Imagine being trapped inside your own body. You’re in complete paralysis; you cannot move nor speak; yet your mind is still fully functioning and desperate to communicate with the world. This may sound like the plotline for a horror movie or a dramatic episode of House, but for Jean-Dominique Bauby, this was reality
A rare stroke in his brain stem left him totally paralyzed except for his left eye, a condition known as locked-in syndrome. The once successful editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine “Elle” was now virtually in a vegetable state. One cannot even begin to comprehend the agony of his situation, so Bauby managed to construct a firsthand account of his locked-away thoughts into a fantastic memoir while still imprisoned by the paralysis.
Using a unique, frequency-ordered alphabet, Bauby blinked out each letter choice to his transcriber, who patiently turned his 200,000 eye movements into a book over a ten-month period. Surprisingly, Bauby’s thoughts aren’t incoherent or overemotional; instead, his vocabulary is impeccable, and his anecdotes never ramble. To think that most of us struggle to write with a computer in front of us is just a testament to Bauby’s willpower.
But more shocking than Bauby’s condition or his ability to write this book is the content of its pages. While he does occasionally wallow in the misery of his situation, Bauby spends most of his time fighting, not in an attempt to move his skeletal muscles, but in an attempt to keep his sharp mind alive. He replays memories of his entire life in his head, reliving every moment he shared with his wife and children. When the nurses fill his feeding tube, he travels back in time to enjoy a freshly prepared meal, savoring every flavor of each morsel. He observes the visitors who enter his room, deciding what they think of him. He mourns as he looks at himself in a mirror, but rejoices over his ability to see his world now with clarity, to understand what’s really important in life.
The memoir juxtaposes daily hospital happenings with past memories and Bauby’s newfound existential philosophy. As a reader, I was completely blown away with every word as I realized the enormous fulfillment that we gain from the simplest things in life, yet we constantly overlook their importance. I was also mesmerized at the glimpse into a locked-in patient’s thoughts, as depressing as they sometimes may be.
Unfortunately, Bauby’s ending isn’t a happy one. He never recovered and died two days after the publication of his book. However, Bauby did leave us with a better understanding of this devastating syndrome, an incredible insight into the depths of the human mind, and an inspirational reminder to appreciate every aspect of living and breathing while you can.
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