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A Medical Miracle, a Friendship, and the Weird World of Tourette Syndrome
By James A. Fussell, Jeffrey P. Matovic
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 James A. Fussell and Jeffrey P. Matovic
All rights reserved.
Where's My Miracle?
"Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?"
— Thomas Jefferson
IN THE WINTER of 2004, in the features department of the Kansas City Star, I crawled under my messy, metal desk and began to sob. I didn't want to die. I just wasn't sure I had the strength to go on living. It was as if, when I wasn't looking, someone had reached into my chest and stolen all the hope out of my heart.
That's what Tourette Syndrome will do to you.
For forty years it had been a part of me, an evil puppet master forcing me to shake my head and twist my neck. And one dreary February morning, it simply overwhelmed me. The noises bouncing around the newsroom hit my head like a hammer. I wanted to disappear, to melt into the background. I slouched in my gray office chair and slowly began to sink. I had done this before. All the other times I caught myself and bolted upright. Not this time. I just ... kept ... going. Sliding off the front cushion of my chair, I plopped onto the coffee-stained carpet squares and pretended to look through some of my old stories that I kept on the floor in cardboard boxes. I liked the darkness and the snug feeling of protection. All of a sudden I was a child again, hiding in a fort, or under a blanket.
I was safe. But the feeling only lasted so long. In minutes the familiar urges to shake and move came back. I leaned over, resting my head against a stack of Sunday magazines, and closed my eyes until tears dripped from my short brown goatee. As a feature writer for nearly twenty years I couldn't count the number of times I had listened to other people pour out their problems — alcohol, drugs, depression, cancer, car accidents, financial ruin. The one constant was that everything always turned out for the best. There was a comfort to the form. The hurting person found a way to survive — even, in many cases, to prosper. I always felt good for them. I really did.
Except ... where was my miracle?
One day I was just going to snap. And all it would take was three little words.
"How are you?" someone would ask at just the wrong time, and that would do it. I'd spin them around as they walked past.
"How am I?" I'd say, breathing a little too hard. "Not very good, thanks. I got two hours' sleep last night on top of one the night before. I feel like I'm carrying a three-hundred-pound man on my shoulders. My neck is on fire, and being stabbed by a thousand tiny ice picks. I'm so tired I can barely stand up, I can't remember my computer password, and I couldn't tell you what I wrote yesterday if you threatened to boil me in oil. My head is shaking, my neck is twisting, my stomach is tightening, and I worry that one of these mornings one of the monstrously hard head shakes I never let you see will finally jar something loose in my brain, and I'll pitch forward in my oatmeal and that'll be it for me. But thanks for asking. How are you?"
But then that would be wrong, wouldn't it?
Usually I just say I'm fine.
Back under my desk I shook my head so hard I banged my dollar-store reading glasses into the side of a metal drawer, mangling them into a shape that no longer fit my face. I took them off and tried to bend the flimsy metal frame back to something resembling straight.
A plastic lens fell out of the right side and wouldn't snap back in. Whatever, I thought. It was a perfect metaphor for my life. Bent up and broken, unable to be fixed. That's what more than forty years of Tourette Syndrome had done to me.
That also was the great irony of my life: the man who wrote about other people's happy endings who couldn't find one for himself.
Or could I?
As I sat hopeless and crying under my desk, there was something I didn't know. I didn't know that halfway across the country, at roughly the same time, a Cleveland neurosurgeon was pointing a spinning drill bit at a patient's head. I didn't know that he and another doctor had taken months to plot an elegant route through that patient's malfunctioning brain. And I certainly didn't know that patient was about to change my life in ways no one could have foreseen.
But he was.
And all I had to do was hang on long enough to find him.CHAPTER 2
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear"
— Ambrose Redmoon
University Hospitals, Cleveland, Ohio. February 9, 2004, 9:30 AM.
The surgical-grade bone drill gave a throaty wail as its razor-sharp bit spun up to speed inches above Jeff Matovic's head. He knew its job; bore holes in his skull — two of them, nickel-sized, stopping just short of his brain.
Strapped to a padded operating table, head immobilized in a V-shaped titanium halo, the thirty-one-year-old closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He focused on the good things — his world-class doctors, the possibility of a new life, and the opportunity to advance research and make medical history. Sure, the operation had never worked on someone like him. But there was always a first time. Besides, he reminded himself, he'd asked for this. Begged for it.
No, risky, groundbreaking, quarter-million-dollar brain surgery wasn't something to dread. It was a second chance at life. And even if it didn't help him, he thought, maybe it would help someone else — later.
For three decades the six-foot-five Cleveland man struggled with a worsening case of the baffling movement disorder Tourette Syndrome. Sharp, repetitive, involuntary muscle spasms caused him to jerk like a mishandled marionette. There was no cure. No escape. Over thirty years, if he'd learned one thing about his condition it was this: severe Tourette's didn't kill you, it just made you wish you were dead.
He had tried prayer, pharmacies full of medications, even suicide. Now, staring into a bank of white-hot lights, he had one last hope.
Try for a miracle.
He dreamed of doing the little things other people took for granted — walking, talking, or holding blissfully still while doing absolutely nothing. He envisioned being well and getting the last laugh on every classless jackass who ever teased him, doubted him, or made his already hard life just a little harder.
At the same time he also remembered his maternal grandpa. He could still see the compassion in the old man's eyes when — unable to fight back an avalanche of tics — the tortured teen would begin to cry. His grandpa never told him to stop. Instead he'd remove his glasses and sob alongside the grandchild he so loved but couldn't fix.
"Jeff," he'd say, wiping his eyes. "I promise you they're going to find something someday."
Maybe, Jeff thought, that someday is today. But even he knew the odds were against him.
Years ago his mother had asked him a question: "What do you want out of your life?"
"Mom," he said. "I've had this so long that I really don't care that much about me anymore. I just want other people to be OK. I want kids like me to be able to go through grade school and not be made fun of. I want people to be able to walk through a mall or a street or a strip plaza and not have to worry about who's looking at them."
Weeks before surgery, he thought about that conversation as he wrote a letter to his doctors.
"Whatever happens in surgery," he told them, "whether I make it or not, I authorize you to audio tape, videotape, or use anything you can from this to help others."
In the waiting room his parents prayed their son would just make it through the operation alive.
Back on the operating table Jeff glanced to the side, past a blue surgical hood covering his head, to see a familiar face sporting gray hair, light green scrubs, and a gold chain. "How ya doing, doc?" he said, greeting his neurosurgeon.
"Doing fine," his surgeon said. "How are you doing?"
"I'm doing great," Jeff said, managing a smile. "Let's get this show under way."
Doctors had given him a local anesthetic and marked two spots, four inches apart, on his closely shaved head where the holes would be drilled (clearly). Unlike other surgeries, this one required him to be awake so he could give critical feedback to doctors as they implanted two electrodes deep in his brain.
The procedure was not new. It had helped patients with Parkinson's, dystonia, and essential tremor. But Tourette's was more complex, its vexing variety of symptoms nowhere near as well understood. The surgery was more than experimental. By all accounts, using a brain stimulator to try to interrupt the misfiring signals of Tourette Syndrome was a medical Hail Mary.
Maybe that's why no doctor had ever recommended it, or told him it had much of a chance to work. Worse, the operation wasn't even approved for Tourette's and carried risks of serious complications including stroke, paralysis, blindness — and death. The chance of death was small, less than 1 percent. But taken together, the risk of serious complications topped 20 percent.
Jeff didn't care. The way he saw it, he didn't have a choice. Enduring more in a day than many did in a lifetime, he'd lost interest in making it though one hellish day just to face another.
The drill wailed again.
Breathe, he told himself.
Louder now. It crept toward him.
This is what you wanted. This is your time.
He felt the bit tap against the top of his skull.
"Hold on with me, Jeff," his surgeon yelled over the racket. "You're going to feel a lot of pressure now."
As he saw little white bits of bone fly past his face, it felt like someone had dropped a house on his head. He closed his eyes as his body trembled, and he balled his hands into fists.
Hail Mary, full of grace.CHAPTER 3
Umm ... Are You Taking My Clothes off?
FOURTEEN YEARS BEFORE Tourette's drove me under my desk and caused Jeff to beg doctors to bore into his brain, I stood in the middle of a nine-floor atrium in McLean, Virginia, wondering if it was illegal to be naked in the lobby of a Hilton hotel.
I know. What does one have to do with the others?
In many ways this is where my part of the story starts. My wife, Susan, and I attended the 1990 National Conference of the Tourette Syndrome Association as delegates from Kansas City. This is where I first really learned about Tourette's — and myself. More important, it is a key link in the chain of events that got me my job in the features department of the Kansas City Star, which led me to a face-to-face meeting with Oprah Winfrey, which led me to Jeff and the improbable miracles that helped change my life.
And it all started with a slender brunette in a little black dress.
"I'm Jennifer," she said, kissing me softly on my cheek. "And I have to do this."
Working quickly she unbuttoned my shirt to my navel, then pressed her cold hand flat against my warm chest.
A lot goes through your mind when a beautiful stranger suddenly starts unbuttoning your shirt. On the one hand, it was sexy as hell. On the other, it was sad. Her hands said one thing; her eyes quite another.
I smiled nervously and looked around for my wife.
"This is embarrassing," Jennifer said, yanking my shirttail out of my trousers as if trying to start a pull-cord lawn mower. "But you've got to understand. It's just what I do."
You ... molest people? I thought.
"I can't help it," she said in a small voice. "I just can't help it."
I knew that. None of the people I met that day could help it. Tourette's is like a tornado that rages through your body. It leaves behind a debris field of unwanted movements and bizarre behaviors. They crop up in the most amazing ways; in tics and twitches, outbursts and compulsions, and — in the most extreme form — in Jeff Matovic's unendurable spasms.
The conference offered information, education, and support. But now, it seemed, I was the entertainment. A group of onlookers who knew Jennifer liked to unbutton things was now deriving great pleasure from seeing her unbutton me. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I didn't even shake. I just froze like a semi-naked statue. As I stood there Jennifer moved to my left and applied breathy butterfly kisses to my check and neck. As I grew progressively unclothed, more people began to stare. I knew I had to stop her, but it was getting hard to think. I held up my right index finger as I searched for a word, but all that came out was "Uhhh."
Jennifer was in her early twenties and quite attractive. I was in my early thirties and quite married. I scanned the crowd, looking for a strawberry blonde head of hair — always the easiest way to spot my wife.
Oh God, I thought. What's Susie going to think of this?
Then I remembered. It was almost ten, and she had gone back up to the room to rest.
So far I had met a handful of people with varying types and severities of Tourette's. One of my favorites was Bob, a young man with wire-rimmed glasses and curly black hair who looked like he'd swallowed a Michelin truck tire. Every few seconds Bob would fling his right arm out and flick his wrist as if shooting an imaginary foul shot. Recently diagnosed with Tourette's, he had driven ten-straight hours to get to the conference.
That night we traded stories until after midnight in the hotel bar. We'd talk, then Bob would pause to take a shot.
It was nice. I even took a couple of shots myself.
Bob didn't mind.
The people in the bar — and I include myself in this — reminded me a bit of the famous cantina scene in the original Star Wars. It was there, at the spaceport of Mos Eisley, that moviegoers first learned of the odd and startling collection of characters that lived in that galaxy. It was the same feeling for me as I learned about the equally odd and startling collection of characters who struggled with Tourette Syndrome.
In one corner, a dark-haired man wearing a Yankees cap sat at a table and slapped himself repeatedly in the face. After every slap he'd readjust his cap, which he'd knocked cockeyed on his head. Then he'd say "I dare you to do that again!"
Vibrating like an unbalanced washer, he'd grimace and stare straight ahead as if fighting off his inner demons before exploding with another slap to his face. When a friend joined him at the table, the man reached out, as if in desperation, to grasp his hand. He held on tightly with his slapping hand and didn't let go. After that, the slapping stopped.
In another corner, a woman with long curly hair the color of strained peaches seemed oddly fascinated by the game Duck, Duck, Goose. She shook and twitched like I did, only worse. When her head snapped, her shoulder-length hair flew as if she were in a wind tunnel. Then she'd go into her rap.
"Duck, duck, GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO — SE," she'd say, yelling the goose part as loudly as she could. As she did she turned her gaze to the ceiling like a wolf howling at a full moon.
Then there were the people who swore. You heard it intermittently throughout the hotel, usually forced out as if the words were breaking out of some sort of linguistic prison. Fuck and fucker were the most common, although cocksucker wasn't far behind. Sometimes people would shout the words repeatedly, almost musically, as they bobbed their head. Some got pretty good at it, and I came to respect their sense of timing and rhythm. Other times the profanities came unbidden in the middle of an otherwise normal conversation, such as the one I had with a nattily dressed man with a Middle Eastern accent.
"Hi, how are you?" he said, catching my eye at a reception in the lobby.
"Fine, thanks," I responded. "You?"
"Good. Can't complain."
"I'm Jim," I said, extending my hand. "I'm from Kansas City."
"I'm John, and I'm from — YOU FUCKING COCKSUCKER! — Chicago."
I think that's why I stuck close to Bob. I was still new to this more intense form of Tourette's. And after being undressed, cursed at, and watching people hit themselves in the face, a man who shot free throws seemed a little more my speed.
When I had to go, Bob thanked me for the conversation.
"You don't know how it is to have felt so weird all these years, like you're the only one who does these strange things," he said.
I wrenched my neck hard to the right and blinked my eyes.
"Then again," he said, "I guess you do."
Excerpted from Ticked by James A. Fussell, Jeffrey P. Matovic. Copyright © 2013 James A. Fussell and Jeffrey P. Matovic. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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