Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Learning to read all over again


This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald in August 2006.

After completing two years of community college in the summer of 1992, Marc Hannah looked forward to attending the University of California, Berkeley. Hannah was an excellent athlete, had been the student body president at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, and was even the homecoming king.

But one day on his way to visit friends, rounding a corner on a hill as he rode the 1969 Honda motorcycle he had rebuilt, Hannah slammed into a car as it pulled out of a driveway.

“The driver probably thought he had killed me,” said Hannah, now 34 and a resident of Dublin. “Actually, he had only changed me.”

Hannah said he was wearing a helmet when the collision threw him 40 feet to where he landed on his head. “I stood up, walked aimlessly for a moment, then collapsed.”

The world Hannah woke up to after the accident was indeed changed. While he had no broken bones or significant physical injuries, Hannah’s brain had undergone severe trauma. The former straight-A student with a gregarious nature now had difficulty speaking. But worse, he discovered he couldn’t read or write, and therapists could do little except encourage Hannah to heal his brain by using it.

“A portion of my brain had to rebuild its connections,” he said. “I had to basically relearn everything.”

As Hannah tackled the daunting challenge that summer of learning to read as an adult, some words on the page did seem familiar. Yet when it came to writing, he discovered he had to learn how to spell all over again.

Hannah said that even after he could recognize individual words, he couldn’t read a whole sentence without forgetting what he had just read. When he was finally able to comprehend a full sentence, he had to work up to remembering the meaning of a given paragraph, then eventually a page, a chapter, and so on.

Similarly, speaking proved to be a challenge. “Deep down in my brain I knew the next word I was trying to say,” said Hannah, whose green eyes deepened as he recounted the experience. “But the word just wouldn't come to my lips. I’d go blank and get frustrated.”

As the fall semester approached, Hannah made progress in his rehabilitation, but was far from recovered. Yet he was determined not to let his accident detour his plans for college, so he went ahead and enrolled at U.C. Berkeley.

Attending a first rate university at that stage in his recovery, Hannah said, was like having “one lobe tied behind my back.” He told only a few fellow students about the accident and none of his professors, who assumed he was a little slow: “I didn't really interact with my professors that much. I was very self-conscious and didn't want to make any excuses, or have anyone feel sorry for me.”

Enrolling in two classes in his first semester, Hannah received a C and a D—the first D he remembers ever getting in school. He was put on academic probation, but nonetheless took a full load the next semester.

Hannah said his social skills around campus weren't good and he often kept to himself in the classroom. Yet he did make a few friends—including girlfriends— during his college experience.
Hannah’s commitment to his studies paid off, and two and a half years after enrolling he beat the odds—as well as the academic timeline of some of his classmates—and graduated with a degree in English.

“So now, 14 years later,” Hannah said, “I don’t have any comprehension problems. My brain has healed and my emotional demeanor has grown. Having gone through such a difficult time, I can relate to others and their sufferings.”

Today Hannah donates time to community causes, including as a member of the Rotary Club of Pleasanton North. He makes a living working with Livermore Valley Insurance Services to provide group benefits, insurance and financial products to businesses and individuals in the Tri-Valley.

“Accidents happen and people need help,” Hannah said. “With proper planning, love and support, we can overcome any obstacle. I’m testament to that.”

1 comment:

she said...

congratulations to you marc hannah! you do serve as an example that we can all overcome obstacles.. but you provide a wonderful example of so much more than just that! strength, character, determination, compassion, egolessness, perseverance, courage. -and the patience with yourself to let all of those great qualities develop over time, through the struggle, and while you engaged in life

and of course you would never credit yourself with so much

which is why I AM SO GRATEFUL FOR JIM OTT because, in a world where so much attention is given to promote fear, guilt, upset and worry

he illuminates the real people and life experiences that can help enlighten us all.

thanks jim! keep 'em comin'
~s.