Podcast: The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded

As regular readers of this blog will know, I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most are interesting and/or educational, a few really resonate with me. This podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s All In The Mind programme is one of the latter. It’s called The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded and is about Nikki Palin who at the age of 46 had a brain aneurysm, “died” twice that day, and now 25 years later is still here to talk about what happened that day, and what the long-term effects of having an aneurysm have been. The programme is based on a documentary which her daughter, Hannah Palin, compiled and it is their two voices which you hear relating the story.

Head X-ray showing brain aneurysm

Why this topic is of specific interest to me, is that as a migraine sufferer, my chances of having a stroke are higher than the average person. Although brain aneurysms and strokes are two different conditions (click on these two Wikipedia links for the early symptoms of each), they both result in brain injury. So it’s something I’ve thought about a great deal. How would I know that I was not just having a really bad migraine, but something far more serious? If it happened to me and I survived, how would I deal with my changed reality?

Nikki Palin’s story gives me some hope that the consequences may not be all bad. She has short-term memory problems now (she says “I’m not happy with it but I can live with it.”) , and her personality has changed quite radically (she says ” . . . I’m much happier now, I like myself much better, I think I’m a better person . . .“). As the presenter of the All In The Mind programme says “one hell of a glass half-full story“.

The story starts with this explanation from Hannah Palin:

Hannah Palin: Fifteen years ago my mother had a brain aneurysm when she was only 46 years old. I’ve come to refer to it as the Day My Mother’s Head Exploded. For those who don’t know — and I didn’t either — a brain aneurysm is a bulging spot on the wall of a brain artery, kind of like a thin balloon that can pop at the slightest provocation. When that happens 50% of people die within minutes.

The mother I grew up with died that day and was replaced by an entirely different person who just happens to have the same memories, and body, and family and address as my dead mother.

One of the most poignant (if that is the right word) quotes from the documentary is when Hannah Palin discusses what she’s learned from the experience. Something which I think not only applies to personal disaster like this one, but in the wake of the recent Japanese disaster, applies to us all.

Hannah Palin:You know you spend most of your life developing a persona that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The right clothes, attitude, outlook — and while it can be comfortable and secure it can also become a prison. When my mother’s head exploded she had a chance to start all over again, the slate was wiped clean, and for me too, really. In those months I became acutely aware of what was real, what was important, sitting at the hospital by my mother’s bedside — important; getting an audition for a telephone commercial — pointless. My mother’s illness was one of those moments when time stops, when normal disappears, when you marvel that everyone else in the world can still laugh and go to the movies and complain about the weather — that’s an explosion.

In those moments you can see life happen; it has clarity and meaning in the midst of all of its horror and pain. But then those moments pass and you’re consumed by the trivia of daily life once again. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the task of making my way through the world I try to focus on the fact that the electric bill does not matter, the idiot glued to their cell phone does not matter, the mind-numbing day job truly does not matter. But welcoming the strange and the different, being open and available for my husband and my friends, my family, experiencing love and laughter as often as possible — that’s what matters, because it can all be taken away in one brilliant flash.

If you want to listen to the podcast, you can download the audio here or you can also read the transcript. I’d recommend listening to the audio version so that you can hear Nikki and Hannah’s voices tell the story.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Film/Television/Radio, Health/Healthcare, Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)


Subscribe to the Notes from Africa RSS and Twitter feeds to receive updates.

8 Comments on “Podcast: The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded”

  1. jacquelincangro
    March 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    Have you read the book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor? You might like this one. She was a neuroscientist who had a stroke at age 37. Absolutely astounding. It seems similar to what Hannah describes in the quote above. Here’s a bit of the review:

    A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain–the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side–swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realties: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace; and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized Jill was having a stroke, and enabled her to seek help before she was lost completely.


    • March 16, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

      I haven’t read her book yet, but I did hear a podcast (yes, all my knowledge comes from podcasts!) of the TED talk she gave. Thank you for reminding me of her, I want to listen to that talk again. I see I can order the book here online.

      Thanks for the tip! So glad you read my post today.

  2. March 18, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    It is amazing that a person can undergo such a critical injury and still survive 25 years later. Absolutely amazing.

    • March 18, 2011 at 6:01 am #

      I agree – the ability of the brain to heal itself is amazing! Although I forgot to mention it in my post, it was one of the things that comes through in the podcast.

      Thanks for visiting my blog and for your comment!

  3. Estie
    March 18, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Very interesting. One thing can change your whole life.

    • March 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

      Yes, and it didn’t only change her life, but that of her whole family. They not only helped her through her recovery, but also had to deal with this new person who they had to get to know all over again.

  4. March 19, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    This is one of the very things I find interesting and can’t wait to study one day (after all the algebra!). I think what Hannah says about how she viewed life after her mom’s aneurysm is especially poingnant. Really, whether it’s an aneurysm or a tidal wave or an earthquake, it can all be taken away from you so fast. It’s important to value the ones you love in your life above all else. Thanks for this as a reminder of all the things that really matter in life – a great thing for me to read this evening. 🙂

    • March 19, 2011 at 11:40 am #

      I thought you would find this story interesting. We all need reminders from time-to-time about what really matters in life! Something else I think people should do more is live in the moment. Enjoy the little pleasures of each day; don’t just keep looking forward to the big events.

      You’ll definitely find the book that Jacquelin Cangro recommends (see her comment above) interesting too. Or if you can’t handle the book right now, try the podcast (!) which I mention in my reply to her for a short version of the story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: