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Moving forward with no past

Sun., April 2, 2006

Somewhere on a quiet stretch of Alaskan highway, Barry J. Lehinger’s past vanished.

When a sport utility vehicle tumbled from the roadside nearly two years ago, it jarred loose the collected memories of Barry: the name of his sister; the death of an uncle; the details of a first date; in short, the bulk of memories acquired during more than three decades of life.

“All I can do is support him,” said his longtime girlfriend, Wendy Darnold, 38. “I ask him what he remembers about us. He says, ‘I remember I love you.’ “

On May 15, 2004, Barry suffered a traumatic brain injury, the result of his brain slamming against his skull as a vehicle driven by a co-worker crashed outside a tiny Alaska town. After weeks of recovery at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he returned to his old life in Spokane – a life suddenly and irretrievably rendered foreign.

Some memories slowly came back. Others were more difficult to recover.

Barry had a dog, a lumbering Rottweiler, but he couldn’t remember when he got him. He didn’t recognize his sister, who is hearing impaired, but he remained fluent in sign language. He retained a caustic sense of humor but rarely laughed.

Even life’s mundane details became clouded.

“I’m 36 years old,” he said one day. “It’s 2007.”

“No,” Wendy said quietly, “it’s 2006.”

“Oh, it is?” Barry said thoughtfully. “I thought for sure it was 2007.”

This is the life of Barry Lehinger – former health care worker, soulful writer and accomplished musician.

Each day, with sarcasm and anger and confusion, he confronts a baffling question: What if everything you thought you knew was suddenly thrown into doubt?

The accident

Two years ago, an aging Dodge Ram pulled onto the Steese Highway as Saturday afternoon gave way to the Alaska evening.

Barry rode in the passenger seat. David L. Park, then 42, drove the scenic highway, which runs along the Chatanika River in central Alaska. Neither man wore a seat belt, according to police.

Barry had left for Alaska in October to take a construction job. In Spokane, Wendy began selling off her belongings so she could join him that spring.

That afternoon, the two men planned to go gold panning – a popular diversion in Chatanika and not an entirely fruitless one, either. From the 1920s to the 1950s, more than $70 million in gold was taken from the area, and it remains popular with weekend prospectors.

Though there were no witnesses, the Ram apparently failed to negotiate a slight curve and rolled several times and landed on its roof. No other cars were involved.

At 7:08 p.m., a passing driver called police.

Barry was quickly transferred to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, the region’s hub for trauma. Wendy received a phone call the next morning.

For 46 minutes, the flow of oxygen to Barry’s brain had been restricted. He went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated – twice. A ventilator helped him breathe. He had a cut on his lip and bruises on his left ear.

If he survives, a nurse told Wendy, he may never walk or speak again.

“I went out there blindly,” Wendy said. “I didn’t know what it meant to have a brain injury.”

Wendy wasn’t ready to give up. Her thoughts flashed back to the tall, intelligent Barry – the man she met when they both worked at Holy Family Hospital more than five years ago.

He was a nurse’s aide; she cleaned rooms. It wasn’t glamorous work. But Barry loved his patients, and Wendy’s schedule allowed her to be home for her daughter after school.

On weekends, Barry drummed in a band.

In the fall of 2003, Barry took a construction job working with his father. The pay was excellent, Wendy said, and she planned to join him the following spring.

Before Barry left for Alaska, he and Wendy had a long discussion about their plans for the future.

In the aftermath of the accident, Wendy wasn’t ready to accept that those plans were gone.

For days, Wendy sat at Barry’s bedside at the hospital in Seattle, waiting for him to emerge from a coma and heavy sedation. One day, Barry raised a splinted hand to her face and brushed away the tears.

“I thought, ‘Did that just happen?’ ” Wendy said.

Through the next 18 months of rehabilitation and therapy, she would be his lifeline.

Meanwhile, at the hospital in Fairbanks, Park was released after being treated for a broken ankle. He has been charged with driving under the influence, and this spring, he’ll go to trial for second-degree reckless driving.

No one knows if Barry had been drinking. He doesn’t remember; since he wasn’t driving, police didn’t check his blood alcohol content.

The Fairbanks public defender did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Barry and Wendy have been subpoenaed to testify. But Barry can’t remember how – or why – he got in the vehicle.

The aftermath

The accident thrust Barry and Wendy into poverty.

Today, they survive on disability payments and Wendy’s income as Barry’s caregiver. The state pays her about $2,000 a month to care for Barry. For round-the-clock care, Wendy figures, that pencils out to less than $3 an hour.

“Who decides these things?” Wendy asked. “What do they know about a brain injury?”

Barry’s insurance through the carpenter’s union covered his medical bills. But because the driver didn’t carry insurance and no other cars were involved, an attorney told Wendy they would be unable to receive a settlement from the accident.

Wendy is afraid to leave Barry alone. Without supervision, he forgets to turn off the stove. When he fell one night, he was unable to get up from the floor and spent the night there. Because of nerve damage to his leg, he struggles to move around their apartment, even with help from his walker.

Barry wants to return to school and work in health care. He longs to drive a stick shift and drum in a band. But his future is uncertain.

“The hardest part for a patient is for them to accept who they are,” said Dr. Karen Stanek, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “You have a few miracles, but the majority of these patients never fully recover. They will never be the person they were before (the injury).”

In traumatic brain injuries, people may appear completely coherent. They may retain some decades-old memories but be unable to remember what they had for breakfast. They may be able to memorize specific items – like strings of numbers – but struggle to express emotion or control their anger.

“There’s a lot he remembers, but there’s a lot that’s lost,” Barry’s mother, Ky, said. “There’s no rhyme or reason.”

When Barry’s sister came to visit, Barry immediately started using sign language.

“He leaned over to Wendy and said, ‘Who’s that lady?’ ” his mother said. “He remembered that he needed to sign to his sister, but he didn’t remember who she was.”

The crash profoundly affected Barry’s short-term memory. Once, Barry found himself stuck in the car as Wendy ran inside a store for a few minutes. Barry had to urinate, so he relieved himself in Wendy’s coffee cup. By the time Wendy returned to the car, Barry had forgotten what he’d done.

“It’s reality,” Wendy said, managing a laugh. “That’s our life.”

Barry is good with numbers. He memorized his phone number and his address, though sometimes he needs prompting. He remembers his post office box number from Alaska, but he can’t remember living there.

Each day, in his notepad, he tracks the number of steps he has taken with his walker.

“I’d rather not have this scar on my belly, and I’d rather not have this goddamn stick,” Barry said, referring to the walker sitting in front of him. “Nineteen thousand eight hundred and thirty right steps on this goddamn stumble stick.”

When asked why he tracks his steps with the walker, he replied defensively, “Because I want to know.” He speaks with an authority that ends the line of questioning.

“Sometimes,” Wendy said, “I see a glimpse of him – that feistiness, that will to walk.”

But between those fleeting glimpses, in that space and time where Barry and Wendy live out their lives, so much of Barry is gone.

“It’s almost as if I live with someone who’s died,” Wendy said.

At night in bed, at the gym on the treadmill, in those moments she has to herself, Wendy wonders: Is Barry gone? Or has he simply shed his old life and emerged as someone new?

The future

Sometimes, as quick as the memories come, they are gone – like trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue.

In a slanting left-handed script, Barry records the thoughts that slip in and out of his consciousness like a breeze through a screen door. In cryptic sentences, he writes about the smell of cigars, the stick shift in his old Mazda truck, the cancer that killed his Uncle Joe.

“Nobody CATCHES cancer,” he wrote on one page. “Joe was SHOCKED. What did he do? Forty-three or so years of cigarettes. Tiny little things.”

As long as Wendy has known him, Barry has had a fine grasp of language. When he worked in the advanced care unit at the hospital, he wrote passionately and humorously about his patients.

In a poignant essay on the sudden death of one patient, he wrote of holding the elderly man’s hand as the man died of heart failure. Barry was shocked that the minor rhythms of the heart could “dramatically alter the storybook scenario we start out with.”

Today, the injury can mask that tender, caring side of Barry. He can be quick to lash out in anger.

When Wendy mentions that sometimes she needs a break from her role as a caregiver, Barry shoots back, “Why do you need a break? I asked you a question. Why do you need a break?”

When Wendy says Barry has grown accustomed to the walker but would rather do without it, Barry says, “That’s some deep thinking on your part.”

Wendy reminds herself: That’s the brain injury, not Barry.

But it takes its toll on her. She has a teenage daughter to raise. Wendy has abandoned her job to care for a man who may never fully recover.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you put him in a home?’ ” Wendy said. “But I just can’t imagine doing that.”

Barry grows angry at any discussion of a nursing home.

“I will live by myself before I go into a goddamn bedroom building,” he said.

Most days, Barry sits in his recliner, drinks cup upon cup of green tea and listens to the Beatles and Frank Zappa.

Once a week, Wendy drives him to therapy where he practices balancing without his walker. She makes his meals, sets out his medications, reads his notebook.

She keeps trying to pry loose his memories. Seven years – where did they go?

“I try to reminisce with him, but he doesn’t really remember our relationship. You want to hear that there’s going to be a miracle. … I don’t know. I can see how much he wants to be the man he was,” Wendy said, her voice breaking. “I love him, but I miss him.”

In the end, Barry is left with the few things he knows for certain.

He knows the accident in Alaska forever changed the landscape of his life. He knows he belongs in the small apartment in north Spokane, with Wendy and her daughter and his dog, and nowhere else.

More than anything, Barry knows he loves Wendy.

It’s just that some days, it’s so hard to remember why.


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