I find I learn the most especially when I’ve messed up, but that’s the real journey.
Question: Give me an example where you really failed?
Answer: Sometimes I trust people way to much, I get so exuberant in my research you fail to catch that they are waiting for you to slid off your ladder, then they will step away watching, as you crash off. A bunch of years ago I was trying to get some racing experts interested into having race drivers wear portable EKG harnesses. In the event a driver might experience a major crash- what the racers call a shunt-there is this massive deceleration at the moment or moments of impact. I was interpreting this violent deceleration to measure EKG at the moment of impact as a working premise -being that the EKG recording would capture a brain concussion as it happened. I did not fully grab what Nature was doing at this point. I knew that somehow measuring the cardiac response at the moment of impact, I thought, would be important. So I shared my enthusiasm with these racing experts.
Question: What happened?
Answer: Well they kind of took the EKG-concussion idea and ran with it. They didn’t keep me in the loop, I didn’t get to see any of the data. Somehow I heard that they were trying to interpret the data at a big U.S. city research center, to the point where I realized to my horror, saying to myself, ‘ I feel real uncomfortable, they want me to solve their problem, but there will be no credit sent in my direction.’ So I simply stopped talking to these guys. You have to understand that Montreal has a significant car racing heritage going back to the late sixties. The original Canadian Grand Prix used to be held at Mont-Tremblant. The scream of Jacky Ickx’s 12 cylinder Ferrari engine pealing its banshee crescendo of acceleration down the straightaway, cresting at turn one then down the hill, reverberated off the surrounding mountains in massive echo pulses. For racing enthusiasts including me and my buddies, this was a glorious symphony of sound. Over the years I raced amateur myself in Formula Ford, to experience in my own skin what racing was all about. I even free-lanced writing for Maclean’s Magazine, especially when Gilles Villeneuve signed on with Ferrari when Michael Enright was the managing editor. I had interviewed Villeneuve at the 1977 Trois Riviers race for that story. I wrote the first Grand Prix win of Villeneuve at Montreal for Maclean’s. That race was a magical moment to describe for all those people lucky enough to be at the track that day. People were publicly crying for joy that a Quebecois driving a Ferrari had won his first Grand Prix victory. All those thoughts are very sweet memories for me. Montreal still holds the Grand Prix plus it used to hold Indy Car races too, basically all kinds of racing experts would be here in Montreal as a result, a couple of times a year, that’s how over time I got to talk with the racing experts. Now it’s NASCAR also once a year, involving the same experts who cover the medical issues for all these diverse professional car races. But I don’t interact with these car racing experts any longer.
Question: I’m confused I don’t see the relationship with these guys walking away with your ideas, not sharing the data.
Answer: That summer I realized that I have to be more prudent in whom, I share, talking with about the hard won insights from Nature, what I have tried to accomplish in my journey learning about how concussions function. So when I had told the racing experts about the heart being involved I did not have the complete picture. I thought we could measure a concussion with an EKG as it happened and I told these people so. So that’s what they went on, but I don’t think they had the big picture which has been always my attempt at the total understanding. What is the brain detail that is the most meaningful, is there a sequence here? Especially at the moment of impact, what is going on, inside the brain? If I were able to watch, the brain moving, what detail is there that is the best thing to watch? Basically I did not have good brain detail, so I failed to understand the problem at that point. But because of the huge disappointment at the turmoil when I thought these experts were going to help me, I was totally naive about assuming their motives. I felt so betrayed, so vulnerable after that.
Question: Then what happened?
Answer: When I’m really angry I really get down to focus. So I went at the cardiac portion of the concussion problem for the rest of that summer, trying to become the observer for the cardiac changes associated with concussions. Here is what I learned. Where I failed with the analysis was I was too fixated on the moment of the impact, trying to capture the EKG at that exact moment. That is what I had convinced the racing experts to try to capture. What I found out from talking to them innocently a few years later, talking with one of the experts, was that the EKG vests of the drivers was giving a huge amount of movement noise to the recordings. It looks like they actually did get some shunt data, but which was completely unusable. There was too much artifact noise during the shunt, the EKG vest was simply not functioning during the impact-the EKG coherency data was lost. Later I thought, I’m so glad I didn’t know that you don’t have to capture the concussion EKG moment, you have to capture the fact of the brain deceleration, the fact of the cardiac decoupling would take me a bunch more years to reach properly. But since I didn’t divulge this detail those car racing experts who did not know my late summer insights gave up on their attempt. I never gave up.
Question: So where is the cardiac concussion stuff happening now, in your best interpretation?
Answer: The answer comes from the heart changes we are going to be measuring next year. What that will tell us is that this concussion effect is acting onto the central control of how our heart balances itself in terms of their dynamic adding on of beats versus their taking away of beats. That’s the essence of the shift, as far as we can now query. So that will be our best effort to verify this change. But it tells us that we can be patient. The change will happen with time. We don’ have to capture it right away, as it happens. Which would be really really difficult. Are you going to have everybody wear EKG vests all the time to see when they had their concussion? I don’t think this is very smart or even approachable. The concussion flips the balance of heart control, that’s what really happens during a shunt.