She remembers looking at people from her hospital bed and seeing them very far away; "like they were at the end of a tunnel." Colors were different, scrambled a little, a hazy aura of color around a person rather than on them.
Kathy Morris was 22 then, an opera student at the Manhattan School of Music. In the months after she first noticed something was wrong with her head, when she was driving to her brother's house and suddenly couldn't remember where she was going or whom she was going to see she has had her head opened by a surgeon three times. She lost her ability to speak, walk, read, write, or compute, spent months drifting in and out of a coma, strapped to a hospital bed, fed through tubes and imprisoned inside a body that was alternately sedated or ungovernable.
In the four years since her first operation, she has relearned many of her motor and mental skills.
She is a slim, pretty, blond, with dark blue eyes, dressed in skirt and blouse. Her pictures make her look vivacious and a little hard; they do not portray the fragility and slight nervousness that veil the tough survivor underneath.
The story of her ordeal has been dramatized in a television movie, "Seizure: The Story of Kathy Morris," that will be shown tonight at 9 on CBS (Chanel 9). The movie is not nearly as extraordinary as the real story.
Hers is a small human drama, told in her flat New Jersey accent and somewhat inarticulate slang, interupted occasionally while she pauses to "get my words together." It is when she does that, or when she unobtrusively put aside the menu without reading it, that one is reminded of the mysterious mess her brain became. She is also a testament to how little science knows about the miraculous computer that is inside the skull.
After her first seizure and subsequent admission to St. Luke's Hospital in New York City for tests, she was told she had a benign brain tumor.
During the operation to remove it, her brain unaccountably started to swell. After unsuccessfully trying to staunch the swelling, the doctor decided to close her head.He found that the swelling made this impossible, so he scooped out some of the dead brain tissue. In his frustration, he threw it against the wall of the operating room.
Morris doesn't know much about this; "I wasn't there," she says."Actually I don't really want to know."
After this operation came about six months of drifting in and out of a coma.Her brain started to swell again, so a shunt to relieve the pressure was inserted into her head. About four months later the tumor was finally removed by the same neurosurgeon, James Hughes.
A year and a half later, she graduated from music school, having successfully completed the final recital for which she had to sing in five languages. Since then she has turned more toward pop music, is planning a tour with a seven-person group and hoping to record an album. She also works part-time with a group at St. Luke's counseling patients facing the ordeal of relearning.
In between, she was the subject of a book by Charles Mee Jr., who set out originally to write about Dr. Hughes. Mee said that it is unusual for someone to live after the brain swells as Kathy's did.
"The assumption is that a blood vessel burst," Mee said, "but that is only a guess. When you're dealing with the brain, you're dealing with the most mysterious thing there is."
Kathy Morris was able to sing even when she couldn't talk. As Mee explained, language functions are apparently managed by the left hemisphere of the brain, the area of Morris' brain that was partially damaged. However, music functions -- even lyrics -- come from the right hemisphere which in Morris' case was not damaged.
Even today, while seemingly fluent in conversation, Kathy Morris speaks with the slight tentativeness of someone who has learned a foreign language; sometimes using many words where one might do, or appearing not quite to understand a question.
"If you notice vagueness and a tendency to talk around a subject," Mee said, "it is an inability to understand a lot of words you have used in your question and her inability to locate the answer."
Which makes her recovery all the more remarkable. "The most interesting thing is that she is an extraordinary passionate woman with an absolutely ferocious will to live," Mee said.
She has few clear memories of the time after the initial disastrous operation. "I could yell. I remember trying to say 'get me out of here' -- it [the words that came out] made no sense." She does not recall having much of an emotional reaction to what was happening to her -- "I was too out of it."
A television was on much of this time so that her doctor could see if she reacted to anything. Her only recollection: "I remember seeing the 'Wizzard of Oz.' My brother and a friend were in the room talking, too loudly I think . . . I saw the idea of it. The Munchkins being really little. I remember asking myself, am I seeing this or is it a dream? It looked like real television."
A short time later she got worse. After the shunt was in, there was a dramatic difference:
"I remember I woke up and I saw things. There was a real nurse, who looked like a nurse. I was saying things that made no sense. I was trying to say 'Hi, how are you,' but they told me what I really said was 'This boy loves his mother.' What was I trying to say?"
After that point, she began to work on her speech and motor functions. "As long as I woke up, that's No. 1. Next you work on your words to make sense. Then you get your body together so you can walk. Then on top of all this mess you have to live, to go back to your career and your life."
Nor did she have much of a family to fall back on -- her mother died when Kathy Morris was 10, and her father, an executive with Beneficial Finance, died a year before she learned of the tumor. Her recovery, and struggles to untangle insurance and financial problems to pay for her hospital care, were aided laregly by her younger brother Patrick, who dropped out of college to be with her. He accompanied his sister on the publicity tour for the movie that brought her to Washington.
What kept her going was the discovery that she had not lost her music. She found that even while she couldn't talk she could remember songs if someone gave her the first word. She would practice with a tape recorder.
"When I couldn't find someone to give me that first word, those were the hard times," she said.
"The truth about the brain," Mee said, "is that it does not deal with words, it deals with language . . . song lyrics are stored as musical information. You're not singing words, you're singing music."
For Kahty Morris, the fact that she could sing -- words -- meant that "I could get out of here [the hospital]."
She moved to an apartment near the hospital and walked there every day for therapy. "I would get lost constantly because my eyes were too confused. You have to be careful about looking. I had to look down all the time. Look, then walk, then look, then walk."
She learned how to compensate if she couldn't think of a word. If she wanted to say "window" and she was saying door," she learned to point instead and say "what's that one?"
She discovered she could not read; "I could see an 'A' but I couldn't hear it." She learned to shop; when there was something she had to read, she asked for help saying, "I left my glasses at home."
She's still learning to read, and can't yet write very much. As for numbers -- "They weren't so bad because there are only nine of them," she said. "I still have trouble with 11 and 12, though. And I can't add, subtract, multiply or divide." She takes pills to control the epilepsy that seems to have resulted from the trauma her brain suffered, and has to "be careful" with her health. She can't walk into a studio and sight read music the way she used to, and acting may be impossible until she can read.
There is no clinical explanation for what happened to her or for why she has been able to recover to the extent she has. The fact that her whole left temporal lobe was not destroyed helped, and it is known that often parts of the brain learn to compensate for damaged parts.
She has learned also that "nothing is as heavy as you think. Life doesn't have to be a big down all the time. Like the difference between a sunny day and rainy day -- I used to think that a rainy day meant you got your clothes wet." Now, she said, she doesn't waste energy thinking about "downs" like that.
"I have to get on with my music, with what I have to do," she is fond of saying.