As illness shrinks my dad's world, tech expands it

Commentary: When a loved one suffers a traumatic brain injury, video brings the world, and lots of smiles, to intensive care.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Dad has probably watched the video seven times, but even on the eighth viewing, it's like he's seeing something brand new.

Traumatic brain injury does things to your short-term memory.

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My sister, Rachel, keeps Dad company shortly after his injury.

Rachel Katz

So we show him the video again and again, each time hoping it will elicit the same broad smile and sense of recognition. It almost always does.

The video's nothing unusual, just a short clip of Dad's first cousin Wayne waving hello and sending wishes for a speedy recovery from miles away.

But for my father, it's a lifeline.

Since falling and suffering a brain bleed five weeks ago, his world has been limited to hospital intensive-care units and the skilled nursing facility where he's now undergoing physical, occupational and speech therapy.

It's a been a long, trying road. And for my father, a practicing doctor who up until recently tackled 12-mile bikes rides despite his worsening Parkinson's disease, it's been a disorienting and monotonous one.

That's why Wayne's video, and the many other smartphone videos family and friends have sent along at my sister's request, are so much bigger than their bytes. That mobile media helps bridge chasms is nothing new to the smartphone generation. But there's something especially powerful about everyday technology bringing the world to someone who's unable to venture back into it fully.

Watching the clips from my phone between long naps and short, determined walks down the hallway with a walker, Dad's blue eyes light up when he sees the faces of uncles, cousins and childhood friends. The other day, he watched a clip of a friend and her baby four times. The baby's giggles had Dad, a sucker for a cute kid, laughing just as hard every time. Few things make me happier than his warm, throaty laugh.

Sometimes the videos even spark a memory or lead him to make a correlation he would have struggled with right after his injury. "Wayne's daughter Laura has one baby boy," he said, unprovoked, the last time he watched his cousin's digital message. He got it right, and little moments like that give us hope.

But the videos don't just help Dad.


Father-daughter biking selfie: Dad and I on the trail in 2015.

Leslie Katz/CNET

They help the many people who adore the avuncular patriarch of our extended family, who's known for his equal love of Johnny Cash and the opera Aida, his charitable spirit and his irreverent sense of humor (even his Parkinson's is fair game: "Let's shake on it," he'll say when his tremors act up).

Over the years, I've heard many stories of Dad quietly paying off a family member's loan or giving life-altering advice to a friend facing a relationship or health crisis. Loved ones want to be there for him through his own current struggle, but his healing brain and body need lots of rest, and his energy and lucidity levels can change from hour to hour. An injured brain is a mysterious one, and it's easy for Dad to get overwhelmed.

The videos give those anxious about his condition a way to connect to him and to feel like they're contributing to his recovery, which doctors expect will take many months.

I've thought about the difference between this health crisis and another one my father suffered in 2007, just as smartphones were becoming ubiquitous. A decade ago, well-wishers sent cards, emails and flowers. They still do, but mobile videos now add an extra layer of personalization and interactivity.

My octogenarian father's a lifelong gadget lover with a dozen LED flashlights and a basement full of ancient desktop computers, VCRs, dot-matrix printers and modems. Last week, watching a video recorded by my Uncle Bernie and cousin Michael, he reached out to touch the phone's screen, waved at it and thanked Michael aloud. It might be time to reunite Dad with his iPad.

But the videos sent for him do something special for me, too. Sometimes at night these days, as my mind races with worry, I pull out my phone and watch them as a reminder of how much love and support surround me and my family -- and all I have to be grateful for. Technology included.