings when her eyes are tired. More read alouds, giving her the pleasure without the fatigue. We recently finished Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan as a bedtime read-aloud. You could imagine the grin on my face as she begged me for more each night.

Seven months past the accident now, I am seeing signs of my old reader coming back slowly, but surely. Though therapy will continue for many more months, the doctor is happy with her progress to date. We’re still finding what the “new normal” will be for Tall, but I’m glad books were there to comfort her and eventually reignite her enjoyment of reading.

This time has made me think about my life as a reader. It’s just something that I do, without a lot of thought to the mechanics of it. But now I realize that the ability to read is a gift you don’t truly appreciate until it almost slips away. I urge you to take a moment to cherish the reading moments in your life.

Lorna is a former elementary teacher and proud mom to two Junior Nerdy Book Club members. You’ll find her blogging about her adventures with parenting, books, and cooking at Not For Lunch, or on Twitter @notforlunch.