Hidden Damage

The insurance company claimed that Sunserea McClelland's problems were all in her head. She knew better. But would a jury believe her?

Compared with some closed-head injuries, McClelland's is a mild one. To a casual observer, her speech, coordination and general comportment seem quite normal. But testing reveals a wide range of cognitive problems, evidence of serious damage to the underside of the frontal and temporal lobes -- areas of the brain that control memory, number skills, judgment, concentration, the ability to multi-task and a host of other functions essential to everyday life.

The epilepsy presents a further complication. Most cases of epilepsy, a condition that disrupts the normal electrical activity in the brain and causes seizures, have no known cause. Spitz estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the cases result from a specific trauma, such as a car accident, and in those, the seizures may not start until months after the trauma; the epilepsy is a by-product of a faulty healing process rather than the blow itself. (Studies of head-injured war veterans, Spitz notes, indicate that there may also be a genetic component that helps determine which cases develop into epilepsy.) As the body seeks to repair areas of damaged brain cells, new interconnections are formed that can alter the usual balance between excitatory and inhibitory impulses in the brain. In a sense, the brain becomes overheated; a seizure is the result.

"Think of the wildfires in the mountains," Spitz suggests. "This begins in one region, where you have a few cells with too many excitatory inputs, too many sparks. It's healed in an aberrant way, which allows this abnormal activity to take place. A fire breaks out. Then it spreads."

 
John Johnston
 
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.
John Johnston
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.

In time, McClelland's seizures are brought under control with medication. Other effects of the injury seem to have no remedy. Her family doesn't need the doctors' battery of tests to know that McClelland's cognitive skills have deteriorated. They can see her life spiraling into chaos.

Three months after the accident, McClelland gets into an argument with her supervisor at the auto-glass shop about her erratic performance and ends up quitting her job. She has trouble finding another one. Her mother drops by her apartment and is shocked by what she sees. Of all her children, she'd always felt closest to Sunserea; she admired her optimism, her high energy, the keen sense of organization that allowed her to work three jobs, dote on her kids and still keep her home immaculate. Now all that seems to have disappeared overnight.

"The place was a wreck," Janet Morgan recalls. "Dirty clothes piled around. A tower of dirty dishes. And she was buying things impulsively. She bought a puppy because she felt lonely. She didn't even have money for food at the time. She couldn't understand why I was so angry about it."

Morgan persuades her daughter to move in with her and her husband. For several months, Morgan struggles to find ways to ease Sunserea's burden, but even the simplest tasks often prove frustrating. She washes the same clothes over and over, cleans the same room over and over. She takes two hours to fix a relish tray, forgets to cook enough food to feed everyone in the house. Minding more than one pan on the stove at a time is a strain.

"It got to the point where, if the smoke detector went off, Josh would say, 'Dinner's ready,'" McClelland recalls.

Far more troubling, Morgan says, is the shift in her daughter's personality. The old Sunserea used to play games with her children, spend hours with them working on their homework. The person who moves in with her is irritable, impatient, unable to cope with background noise or family get-togethers. She can't concentrate on a movie or a book, can't help her son with elementary math problems. She yells at her kids, weeps, retreats to her room with agonizing headaches. Who is this woman?

"It was like having to learn to love a different person," Morgan says. "It was painful. And it was devastating to her, because she didn't understand what was happening."

Brain researchers often point to the case of Phineas Gage as a dramatic example of how a brain injury can affect personality. A railroad foreman, Gage had a long metal rod driven completely through his skull by a blasting mishap in 1848. Except for the loss of an eye, Gage was seemingly left intact by the freak accident. But for the rest of his life, the formerly upright Gage behaved in an entirely scandalous manner; the rod had torn up the moral compass in his frontal lobes. He used profanity freely, cheated his friends and otherwise thumbed his nose at social convention. He was, in short, a completely different person.

No one mourns the changes in McClelland more than her older sister, Shannon Disheroon. Before the accident, the two had been particularly close. Sunserea used to love to hear Shannon sing gospel; now it's just noise to her. And Sunserea's prior social skills have been disrupted by impulsiveness and what psychiatrists call "disinhibition"; Shannon is startled to hear her sister blurt out inappropriate sexual remarks, for example, or make a crude comment about someone's weight.

"I shared a bed with Sunserea for the first fifteen years of my life," she says. "I knew her like the back of my hand, as well as one sister can know another. And the person I know died that day. Our relationship is not the same at all."

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