This story began on April 15th, 2016. The exact date is marked forever in my memory because it was the answer to one of the many questions the paramedics fired at me that night.
“Where do you live?” “What’s your birthday?” “Who’s the current president?” “What day is it?” When I realized it was tax day, I made a mental note so I’d be able to give the correct response again in the ER, which is where they were taking me. It was my feeble way of proving to myself that I was going to be okay.
I had just had dinner at a Korean restaurant with my friend Clara, and it was a mild spring night, so I decided to walk the 25 blocks back to my apartment. After saying goodnight to her, I called my mother from my cellphone, and we began to chat as I turned down a dimly lit street in Manhattan’s Flatiron district.
Up ahead, I noticed a large crowd blocking the sidewalk. Determined to avoid the crush, I stepped off the curb to cross the street in that same way most New Yorkers navigate the city’s many obstacles, without even realizing they are doing so. As I waited in an empty parking spot for a break in the car traffic, another thing I didn’t realize was that I was actually standing just inside the outer edge of the bike lane.
Suddenly, I heard a voice yell what sounded like a warning, but before I could figure out what was happening, I was tackled by a bicycle and its rider. Judging by the tangle of feet and wheels that crashed into me, I deduced later that the cyclist must have come off his seat in an effort to slow down, but he had been moving way too fast, making the collision unavoidable. Without a second to brace myself, I fell backward, and my skull hit hard against the blacktop.
While lying in the street, I felt around for my cell phone, which had flown off the earbud cable and landed a few feet away. When I brought it up to my face, I saw that the connection was still live. I mumbled to my mother that I’d been hit by a bike and would call her back soon. Later that night, she described my terrified scream at the moment of impact, though at the time I wasn’t aware that I had made any sound.
A stranger called 9-1-1, while others helped me up and guided my teetering self to the curb, where I waited for the ambulance to arrive, the world swirling around me. I tried to stay calm as the paramedics drove me to the NYU emergency room, but it was surreal to be headed back there just a few weeks after I’d last brought in my father, who over the previous two years had suffered from a range of ailments. My immediate reaction was panic, which I voiced repeatedly to the paramedics: “This cannot be happening. I have to take care of my folks. I can’t afford to be injured right now.”
As I was wheeled into the hospital on a gurney, the combination of the movement and the bright ceiling lights zipping by overhead made me woozy, and I remember thinking, “I guess that’s why Dad always looks so disoriented when we bring him in.”
Following an initial evaluation, I was transported to radiology for a CAT scan, and once the test was over, the technician slid me out of the machine, like a tray of bread being pulled out of the oven. As I sat up, the kimchi I’d ingested earlier decided to make its bravura return.
Eventually, I was returned to the ER, and after answering the same questions and commands from a steady stream of medical personnel, the attending physician gave me the all clear. While handing me my discharge papers, the nurse told me that they contained important information but promptly advised me to avoid reading. Okay, I remember thinking, can you give me the Braille version instead? Oh, and while you’re at it, can you teach me how to read Braille?
The next day, the call came as I rested on my couch, curtains drawn to keep out the bright sunlight that had become an irritant—another symptom I shared with my father, who often requests his baseball cap to shield his eyes when sitting near the front window of his home. “We looked at your films again,” said the annoyingly calm hospital employee on the other end of the line, “and this time we detected some blood on the CAT scan. We’d like you to come back to the ER.”
In the taxi there, I was—to put it mildly—a hot mess. My friend Elizabeth, who accompanied me, did her best to distract from the rising tide of panic, but the questions ricocheted through my injured brain. Why had the radiologists decided to look at my films again? Why had they missed the blood yesterday? How much blood was there, where was it coming from, and what might it mean?
As the neurosurgeon explained it, a closer look at my films had revealed a small amount of blood in the space between the inside of my skull and the thin membrane that surrounds the grey matter. I had suffered a concussion, and the bleeding was the result of the internal shaking that had occurred when my head bounced off the blacktop.
The first week after the accident was one of the longest of my life, as the hands on the clock slowed to a Dalí-esque melt. When I was discharged for the second time, I was told to avoid staring at the computer, TV, and cell phone for fear of triggering a seizure, a risk that is at its highest in the seven days following a concussion. My unsteady gait and intense positional dizziness made reading a book or strolling around the neighborhood total non-starters (to say nothing of how vulnerable I now felt when simply crossing the street). As the expanse of hours stretched out before me, the only way I could fill them was with conversation, sleep, meditation, and music. I tried listening to podcasts, but the ones I normally found most engaging just frustrated me now—they required too much concentration and dangled before me the reminder of an intellectual life that I feared I might lose.
But one of the most dispiriting side effects was my total lack of appetite. That may seem like a minor detail to some, but for a food writer who spends the better part of her waking hours planning her next meal, it was an upsetting turn of events. I frequently felt nauseated and took absolutely no interest in anything culinary. Although these symptoms seemed relatively normal given what had transpired, they made me exceedingly cranky, so I scheduled an appointment with the neurologist who’d treated my father years ago.
My first visit to Dr. Albert Favate took place about two weeks after the accident, and by that time, the worst of the dizziness had abated, as had the more immediate seizure risk, so I entered his exam room with unwarranted confidence. Given that I’d never lost consciousness or suffered any memory impairment, I had unilaterally decided that the injury would be nothing more than a story with which to regale friends and acquaintances at future cocktail parties.
Apparently, this memo never made it to certain parts of my cranium. Early in my visit, Dr. Favate told me that, in addition to the concussion, I had also fractured my skull—which no one at the hospital had bothered to mention. Well, at least that explained the persistent soreness at the point of impact.
He went through the typical neurological work-up—a series of questions and physical challenges with which I was intimately familiar, having witnessed my father enduring them many times over since he was first diagnosed with dementia six years earlier. “Touch your finger to the tip of your nose, and then touch my finger,” said Dr. Favate. “Spell the word ‘world.’ Okay, now, spell it backwards. How many nickels in a dollar?” And so on.
Ever the dutiful student, I was a model of concentration and aced the test. Gradually, my tension began to ease, even as the doctor explained all the possible post-concussion red flags I needed to watch for. Sudden changes in cognitive functioning. Severe debilitating headaches (beyond the “normal” ones I was experiencing). Extreme nausea and vomiting. When he warned me about irrational mood shifts, I barely stifled a laugh. Where was the line for “irrational” in this context? My sadness, anxiety, and anger seemed pretty damned logical to me. But okay, I get it, Doc.
And just then, when I thought there was nothing left to cover, he said, “Wait here for a second,” and slipped out of the room. After hopping down from the exam table and moving to the chair by the window, I checked the time on my cell phone, suddenly impatient to get on with the rest of my life after surviving this closest of calls. When he returned, one of his hands was balled into a fist, and he instructed me to close my eyes. I could sense him hovering in front of me. “What do you smell?” he asked.
I sniffed but detected nothing. That’s odd, I thought, shaking my head a bit, as if my brain were an Etch-a-Sketch that simply needed a reset. I sniffed a second time, but still nothing. I flashed back to an episode of chef Gordon Ramsay’s reality show Hell’s Kitchen, in which the contestants are blindfolded and badgered, boot-camp-style, as they attempt to identify various ingredients.
Much more gently than Ramsay would have done, Dr. Favate instructed me to give it one more go. I inhaled as deeply as I could, but the only result was a sneeze. “Hmm,” he said, in a way that was not at all reassuring, “it appears your sense of smell has been compromised.” I opened my eyes to see a small mound of black pepper in his palm.
As he explained it, my olfactory nerve had likely been damaged when I’d treated my skull like a maraca. He wanted me to go for an EEG and a second CAT scan before returning to see him in a month.
It took me a few moments to register the implications of what he’d said. “It’ll come back, though, right? My ability to smell?” I asked. It was too soon to say. An injured nerve takes time to repair itself, if it does at all, and there’s no way to spur that process along. It’s not an exact science, but if the nerve is not healed within six months, the damage is likely to be permanent.
A food writer who’s unable to smell or taste? There was an allegorical quality to the situation that the writer inside momentarily appreciated, until I pictured chef Ramsay braying at me, sporting his trademarked look of disgust. “You donkey!”
Stepping out of the doctor’s office, I felt like I was piloting through fog. On the way home, I began putting together the puzzle of the previous two weeks. In the days following the concussion, I had been in no condition to shop for groceries or cook, so I’d ordered delivery or eaten food that my friends kindly brought me. My first meal the morning after the accident had been a BLT from the sandwich shop across the street, and I now recalled how overwhelming salty it had tasted, though at the time that hadn’t seemed strange. It was a BLT, after all, and bacon is a salt bomb.
Another evening, my friend Kristen had brought over bành mí sandwiches from a popular Vietnamese shop, and when I had bitten into mine, salt was once again the abiding flavor. But once again, this fact was unremarkable to me. Any dish that combines ham, charcuterie, pickled vegetables, and hot sauce runs the risk of veering into high-sodium land.
Now, however, I realized that the problem had not been an excess of salt, but rather the absence of other flavors. My inability to smell had eliminated the aromas that round out our full sense of taste. I had lost the bright notes of citrus, and the funk of anchovies and fish sauce. Gone were the contributions of onion, garlic, and herbs. All I had left were the flavors I could discern on my tongue—mostly salt and sweetness. I was now eating textures. It was as if I’d gone from a Technicolor 3-D movie in Dolby Surround Sound to a black-and-white silent film.
Naturally, I was perturbed by the potential impacts on my career, but because of all the time I had been spending as a caregiver for Dad, I was doing far less food writing than before, so the inability to taste was more of a spiritual crisis than an economic one.
I’ve been obsessed with menus for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I could have easily spent an hour perusing the laminated pages of the tome at my favorite diner in Queens. I get excited at the thought of sampling new foods and flavor combinations, and enjoy improvising recipes in my kitchen. I live for trying new dishes in restaurants and other people’s homes. When I travel, I make dinner reservations first—well before booking my hotel rooms—and I routinely visit local markets and grocery stores to see how they differ from mine. Food and drink are my vehicles for interacting with the world. Without the ability to taste, would I become a hermit?
When I got home that afternoon, I headed straight for the kitchen and embarked on a series of smell tests using the most aromatic foodstuffs I could find. Closing one nostril at a time, I sniffed my way through items like peanut butter, lemon zest, oregano, and clove, desperate to detect something.
These tests became a new daily ritual—my own peculiar form of nasal exercise, if you will. At breakfast, I’d start with the omega-3 fish oil that I take every morning, before moving on to the freshly ground coffee beans. At night, I’d go through the more fragrant contents of my nightstand, including a tube of orange-blossom-scented lotion, a bottle of lavender oil, and the mini pot of Vicks VapoRub that was my salvation whenever my allergies acted up.
I’m a sucker for stinky cheeses, but robbed of their pungent aromas, they were merely unctuous and lost much of their appeal. Without any olfactory ability, I could no longer discern in advance whether the half-and-half I typically added to my coffee had gone bad, and after the second cup of joe that I ruined with curdled cream, I switched to drinking it black. Whenever I cooked with friends, I had to use their palates as the gauge for how much seasoning to add.
It was at around this time that I started to notice something particularly odd. (Yes, even odder than what I’ve already described.) Everywhere I went, people were burning pizza. In my apartment building. Near the local hardware store. On the 6 train.
In retrospect, that last location should’ve raised a red flag—how does one even scorch dough in a NYC subway car?—but as any native New Yorker will tell you, growing up in this city teaches you to meet the daily oddities of urban life with a certain level of equanimity. A 15-foot-high inflatable rat in front of a union picket line? Sure. A grown man dressed as a tooth, flossing himself? Well, okay. So, in this context, what’s a little seared pizza among friends?
And frankly, on the vast menu of subway smells, burnt dough is one of the more pleasant possibilities, but after about the third straight day of encountering that aroma everywhere I went, it finally dawned on me that I was the only common denominator.
Initially, it seemed like an encouraging development—hey, I can smell something!—but a little research soon proved otherwise. I discovered that anosmia, the inability to smell, is often accompanied by the appearance of phantom smells, a condition that gets its own nifty sci-fi name. Phantosmia: olfactory hallucinations, or the act of smelling something that has no physical source.
While some phantosmia sufferers find themselves immersed in the scent of flowers or something burning (e.g., wood, toast, pizza, etc.), others report odors that are far less pleasant, including vinegar, manure, and spoiled food. I’m a huge fan of thin-crust pizza, so you might think that I’d hit the phantosmia jackpot, but you’d be surprised at how quickly even a nice aroma becomes irritating when it is the only one enveloping you for days. Waking up to it, showering with it, smelling it when I laid my head down on the pillow at night—there was NOTHING I could do to escape the olfactory assault.
And then, just as randomly as the burnt-pizza smell arrived, it vanished, and I was left once again with a blank slate. The total absence of smell brought with it a deep sadness, which is another common byproduct of the condition. Whether your anosmia is caused by a traumatic brain injury, nasal polyps, or an infection, it’s common for depression and anxiety to follow in its wake.
While food was the major flashpoint for me, I started to think about all the other aromas I was missing—the scent of freshly mown grass, the floral and spicy notes of my favorite perfume, the warm smell of earth rising up from my mother’s garden after she’s watered it.
Of course, our sense of smell is also associated with memory—another link to my father, whose own memories have been gradually slipping away. If my anosmia persisted, I would no longer imprint and retrieve new olfactory recollections. Did this make it more likely that I’d end up like Dad someday?
More than once, I wondered if the accident had been a twisted form of self-sacrifice. Up until 11 months before the skull fracture and concussion, I’d never broken a bone in my life, but within that short span, I had fractured my left foot, shattered the wrist of my dominant hand, and now this. Were these freak injuries a subconscious attempt to take the literal fall for my father? To offer my own suffering in place of his?
Ever since I was a kid, I have been acutely aware of how hard my immigrant parents worked to provide me with everything they lacked growing up in Spain amid the poverty and repression of General Franco’s dictatorship. As their only child, I’ve always placed an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to singlehandedly redeem their struggles with my own accomplishments—a fairly common mindset among most of the first-generation Americans I know. Now that I was being faced with the decline of the man whose quiet dedication and unconditional love had helped me to become the person I am, maybe there was a latent part of me that was trying to repay the favor with a pound of flesh.
I know. It sounds crazy, even to me, and it certainly wasn’t a conscious thought when I sustained any of those three injuries, but in the aftermath of the last and most serious accident, I was desperate to find some kind of larger meaning in the madness my life had become that year. As I recovered, I had a lot of time to spend in my own agitated head, and I discovered that it was an excellent spot for self-torture.
The EEG, on the other hand, was torture in a purely physical form. As I lay on the table, the technician applied blobs of cold gel to my scalp and forehead before attaching a slew of colored wires to my skull to monitor my brain activity. Next, he wrapped my head in a bandage that made me look like an especially insane Norma Desmond–wannabe (a bit redundant, I know, but then again, you didn’t see what I looked like), and spent the next 30 minutes trying to induce a seizure by flashing a series of bright lights in my eyes.
Thankfully, he failed, though he almost succeeded in making me retch. After he removed all of the gear from my skull, I felt like I’d been slimed on Nickelodeon but remained otherwise unscathed, and the test results proved to be normal, as were those from the second CAT scan.
When I returned for my next visit with Dr. Favate, he was pleased with my overall condition but remained concerned that my sense of smell had not yet returned, so he referred me to an ENT specialist who checked me for nasal polyps by inserting a long thin metal probe up into my sinuses (about as pleasant as you might imagine).
The good news was that there appeared to be no structural problem, other than my deviated septum. The bad news? There was no way to know if the nerve would ever heal. The best the ENT guy could do was to put me on steroids for a week, in hopes that the medication would reduce any inflammation and, in so doing, reveal my ability to smell, like pulling back a veil. Other than that, it was wait and see.
I have long been a believer in so-called “alternative” therapies, relying on acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to combat my seasonal allergies and other minor ailments, so when I got home from the specialist’s office, I Googled “natural anosmia cures” and began working my way through the list. I started taking Zinc and B-complex supplements, inhaling hot steam, drinking a concoction of raw garlic and water, and slathering the inside of my nose with castor oil—all to no avail.
As June began, my friends tried to get me to focus on the positive. “At least you won’t be overcome by the stench of rotting garbage on the curb this summer,” said one. “No subway urine for you!” added another, a little too cheerfully. That’s right, I nodded, doing my best to smile, even as I made an agreement with God that I would never again complain about any of those odors if he would only restore my ability to smell everything in equal measure. I am pretty sure that wasn’t the brain injury talking.
By the time I reached the two-month mark, I gave up on the daily sniff tests—it was too demoralizing to keep getting the same goose-egg result—though every so often, I’d try again. One night, as I pinched my right nostril shut, I waved a small blue bottle containing an essential-oil blend under the left.
Suddenly, I perked up. Was that eucalyptus? The notes were rather faint, but I thought I detected something. I inhaled deeply several more times, just to be sure, before racing to the kitchen and opening a jar of coconut peanut butter. My right nostril remained a dead zone, but the left showed definite stirrings of life. As I took in the sweet, fragrant smell of coconut oil and peanuts, I started to cry, a mixture of joy and relief.
Gradually, the color began to seep back into my olfactory life. I could once again discern ambient aromas—both pleasant and unpleasant ones. Whenever someone new heard my tale, they’d invariably ask if my sense of smell had returned to full strength, which always made me laugh; I pictured a speedometer on the dashboard of a jet-black sports car, inching steadily toward red. (“Full power, Batman!”)
The honest answer was, “I haven’t got a clue.” Although I could now detect aromas on the left side, there was no way of knowing how much more acute my overall sense of smell might be if the right nostril were carrying its weight. The only thing I knew for certain was that I could taste food and drink again, and for the moment, that was enough. To say that I was grateful would be the lamest of understatements.
In August I went back for my final check-up with Dr. Favate. He reminded me that there was still a decent chance the right side would recover, but he was honest about my prospects; if things didn’t improve by the six-month-mark, I’d probably have to accept my new reality. I continued the sniff tests for a little while longer, but eventually stopped altogether as I made peace with the possibility of permanent damage on the right side.
The half-anniversary came on October 15th, though as far as I could tell, nothing had changed. The right nostril remained a blank canvas, while the left one filled in as much as it could, painting a reasonably full olfactory picture. Life went on as before—crammed with work, caregiving, relationship drama, and the daily trials that mark a human existence—and I stopped giving the matter much thought, except to offer the universe a silent acknowledgement whenever I took the first bite of a delicious meal or enjoyed a particularly wonderful glass of wine.
Before I knew it, Thanksgiving arrived, and I spent it with my folks. It was not the best weekend for Dad, which made it a melancholy holiday for the three of us, filled with memories of a cheerier past and their stark contrast to the present. On Saturday, I returned to my apartment to catch up on some work, with the intention of returning to their home on Sunday.
That night, a wicked sinus headache woke me up at 3am, and I went to the bathroom to pour some rubbing alcohol on an old bandanna so that I could wrap it around my temples—a practice that has alleviated this type of discomfort in the past. As I raised the soaked fabric to my forehead, I was struck by the potency of the fumes. In my half-asleep state, it took me a few seconds to understand what I might be experiencing, and when I finally put two and two together, I froze. Don’t get your hopes up, I told myself—a reflection of the glass-is-half-empty credo that had become my self-protective mantra over the previous two years—it’s probably just wishful thinking.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally worked up the nerve to find out. Clamping the left nostril shut, I inhaled deeply with the right. Et voilà, there it was.
Tossing the bandanna into the bathroom sink, I darted into the kitchen and began testing myself with the full panoply of food items. Though the aromas were muted, the right nostril was now able to discern all of the tributes I offered it.
My heart was racing, in a good way, and I came very close to opening my bedroom window and proclaiming my unbridled joy to all of New York City. Instead, I put the various foodstuffs away and returned to the bathroom, where I wrapped the alcohol-soaked bandanna around my forehead.
As I climbed back into bed, my sinuses were still throbbing, but the headache had lost much of its sting, and I fell asleep quickly, content in the realization that there would be a whole new world for me to rediscover and remember in the morning.