The Word Thief

My upcoming book!

The Word Thief: Science, Medicine, and My Brain Tumor Newman

The day my son turned six weeks old, I checked into the hospital for brain surgery. I had a meningioma, a noncancerous brain tumor whose location was making it difficult to remember new words. So I named the tumor “Newman,” after Jerry’s arch enemy in the sitcom “Seinfeld.”

After a five hour surgery to evict Newman, my brain started to swell and I spent two days in an induced coma. When I woke up, I could understand what people were saying, but couldn’t find the words I wanted to say. I couldn’t tell you the names of my own children, the year, or use words I learned as a child. I could recognize letters and their sounds, but I couldn’t recognize whole printed words until I sounded them out. 

My narrative nonfiction book—The Word Thief: Science, Medicine, and My Brain Tumor Newman—is the result of reclaiming my identity as a biologist and a teacher. Since I needed to relearn how to read and write, I chose to read and write about the science of brain tumors, brain surgery, and how the brain processes language. My journey included coma, concussion, infection, a 3D printed body part, and epilepsy.

A week after brain surgery, I was able to read this book by sounding out the letters. The pictures helped a lot.
A 3D model of my skull was used to construct a plastic replacement for bone that was removed during surgery.

My trouble with words was called “aphasia,” which is an impairment in communication skills that does not affect intelligence. It is caused by brain injury—most commonly from a stroke—and affects 1 to 2 million people in the United States. It can include the inability to understand spoken language, find the correct words to say, pronounce words, read, or write. Some aphasia patients recover within a few days, while others will take months or years to improve, and many will never fully recover.

At 41 years old, I was relatively young for an aphasia patient, and my prospects for recovery were good. Three weeks after surgery, I was able to read familiar board books to my three year old daughter—sometimes without her correcting me. Then my surgical site started oozing pus. I had squatters, a bacterial infection that resulted in two additional surgeries.

In The Word Thief, I weave science into my personal story, highlighting recent advances in scientific knowledge and in medical treatments.