January 20, 2011 |

Skate injury leads to a life without taste, smell

Maggie Stern doesn’t eat at restaurants so much anymore. And she no longer buys fancy spices. Stern, a 42-year-old Haines hairdresser, fell on ice while skating last January, and hasn’t smelled or tasted anything since.

"I was totally a foodie. I loved to cook and explore exotic flavors. Now I’ve forgotten that food has taste. But I miss smell most of all," Stern said in a phone interview this week from Wisconsin.

A lifetime ice-skater, Stern was jumping at Chilkoot Lake when her skates went out from under her. She fell backward, landing on her head so hard she couldn’t sleep on her back for months. She didn’t lose consciousness, but she felt something was wrong.

"It took a little while to figure out. I had some kim-chi in the refrigerator. I couldn’t smell it. At first it seemed like a joke. Then I looked it up online."

What Stern discovered was she suffered a "coup contrecoup" injury, a severe bruising of the brain within the skull that can strain or sever olfactory nerves.

She also learned that such an injury is not uncommon – resident Margaret Plucker, 65, of Haines has the same condition, the result of a fall six years ago – and that the chances of a full recovery are slim. "All I can do is hope there are a few nerves in there that can figure out where to go and do their thing," Stern said.

She’s slowly adjusting to losing not only a sense, but a connection to people. She’s at her mother’s home this winter. "We used to go to the restaurants, but I can’t go to dinner with her the way I used to. We can’t cook together."

The loss of smell, however, weighs even heavier. Smell, she said, is a sense directly tied to emotion. She points out that it’s a sense that’s always "on" and connects us to our mates while protecting us from smelly hazards like gas leaks, rotten food and drunk people.

"I could eat the most rotten food in the world, and have no idea. I ate some pesto that was more mold than pesto and I didn’t know until (partner) Sean (Bryant) told me."

The missing emotional side became evident when she and her sister-in-law went looking for something in her grandfather’s basement. Her sister-in-law remarked on how the place smelled the same after many years, but that was a connection Stern couldn’t make. "I know grandfather’s house had a smell, but I can’t remember it. That’s an experience I can’t share anymore."

Stern and Plucker say that when the olfactory sense goes, it takes with it the memories of smell and flavor.

"You remember the enjoyment, but not the flavor," Plucker said. "It’s like maybe we no longer have the words. I could tell you my favorite foods, but I couldn’t describe the flavor."

Stern said: "I don’t remember the smell of pizza, so I don’t crave pizza. I don’t have that emotional attachment."

Stern said she still eats out of boredom and restlessness and can find some pleasure in the texture or "mouth feel" of foods. "I love noodly things. I like the texture of noodle pasta. Potato chips are still deadly. I guess I love the crunchy, crunchy, though I’m not eating carrots." She said she still overeats at times, for the feeling of being full.

At her mother’s, she eats because her mother cooks comfort food, which gives her comfort. "I know it tastes good, even though I can’t taste it."

Stern has joined an on-line support group and, speaking with other head injury victims, is in contact with some who’ve regained partial functioning. After years, some can detect strong odors. On advice from the group, she takes vitamin B-12 for nerve support, tries to keep a positive attitude and "practices" by trying to taste and smell things.

She said she has worked through her depression and grief and has learned some of the pitfalls of such an injury. "Some people have gained weight because they’re binge eating because they’re never satisfied. That’s a double whammy. You’re getting fat and not getting any of the good stuff."

Stern also has become an advocate of helmets during skate sports or activities that can lead to sudden falls. Helmets absorb shock, and may have kept her from bruising the front and back of her brain, she said. "Head injuries are never a joke. They’re always scary. Even the NFL is starting to figure that out."

She tries to look on the bright side, including that her job doesn’t depend on smell or taste. "I’m grateful I’m cognitive and that it hasn’t gotten worse. What else can you do?"

Plucker said she found ways to enjoy food again, without flavor. She acknowledges her eating habits have become more utilitarian, but said she also takes some pleasure looking at food and appreciating its nutritional value. "Part of taste and smell is color and texture and the associations we have. I call it armchair cooking and baking."

Plucker, who also broke her back and her arm in the fall from a balcony that stole her sense of smell, said her loss is "very small" compared to those of others who were in her hospital ward. She still cooks for her husband John, based in part on her memory of ingredients.

"I always preface (my meals) with, ‘You add your own salt and pepper.’ It’s that simple," Plucker said. "Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I’m 83. My sense of taste isn’t that great, either.’"