The Body Electric
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John Freund, whose entrance wound was in his chest, never regained consciousness. He died 12 hours later after doctors removed life support. His son, Joshua, was stabilized by rescuers at the scene of the accident, and regained consciousness in the intensive care unit at York Hospital. He was released less than a week later, and other than difficulty with balance and pain for several weeks after the accident, he has fully recovered. Chris Perry, who was a senior at UNH at the time, regained consciousness at the scene, and was later able to identify himself and his companions to doctors in the emergency room at HCA Portsmouth Regional Hospital. He was temporarily blinded in his left eye, and had a burn on his right cheek, but he also fully recovered.

Rondeau's entrance wound was in her feet and legs, and when she regained consciousness, she was blind. For three days, her heart rate was unstable, plummeting without notice. Her three daughters, Jeanne, Laurel and Anna, who were 20, 16 and 14 respectively at the time of the accident, were told that she would not survive.

But she hung on. A doctor at Portsmouth Hospital treated her with massive doses of steroids, having read about the treatment in an article about actor Christopher Reeve's spinal cord accident. Rondeau regained her sight soon after, but she couldn't walk or talk, and she had traumatic amnesia. She didn't recognize her children.

"Our identities are really very fragile," Rondeau says. "They're tied to our surroundings and the people around us. In the hospital, I would watch the people there and see how they were behaving, and it gave me clues as to who I was. I had no idea what had happened, but I learned to formulate an answer to the question, 'Gail, do you know what happened?' I actually saw the sentence before I could say it, black letters on a black background: 'We were kayaking and someone was killed.' Instead of John's name, though, I inserted the name of someone I knew years and years ago. And the name was navy blue."

Intelligence exists everywhere in the body, not just in the brain. An electrochemical pulse beats in every one of our 100 billion nerve cells. It is the "life force" referred to in other cultures. Much like the cumulonimbus clouds, where lightning is born, nerve cells are structured with a difference in electrical potential between the inside, which is negative, and the outside, which is positive, so that in response to stimuli, polarization can take place. Sudden storms of firing neurons travel on long tendrils that sprout from the brain stem and spinal cord and burrow into every organ and muscle in the body. We are the body electric—or, more precisely, the body electrochemical. . . . How these simple (electrical) impulses are encoded and then translated into the structure of experience—what we call consciousness—is not precisely understood. But the complexity is hinted at by the recent findings of neuroscientists: there are perhaps a hundred million interconnected neuronal groups responding to stimuli simultaneously. And even though neurons that die are not replaced, the dendritic structures are able to regrow, so that . . . the structures will eventually be repaired.

After two weeks in the hospital, Rondeau continued her recovery at Health South, a rehabilitation hospital in Concord, N.H. She slowly learned to walk and talk, and began to build a new identity. "Suddenly, I was something else," she explains. "All my life, up to this point, I had been very healthy and successful, and I remember seeing a room that had all these tables in it and no chairs—no chairs because all of the patients, including me, of course, were in wheelchairs. I realized that I was now a part of this community and that I had to learn about new limitations as well as capabilities."

After two weeks at Health South, Rondeau went home, and actually returned to the classroom that September on a reduced schedule. "Being in a classroom and exercising my mind was who I was," she explains, "and ultimately it was a good place to be, a healthy place for me."

But she also needed to come to terms with what her body could and couldn't do. "I was physically exhausted for a good year after the accident, and I slept a lot," Rondeau remembers, "and my balance was off for a long time, too—I had to walk with a cane. But once I got back home, it brought back who I used to be. And one thing I was, was a runner. So I tried to walk my old running route. And I fell. That was a real turning point because I realized how different my neural mosaic was."

Rondeau began to research neuralgia, reading about how equilibrium works and talking to elderly people about their experiences with its deterioration. "I wanted to run again and I realized that I was going to have to approach running in a totally different way. My physical instincts for running were gone, so I had to think about it. For the next year, I had to run in my head—I developed charts so I could think about each movement."

Returning to kayaking was harder emotionally. "We had just begun kayaking six weeks before the accident," Rondeau explains. "My boat was actually my engagement ring. John and I had known each other for about three years, and had recently started living together. It was his idea to start kayaking. He felt that life should be an adventure, that we should constantly put ourselves in situations where we weren't experts to keep learning."

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