The first thing I did when I could remember my name was call a local horse dealer. My Paint mare, Rorschach, had to go. She’d flung me earthward twice in the four years I’ve owned her. Twenty years ago, I’d have laughed about it and kept riding her. But 20 years ago I could tip my head back without getting dizzy; I wasn’t tired all the time; I could follow even the most boring conversation without zoning out; and I didn’t have to search for words, keys, cell phones, notebooks, olive oil or whatever I’d just put down.
And 20 years ago I hadn’t yet written an article for Washingtonian Magazine about an unconventional treatment for brain injury. Which is why the second thing I did after I could remember my name was call Mary Lee Esty.
But back to Rory for a moment. I’m very good at buying horses. Not so good at selling them. I’m like an eighth grade girl that way; I fall in love hard and fast. The difference is I don’t fall out of love, even when the horse lands me in the emergency room—twice. So I wasn’t happy about selling her, but it was a concession to my more mature judgment. Rory had been an impulse buy, like those pointy-toed maroon stilletos gathering dust in my closet. I’d just spent two weeks in Greensboro caring for my mother, whose body was being eaten by bone cancer. This is an especially nasty way to go, and she wasn’t a cooperative person when she was healthy. I was frazzled, big time, and I needed a distraction.
The only downside of living near the Virginia Horse Center is that I’m way too close to horse auctions. It was Paint auction day when I returned from Greensboro. My husband (aka “The Saint,” anointed by the ER doc who came running every time I yelled, “Help! Help!”), actually allowed me to leave our farm with a blank check and an aching heart. Of course I returned with not one, but two Paint fillies.
Theoretically I ride hunters where big, tastefully colored warmbloods with long, sweepy strides rule. Little spotted horses with sewing machine gaits don’t fit into that program. I eventually sold one of the fillies but kept Rory because she was so quiet and dependable to ride around the farm. Which is why the first big spook 2½ years ago caught me off guard. After that, she was back to being Miss Manners until her repeat performance on Aug. 13, sending me back to the emergency room, this time erasing an entire day from my memory.
I gave the horse seller explicit instructions: complete disclosure about her spooking.
A Case For “Brain Zapping”
The call to Mary Lee Esty wasn’t about horses. It was about my brain. I’d also called her 2½ ago, after returning from the ER that time. Her words were the same: Eat lots of protein, take fish oil and come to my office ASAP for a treatment.
I scrambled up two eggs, downed three fish oil capsules, called the horse sitter and headed to Bethesda, Md., to get my brain zapped.
Well, “zapped” may be too strong a word for what Esty does. I can explain it in horse terms: With my old show mare, Brenda Starr, all I had to do was think “canter,” and off she went into the correct lead. I probably gave her some minute cue with my body—an infinitesimal shift—that she could read. That’s what Esty does, gives your brain a minute cue to heal itself.
It’s called Flexyx Neurotherapy, FNS, an offshoot of biofeedback therapy, that tickles the brain with the same microscopic electrical charge of brain cells. So it’s an infinitesimal “zap,” nothing you can feel, but enough to tell your brain to snap out of it.
The “it” being the many symptoms of head injury: depression, fatigue, fog, memory loss, irritability, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, heat/cold/light sensitivity and more.
Conventional wisdom says there’s no treatment for brain injury other than rest and coping skills. Esty, a Bethesda social worker with a doctorate in health psychology who has treated more than 1,800 patients in 16 years with FNS therapy, says conventional wisdom needs to move into this century. Brains can heal and regain function, she says, and among her many grateful patients who will vouch for her are at least a dozen military veterans once written off as lost.
So whining about charred meringue cookies because I forgot to turn off the oven seems trivial after spending the last week interviewing Iraq vets, some so debilitated they couldn’t sleep, read or leave their rooms. And those weren’t even the worst of their symptoms.
Remember Elizabeth Whiteside, the woman who tried to commit suicide while on duty in Iraq? The Army wanted to send her to Leavenworth for 20 years, pursuing her court martial as if she were Osama Bin Laden’s operative, instead of some unfortunate young woman who broke under great distress. The Washington Post published an impassioned editorial in her defense, after it ran an article detailing the Army’s relentless pursuit of the former high school valedictorian. Both Whiteside and her father, Thomas, think the only thing that kept her alive during that time were her FNS sessions with Esty. “My daughter would have been dead without Mary Lee,” Thomas Whiteside said to me, between tears.
Desiree Wolery suffered three head blasts in Iraq that turned her into someone neither she nor her friends knew. She was depressed, angry and picking fist fights with strangers. “You’re being an A-hole,” she said her friends kept telling her. She was also dizzy and losing chunks of time. The headaches were constant and she couldn’t sleep.
Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and brain injury, she was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment where she made no progress. “The doctors were not hopeful,” Wolery said. “They said the best I could hope for was to stop having memory blackouts. That was my lowest. It suddenly hit me I was only 25 years old, with brain damage, PTSD and a horrible prognosis.”
The Walter Reed therapist who’d encouraged Whiteside to see Esty suggested Wolery do the same. Esty was running a pro bono study of head injured vets. After Wolery’s first session, she had her first full night of sleep since the blasts. Repeated sessions brought continued improvement, to the point where she finally remembered what happened during the last blast. Her friend was severely injured, she helped rescue him, he survived. Wolery’s voice cracked as she told me he recently committed suicide. “Maybe,” she said, pausing to regain her composure, “he would be alive now if he’d gotten to Dr. Esty. She saved my life.”
Doctors said Wolery would never lead a normal life, and now she’s a pre-med student at Pacific Lutheran University. Her goal: to research brain injury.
An Important Study
My little tumble from Rory is inconsequential compared to those stories. Still, I was clearly suffering from brain injury. I was tired, forgetting things, tearing down the hard-earned walls I’d constructed around the tragedies in my life, and forgetting things. Oh yeah, I already mentioned that.
I’ve had two sessions with Esty since I fell. A course of treatment can be 20-30 sessions. So I’ve really just begun. My energy levels are up—I can get off the sofa now and finally clean the barn. But the rest needs improvement. Time for more brain “zaps.”
The third and most important thing I was going to do after I could remember my name was write my congressman, urging him to find funding for Esty’s research. But Esty said don’t bother. She already has congressional support, and that hasn’t helped secure funding for her research.
“What we need now is for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have had concussion, been exposed to blast injury, or have had loss of consciousness to apply for the new study I‘m doing with the USUHS, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, here in Bethesda,” she said.
Participants get a comprehensive brain injury evaluation at the USUHS and free FNS treatments from Esty, followed by a repeat evaluation at USUHS to document change in brain function.
“It is the compilation of solid research that will help the most in documenting the effect of treatment,” Esty said. “Of course if people would donate some money to our nonprofit organization so they get a tax deduction, then we could treat more veterans than I can do with no funding.”
So the third and most important thing I did was write out a check to the Neurotherapy Research and Development Association to help all the Wolerys and Whitesides who bravely put themselves in harms way for us.
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.