A Fractured Skull, a Lost Sense of Smell, and a New Job
Can’t Take It With You #5: Rachel Bailey, Death-Skirting Optimist
This summer, my friend Rachel Bailey was working as a waitress in Athens, Ga., doing social media for some restaurants, writing when she could, but not as much as she wanted—just scraping by in a town where it’s easy, sometimes even fun, to just scrape by. But she wasn’t having fun. She’d been out of college a few years and had imagined something more for her 20s. She was feeling anxious, stagnant and just generally crappy about life. And then she hit her head in a piggybacking accident and almost died. And then things got better.
Rachel lost her sense of smell and is still slogging through (and mourning) that and a host of other cognitive side effects that may or may not sort themselves out in a year or so. But the accident also pulled her out of a rut she already knew she’d been wallowing in too long. In a roundabout way, it landed her a new job, a full-time position as a special events coordinator at a nonprofit in Athens (her first salaried position, which is great because she might soon have a hefty hospital bill to pay if her insurance company doesn’t play nice).
But things nearly turned out quite badly. Rachel initially delayed going to the hospital because she didn’t have a car and was weary of bumming rides from friends, and though she had insurance, she wasn’t sure what care it would cover. A good bit of brain-bleeding helped in these rationalizations, of course, but this really points to how our feelings about money and money-adjacent issues, which are so tied up in pride and self-respect, can filter down into matters of life and death.
Before Rachel and I talked on the phone recently, I already had a sense that she was optimistic to an above-average degree. But since the accident, it’s just off the charts.
“I’m less anxious and more secure in my relationships with people and more aware of my value as a member of my community and as a friend,” she told me. “If the price I have to pay to gain that is that I had this accident, I just feel like the calculus works out in my favor in such an enormous way.”
It’s enough to make me want to go out and crack my own skull! Agh, no, I am kidding. Very kidding. Most likely a brain injury will make your life worse not better and if you think you have a concussion—here are the signs—please seek medical attention ASAP. If you don’t think you have a concussion, read on.
Maybe the best place to start would be for you to tell me what happened.
I think it was the first Friday in August, which I think was August 1st. I went downtown, I had a cocktail with my friend, then was supposed to go a couple blocks away and meet my friend Laura at a dance party. People always ask me, “How much alcohol was involved?” But I think it was literally one cocktail. I ran into Laura on the street and we were excited to see each other so I jumped into her arms, sort of reverse piggyback-style, and she starts running. I’m clinging to her like a baby monkey. I’m about to say, “Put me down! I don’t feel like this is going to end well!” She’s going, “Yeah! Unnh! This is my Pure Barre body! Look at me go!” And then she falls forward. And we land on my head.
I don’t know why I’m this way—you will learn as I tell you this story what a ridiculous human I was about this accident—but I was like, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” I’m sitting there on the sidewalk trying to recover and there’s this group of very drunk people that come up to us and they’re like, “Count to ten! You don’t have a concussion, you can count to ten. You’ll be fine!” So we get up and start walking back toward my house. We get halfway there and I feel like I have to sit down. This guy who we know who’s a Navy medic happens to be at the bar where I take a knee, and he gives me the field concussion test. I’m following his finger with my eyes and he’s having me say the months of the year backwards as fast as I can, and I’m knocking them all out of the park. He’s like, “You’re fine! You’re fine! You don’t have a concussion!”
I never played sports, so I had no idea what a concussion looks like. I was like, “I’m upright, I didn’t pass out, I can remember everything that happened. I just want to believe that I’m fine.” And then I immediately start throwing up. And then I still go home! That’s just textbook head injury! You are not OK when you start barfing right after you hit your head. I come home and I go to bed. All the things you’re not supposed to do, right?
My roommate is out of town so I’m home alone. It feels like I have a migraine, so I just kind of lay here and sleep. I wake up on Saturday morning and I have the biggest shiner I’ve ever seen on a person in my right eye. It turns out that all the blood from the ripped vein somehow drained into my right eye socket. For some reason I thought it would be appropriate to post a selfie of my black eye on Facebook. On Saturday my dad calls and he’s like, “Are you feeling OK?” Good ol’ dad style. And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine!” And he goes, “OK, well I hope you feel better!” and hangs up. So my mom—I guess she must have seen it too, but she calls me that Sunday morning and at this point it’s been about almost 36 hours since the accident. And she’s like, “Why are you the stupidest person? How are you not at the hospital? What the fuck is wrong with you? Did I raise you? You’re going to the hospital right now.”
So I called my friend Laura, the one I had the accident with, and she drove me over there. And they gave me a CT scan and told me that I almost died—that if it had been an arterial bleed instead of a vein, I wouldn’t have survived the night. And they kept me overnight for observation in the neurological wing and they gave me some morphine, which was fun. And that’s the weekend that I broke my skull.
Oh my god. I didn’t realize so much time had passed between when you did it and when you went to the hospital.
Yeah, and the fucked up thing is, I was lying in bed that Saturday night and something came over me and I was like, “I know that I am bleeding in my head. I know I am.” And I still didn’t go to the hospital.
Because you were bleeding in your head! The reason you didn’t go is because you had a brain injury!
My judgement was all off. I think for at least half an hour I was just laying there going, “Uuughhhhh!” But I don’t have a car, and I know this sounds so ridiculous, but I’ve had to ask people for so much help over the last year and a half with not having a car. I could not stomach calling to ask someone for help or admitting that I needed medical attention. I don’t know how I did it, though, because the pain was so much.
I was wondering whether you had health insurance and if that might have kept you from going to the hospital.
Actually, I do have health insurance. I just got it through Obamacare in February. I still thought it would cost a bunch of money—that was my main concern. But [my provider] is currently in talks with the hospital I went to, the Athens Regional Medical Center, because they don’t have a contract with ARMC and so they’re trying not to pay it even though the standard for health insurance is that emergency room visits are exempt from that kind of consideration. So I’m just kind of in this limbo of whether or not I’m going to have to foot an $11,000 hospital bill. But the hospital has a program for low-income people, so I’ve also applied for financial aid through them. But I have to wait—I have to go through Medicaid and have them deny me coverage before the hospital will consider me for charity relief. I have absolutely no idea what my financial burden for the whole thing is gonna be.
What’s going to happen if you have to pay the bill?
That’s a pretty anxiety-ridden question for me, but I have a lot of confidence that I’m going to be able to work it out. Worse case scenario is they’re like, “You’re responsible for every penny of this.” I already owe many tens of thousands of dollars for my education. The income level that I’ve had since I got out of school is not very far above poverty. I’ve said to myself, “OK, I have this many thousands of dollars of debt now. It’s pretty much all imaginary, in a sense. I’m still able to live well, so I’m just going to have to accept the idea that I’m going to pile another $11,000 on there.” I don’t at all mean to be flippant about it or seem too comfortable with it, because I think it’s a big deal and it weighs on me heavily. But if I can survive with $30,000 of debt I can survive with $41,000, you know? That’s just the best answer I’ve been able to come up with for myself.
It might even be better if my insurance refuses to pay, because then the hospital might wipe the whole slate clean. Whereas if the insurance pays I’ll still have a $2,600 deductible that I have to cover. It’s those kinds of things that make me, like, “Everything’s fine!” Because somehow, the worse case scenario—insurance won’t cover it—might wind up being the best case scenario, which is that the hospital forgives the whole debt.
At what point did they tell you how serious the injury was? Or maybe a better question is, when did you realize how serious it was, like, in your heart?
I think it was weeks after, partly because they had me on hydrocodone and that puts you in a pretty good mood. And also because leading up to the accident I was having a couple weeks of really terrible anxiety, worse than I’ve had since college. And the way that my community rallied around me after, I was just really really floored by the response—all the people that came out of the woodwork just like, “I love you, you’re important to me, I’m so glad you’re OK!” I was just sort of basking in the glow of being taken care of. Being in a position where everyone was just like, “Oh fuck, I’m gonna go take her a casserole!”—I just had this warm glow of how grateful I was for the people in my life and what an incredible shift it was from the “everybody secretly hates me!” anxiety I was experiencing before the accident. It felt like being in the womb, emotionally.
So it took a couple of weeks, probably until I went back to work. About two full weeks after the accident I started waiting tables again, because all along I completely misjudged how OK I was. It was being back in the work setting and starting to see the cognitive issues that I was having that I really started to take seriously what had happened. I was so busy being grateful for being OK that I didn’t really think about what “not-OK” would look like.
I lost my sense of smell, and working in a restaurant—and especially one where we have a James Beard Award nominated wine list—you need to be able to smell. And then I was having a really really hard time with language. Forgetting words, mixing words up, typing the wrong word when I was typing, forgetting people, calling them by the wrong name—it was really crazy for a while. And that’s when I went, “Oh my god, I almost died.” It was almost a full month after the accident that I started to actually feel traumatized by it.
Did you have a moment where you first realized, “I can’t smell this thing that I used to be able to smell”?
Yes, it was the saddest! I was cooking and I’d forgotten to buy basil at the grocery store. My landlord has a garden and it was early August so the tomatoes and the basil were in full swing. I went back there to grab some basil, but it was so dark I was smelling it to make sure I had the right thing. I’m like, “Damn, this basil doesn’t smell like anything.” So I bring it to my roommate Alyssa. I was like, “Will you smell this? What’s wrong with this basil?” And she was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It smells like basil to me.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” So I pull thyme out of the fridge and I can’t smell that either. I start realizing, “Oh shit, something is wrong.” I wound up frantically going around the house trying to find everything I could get my hands on that had a really strong smell. I have this Lush solid perfume stick that I remember just, like, jamming into my nostril—like, if I could just get it far enough up there I would be able to smell it. And I just realized I couldn’t smell anything.
My sense of smell has started to return, through a combination of time and I’m getting craniosacral therapy from—oh my god, I feel like there are just so many stories. The guy who’s doing my craniosacral therapy is also, like, a shaman? He’s like this Jewish guy from the Bronx or Jersey, and he’s done some energy work for my roommate and he offered as a gift to start giving me craniosacral therapy because he really believed that it would help with my loss of my sense of smell. And it has. But he has also given me such information as, “I’m seeing you in a past life. You’re a French girl who lives by the sea and you’re full of grief. Does that mean anything to you?” And I’m like, “Um, no.” The other day he tells me that my spirit is like a cat-like energy from the star Sirius. And I was just like, “OK, dude.”
I was kind of a super-smeller before and I can actually smell a whole lot less now. I can’t really smell flowers or leafy herbs, and citrus has a very disgusting chemical quality to it now where it used to be one of my favorite flavors and smells. So things taste different now, too. Anything that hippies say is nasty, like Coca Cola or factory farmed meat, actually tastes disgusting to me now. I can’t eat Tyson chicken. Before I could—I would have thought it was kind of gross, because I have spoiled palate, but I could still eat it. And now actually it tastes like the flavor of misery.
You had some weird verbal things too, right?
I just couldn’t process auditory communications the way I did before for a little while. That actually was one of the first things to get better. But I started basically a new career while recovering—maybe three weeks after the accident, maybe four. So going in, trying to learn all these new systems and office jargon and remember everyone’s names—people would say things to me and I would just look at them and blink. I was like, “I’m sorry, I’m a little dumber than I was before I hit my head. So I need you to explain what you mean by ‘Xerox.’” I thought it was “z-rocks.” But that’s gotten better.
When you had the accident you were already looking to make a change in your work. I would think that if someone has this kind of awful accident they would probably put other major life changes on hold. But that did not happen.
One of the things [the accident] did was clear out a couple of weeks where my roommate was largely out of town anyway and I was just kind of left to sit in solitude and evaluate some things about my life. I’d been feeling stalled out and I was really having a hard time making choices about how to move forward. And while I laid here convalescing I just decided, “I don’t want to recover from this injury and go back into the life that I was living in before.”
Ever since I left college, stuff’s just been really lousy. I had some major health issues with a member of my family, and the economy sucked, and it’s just been years of foundering. And this accident was just the thing that finally pushed me out of the groove that I had settled into and made me start taking some ownership of my life again.
I got offered a job by a friend who runs a nonprofit and I saw it as a lifeboat. I was finally ready to jump on it and challenge myself. I came back with this renewed excitement about being alive and gratitude for all the stuff I have. My sense of smell is one thing, but I could have broken my neck. I could have lost some of my vision, because that’s the part of my brain that I injured. I could have lost some of my intelligence, which is a huge part of my identity. I just had this sense that I didn’t lose it, so I had to stop wasting it. Which is kind of what I felt like I was doing, in the life I had before.
Before the accident, did you think about death and loss, or were you like, “Oh, let’s not right now”? How friendly were you with the idea?
I wasn’t friendly with it, exactly, for a really long time. I was really bitter about my experience of loss and the very present possibility that death might visit someone who’s very close to me. A couple of months before the accident my mom and I were having a conversation about the family situation that we have going on and I said something like, “It’s just so different from what I saw our family becoming. It’s just so, so far off the trajectory of what any of us dreamed for ourselves as individuals or as a family unit.” I couldn’t move on from my anger and my bafflement. And she said something that switched something in my brain, about how she looked around at the world and the amount of grief and loss that people experience and she just asked herself, “Why shouldn’t this happen to me? What gives me the idea that I shouldn’t be dealing with this disease that this person in our family has? Why shouldn’t I? Why not me? What makes me think I’m special that I don’t have to be visited by this?”
My dad, one of his favorite mantras is, “The longer you stay alive, the greater likelihood that something really shitty is gonna happen to you!” I know that sounds pessimistic, but I think my family kind of cultivates an attitude of acceptance and living with what is, and I finally got on board with that shortly before my accident. It’s not like I spend a lot of time dwelling on the topic, but I try not to think of myself as anybody who something bad should never happen to. So when it did, I feel like I was emotionally prepared to deal with it because of the way my family is. It’s a huge gift they’ve given me.
Did you grow up religious at all?
No. I went to church for like a year and I joke that it was to piss off my liberal parents—which it did—but mostly it was a pretty earnest search for meaning. But I found that meaning elsewhere. I find my meaning in other peoples’ humanity and in my own, and in things like the capacity to forgive and compassion and generosity. I think those qualities are what religion does at its best, but for me it’s never really been tied to any dogma.
I’m just so glad you didn’t die.
Me too! I really am. I’m having such a good time now, being alive.
Can’t Take It With You is a column about money and death. If you’ve had a near-death experience that changed your relationship with money, or if your life intersects with death and money in any other interesting way, I’d love to hear from you.
Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga.