Songs line the road to Patrick McGuigan's recoveryby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
For every successful band or songwriter there are dozens of equally deserving artists who don't make it because they just didn't get a lucky break. This next story is about a Minneapolis musician whose career was derailed by a very UNlucky break. But music remains important to his life for a whole new set of reasons.
Minneapolis — In the fall of 2002, Patrick McGuigan was in the process of changing his life's path. The former Peace Corps volunteer and global traveler had decided to quit his job as a teacher in Connecticut and try to be a full-time musician.
He had come back home to Minnesota, recorded some vocal tracks for a new record and set off alone for Ireland. There, he would play some shows, maybe busk a little bit and see his ancestral homeland.
But two days into his trip, tragedy occurred.
"November 13, 2002: I was in a car wreck and it shmushed my brain," he says.
Actually, McGuigan was hit by a van while jogging down a busy Dublin street. Though his body was barely roughed up, he was left with a traumatic brain injury. It severely affected nearly every aspect of his functioning, from his memory and motor skills to his speech.
McGuigan was in a coma for 35 days and in a hospital bed for several months. His memory of that event and anything that happened one year before or after it was wiped clean.
"I'm sorry about the one year before," he says, "because some good things happened. But I'm glad it got erased one year after, because I was in and out of nursing homes and hospitals and stuff, and I don't remember any of it. So that's good news."
McGuigan suffered what's called a sheer brain injury. It might be viewed as the adult equivalent of shaken baby syndrome.
For several years he's been a client at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, which helps disabled people with their rehabilitation. McGuigan has been a client there for years.
Sheer brain injuries cause brain cells to stretch and recoil, according to Dr. Patricia Stewart, a staff physician at the Courage Center. Healing can take a long time, and a full recovery is rare.
"The vast majority if not all of the progress a particular person with a brain injury makes tends to occur in the first year to two years," Stewart says.
It's now been 4 1/2 years since McGuigan's accident.
Stewart also says recovery depends greatly on a person's motivation and support from family and friends. In that regard, McGuigan has been lucky.
Kristin Nemec and husband Jeff Robertson are part of a small cadre of friends who've stood by McGuigan since he was injured. They've known him since college, serve as his backing band and believe in his music.
"I feel very passionate about his talent," says Nemec.
"It's very accessible but at the same time it's slightly different and slightly off, which to me is the makings of great songwriters," Robertson says.
When McGuigan was in the hospital, Nemec and Robertson were often at his bedside, singing some of the songs he'd recorded before leaving for Ireland.
"There's a song called 'Shaman Sings,'" she says. "It's all about healing somebody that's ill. This is one of the songs that Jeff and I would go to play to Patrick while he was in the coma."
"There's a very prophetic line in it that says, 'When your head is on the pillow...,'" Robertson explains.
"'With your head on the pillow and you're whispering along, and all your friends have gone out for a walk around the town...,'" Nemec chimes in.
"And I'm not kidding about this," Robertson continues, "when we had hit that line...."
"He was lying on the pillow," says Nemec, "whispering the words to me as I was saying that to him."
"We knew right away," Robertson says.
"We knew that he had memory. We knew that those pieces of him were still alive," Nemec concludes.
Nemec and Robertson finished the record McGuigan started before his accident, adding a few instrumental and vocal tracks and doing the production work. The CD, entitled "Humble," was released in November 2004, on the second anniversary of the accident.
Now McGuigan finds himself in the extremely rare but enviable position of a songwriter who can listen to his own work with an unbiased ear. In this case McGuigan has become his own biggest fan.
"I think that guy was great," he says.
Early on after his injury McGuigan had bouts with depression and difficulty controlling his anger. Now, he's trying to be more optimistic and proclaims that he wants to keep on living, which he says is a big deal.
McGuigan lives in a group home and has some difficulty walking with a cane, and still goes to the Courage Center twice a week for rehab. As an important part of his therapy, he continues his songwriting.
"I wake up nowadays and I sometimes have ideas that I want to get across," he says. "The best way I know is to do it is in a song. I write oodles and oodles of tunes."
Hundreds of them in fact, since the accident, including one he wrote a while ago after staring at some feathery seeds being carried by the wind. It's called "Cottonwood." (See link to audio.)
At the moment, McGuigan is content to keep his songs pretty much to himself. He can't say how close his recovery will take him to the songwriter he was before the accident.
"Who knows where I was in the first place?" he asks. "I just want to continue on the journey of singing songs and making up rhymes and stuff."
McGuigan says he's becoming interested in writing songs about the lives of brain injury sufferers. He says he wants to help people better appreciate what they take for granted: their ability to walk or run, to talk and to remember.
- All Things Considered, 06/27/2007, 5:54 p.m.