Jan 25, 2011

Finding Emilie

In this segment, we take an emotional left turn to a story of a very different kind of lost and found. We begin with a college student, Alan Lundgard, who fell in love with a fellow art student, Emilie Gossiaux. Emilie's mom, Susan Gossiaux, describes her daughter, and the terrible phone call she received from Alan nine months after he became Emilie's boyfriend. Together, Susan and Alan tell Jad and Robert about the devastating fork in the road that left Emilie lost in a netherworld, and how Alan found her again.



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Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab. Today, on this program, we are calling it--

Robert: Lost and found.

Jad: That's right. We have stories of getting lost.

Robert: And of course, getting found. Now, I think we're going to make a little adjustment here.

Automated Voice: Recalculating.

Robert: Shift gears.

Automated Voice: Approaching emotional left turn.

Alan: [unintelligible 00:00:21]

Robert: I don't know how to turn mine off.

Jad: Oh, give it to me. This next story is a very different kind of lost and found, sort of a love story. If you can tell us your name?

Alan Lundgard: Oh.

Jad: Here's the guy.

Alan: My name is Alan Lundgard. Do you want to--

Jad: Do you want me to say anything more than that?

Alan: I don't know. Is this is for like a credit?

Robert: No.

Jad: Sometimes we have two partners.

Robert: Often on our show, we let people introduce themselves.

Alan: Oh, I don't know. I don't have a title.

Robert: Okay.

Jad: All right. That's Alan. The girl, Emilie, we'll meet her a bit later, for reasons that will become clear. The story begins on a fall day in Brooklyn.

Alan: The day in question was the morning of October 8th.

Jad: They're both living in this one-room loft in Brooklyn.

Alan: We woke up and-

Jad: Both 21.

Alan: -went about our daily routine and prepared to go.

Jad: He was in art school. She was taking some time off from art school to work for a local artist.

Alan: She would take the bike and I would take the train.

Jad: What was the morning like?

Alan: It was a beautiful day. The sun was low in the sky, so there's long shadows. I strapped on her helmet and adjusted it, took her bike out for her. We kissed each other goodbye and said, "I love you," and I watched her ride down the street in this early morning, and then on I went down into the subway.

Jad: Six hours later, he's working in the studio doing some sculpture, and he gets a call from a cop.

Alan: He just said, "Emilie Gossiaux, she had an accident. She's at Bellevue. This is the address." I said, "Oh, do you have any more information?" He just told me that it was bad. I was carrying a bunch of stuff and I just dropped everything and started running.

Jad: Now, Alan and Emilie had only been together nine months, but when it started, says Alan.

Alan: It was just so immediate.

Jad: The night they got together, they both just knew.

Alan: It was like a weird prophetic kind of thing where I think it was the first day that the schools had a snow day. It was snowed out. It was like this past blizzard like the city shuts down magical kind of thing.

Jad: He'd gone out with some friends just as the snow was coming down.

Alan: We were trapped at this party.

Jad: That's where he bumped into Emilie.

Alan: Pint-sized, this big iridescent eyes and a very kind of-- I have trouble describing her voice. It's almost as if, I know you guys are audio people, but it's like stereo, almost.

Jad: Truth is, they've known each other for a while, but that night says Alan.

Alan: Fireworks all of a sudden, and it felt right.

Jad: You had a feeling this wasn't just a thing. This was a thing.

Alan: Right, or the thing.

Jad: The thing.

Alan: Right.

Jad: The thing.

Alan: The thing.

Jad: The soul thing?

Alan: Yes.

Jad: All right.

Susan Gossiaux: Well, Emilie, there have always been boys around Emilie. [crosstalk]

Robert: That's Susan Gossiaux, Emilie's mom. She says at first when Emilie told her about Alan, she thought, "Okay, that's another boy." Emilie seems to have that effect on boys perhaps because she didn't really seem to need them.

Susan: Here is someone who's been obsessed with art, and has given up everybody in her life for art.

Robert: At the age of six.

Susan: She was creating her own comic books.

Robert: In junior high school, she took drawing classes every night and then in high school--

Susan: She left us, friends, boyfriends.

Robert: To go to a High School of the Arts in Florida.

Susan: No one stands in the way of her art. It's all she sees. It's all she focuses on.

Robert: Then she visited Emilie in May a few months before the accident and she met Alan.

Susan: I met Alan and he was delightful, but there was a different look that I'd never seen in Emilie's eyes before when she looked at him and I didn't like it.

Jad: Tell us about the accident from your perspective?

Susan: From when I?

Jad: Yes.

Susan: I was at work.

Robert: You're in New Orleans?

Susan: Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans. I get a telephone call. I looked and I saw it was Alan. Alan has never called me before. I answered the phone, I said, "Hello, Alan." He said, "You have to come. Emilie was hit by a truck."

Alan: 18-wheeler semi-truck.

Susan: I took a breath and I said, "Alan, is Emilie dead?"

Alan: He said, "No, but you need to get here as soon as possible."

Jad: Six hours later, her and her husband, Emilie's dad, were at Bellevue Hospital here in Manhattan.

Susan: They brought us into her room in the surgical ICU.

Alan: We all went in, she was just lying in bed.

Susan: There were tubes.

Alan: Tubes down her throat.

Susan: Coming in and out.

Alan: Her face was so swollen.

Susan: Emilie,

Alan: Covered in blood.

Susan: -weighed probably at the time of the accident about 100 pounds, and she then weighed 128. She had swollen 28 pounds.

Robert: Oh, wow.

Alan: She had multiple fractures in her leg and her pelvis and the left side of her face.

Susan: They had opened her abdomen and they had taken her intestines out and put them on top of her body so that she could breathe.

Alan: She was just lying completely still.

Susan: That first 48 hours, nothing moved. Nothing.

Alan: We took up shifts. Her mother would be there in the day and her father in the evening, and then I would be there with her at night.

Susan: Her eyes weren't even flickering.

Robert: As she sat there watching Emilie not move, she says, she kept thinking, "Why? I've got these four kids and everything bad seems to happen to Emilie."

Susan: Starting at six months, ear infections, then sinus infections, then asthma.

Robert: By kindergarten, Emilie was losing her hearing for reasons no one could quite figure out. She had to get hearing aids,-

Susan: On both sides.

Robert: -but somehow her mom says all this just made Emilie more fierce.

Susan: If anyone can conquer this, it's Emilie.

Alan: I think on the second day, they started to take her off her medication expecting to see some reaction from her.

Susan: And nothing. Nothing. There was a nurse and the nurse said that Emilie was gone and asked me about organ donations. I said, "Yes." I worked up enough courage to go into what they call the track room, which is where the residents usually are. There was one woman resident sitting at a computer and I went and I said, "When are you going to let Emilie go?" She's say, "We will have a family meeting tomorrow morning and we'll talk then." I said, "Okay."

I left and I went back and I'm sitting with Emilie, side of her bed, and I'm telling her-- Emilie and I read the book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, when she was a sophomore. I remember the ending of the book, "There's a land of the living, there's a land of death and the bridge is love, and that love is the only thing that survives. It's kind of the way it goes. I was sitting there with Emilie and I was saying this and talking in her ear and saying this, and talking to her and telling her that I would love her eternally through all time, that our love will never end. Emilie raised her left hand.

Robert: I kind of lost it. [crosstalk]

Susan: It was chaos. I was yelling for the nurse, "I saw it. I saw her move."

Alan: That was really one of the really abrupt moments.

Jad: Now, they knew--

Susan: Emilie was not dead. Emilie was alive.

Jad: How alive? Over the next few days says, Alan.

Alan: She slowly started moving more, not really in response to anything. She'd writhe in bed, scratch her leg where there was a wound.

Susan: We would hold her hand down and she'd slap. She'd slap our hands away.

Jad: When they tell this to the doctors, the doctors would say.

Alan: That's not indicative of any kind of mental functioning.

Jad: It could just be a reflex really. The medical team began trying to determine just how damaged was she?

Susan: The ophthalmologist teams were coming in and they were trying to get Emilie's eye pupils to respond, and they weren't responsive, and so I knew what that meant.

Robert: What did that mean?

Susan: It meant she could be blind. Emilie, couldn't see, couldn't hear.

Alan: Because remember, she wore hearing aids.

Jad: Why didn't you just put those in?

Susan: We tried.

Alan: We tried many times to put it in, but she just won't allow it.

Jad: What would she do exactly when you did it?

Alan: Flail her head, shake around.

Susan: Kick and she would hit. Had a lot of bruises on my body where she kicked me and pinched me, so we stopped. Every once in a while, we would go back to it, but there was the question, maybe she couldn't hear anymore.

Robert: What do you do to a person who you don't know what's going on inside her and you can't get to her?

Alan: You send her to a nursing home, and that's where she would have remained.

Jad: After several weeks in the ICU, Emilie--

Susan: She was stable.

Jad: That meant they had to make a decision.

Susan: Once you become stable, then you have to move off surgical ICU and out of the hospital to either a rehabilitation or to a nursing home.

Jad: That became the new question. Where would she go? Could she be repaired so to speak, in which case she'd go to rehab, or is this it for her, in which case, she'd go to a nursing home?

Robert: Now, making that call medically.

Dr. Nicole Eisenberg: Is sometimes tricky.

Robert: That's Dr. Nicole Eisenberg. She's a physician at NYU and it's her job to make that call. She says one of the key criteria for getting someone into rehab.

Dr. Eisenberg: To do rehab on somebody, you need to have them reacting to you. A person needs to be able to participate in a meaningful way for three hours of therapy a day.

Susan: They have to be able to follow commands because that's how you rehabilitate someone. If the person can't hear, if the person can't see, then there's no way to communicate with her.

Alan: They made the assessment that she could not go to rehab.

Susan: That Emilie should go to a nursing home. I sent my husband back to New Orleans to look for a nursing home.

Alan: That they could bring her back too. They just kept it all a secret from me that they were going to take her away from me.

Susan: I mean, how do you tell someone who loves your daughter that much that we're taking her away? It was not just one life that we had in our hands, it was two lives. We felt that that would be the best thing for him, and Alan could hate us maybe as a way for him to bridge and let go of that grief.

Jad: But then, as the doctors were prepping Emilie to move her to a nursing home, they had to remove her tracheotomy, which was helping her breathe.

Alan: She all of a sudden started talking.

Jad: Really?

Robert: She spoke?

Alan: Yes.

Jad: What was she saying?

Susan: She would curse, "Don't touch me, you blankety-blank."

Alan: She would say stop.

Jad: This is in response to someone touching her?

Susan: To touch. Touching her.

Jad: If she wasn't cursing, says Alan.

Alan: She would call everybody, Ms. Dashwood.

Susan: Certain people that were touching her were Ms. Dashwood.

Alan: From Sense and Sensibility.

Robert: They're quoting Jane Austen?

Alan: Yes. We had watched the movie a couple of months previous to this.

Susan: Somehow, she was locked in the movie.

Alan: It was just the assumption of the doctors that she was just mentally damaged.

Jad: If she's calling people Miss Dashwood, doesn't that at least mean something?

Susan: No, it wasn't enough to say that Emilie could follow a command like sit up, raise your right hand.

Jad: The plan was still the nursing home?

Susan: Right.

Alan: I mean, no, every possibility had not been exhausted.

Susan: I can see him. He was sitting across the room, and his jaws were just clenched.

Alan: I just was not going to give up.

Susan: He was saying, "You have to give her a chance. You have to give her the chance."

Robert: Did you have a plan?

Alan: No. I had no plan whatsoever. I was lost. This experience was just completely traumatic to me emotionally, but at the same time, I was going to help her in whatever way I could. The only trajectory I had was to help her.

Jad: One night, just a few days before Emilie was going to be discharged to a nursing home away from him.

Alan: I was there alone with her, and it was 3:00 AM or something.

Jad: She was calm.

Alan: She wasn't trying to fight me away or anything. I had helped her fix a thing that was wrong with her mouth wiring. It was a wire that was poking her, and I'd fixed it before.

Jad: He says, at that moment, something occurred to him.

Alan: It really just was like in the recesses of my mind.

Jad: He thought of the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. He'd read about it a few days earlier online, and he thought, "What if I tried what Anne Sullivan did with Helen Keller on Emilie?"

Alan: I took her left hand with my left hand, and I leaned over and using her wrist as the baseline for the words.

Jad: And his finger as the pen.

Alan: I just wrote, I, waited a second, L, waited a second, O, waited a second, V, E, waited a second, you.

Jad: Then, according to Alan, she said to him.

Alan: She said, "Oh, you love me, thank you."

Jad: She literally replied immediately to it?

Alan: Yes, she replied immediately.

Robert: Does she know who you are?

Alan: No, she has no idea who I am.


Jad: Now he had a way to get to her, so he could figure out how much of her was actually there and maybe even prove it to the doctors.

Alan: I had to have something that was conclusive to present to them. The following evening, I took out my cell phone, and it has a record function on it, and I started recording question after question to determine her cognitive ability. What is your name? What, W-H-A-T.

Emilie: Hi.

Alan: Is, I-S.

Emilie: Is.

Jad: You fingerspelled every letter?

Alan: Yes.

Emilie: A car. What is your name? Hello, how are you? Let me spell it for you.

Alan: She's writing her name on the palm of my hand.

Emilie: [unintelligible 00:15:06], Emilie.

Susan: Alan called me at four o'clock in the morning. He said, "You have to come now. I have proof."

Alan: I am now going to ask her what year it is.

Emilie: What?

Alan: Now I'm going to write, year-

Emilie: Year.

Alan: -is.

Emilie: Is.

Alan: -it?

Emilie: 2010.

Alan: Very good. Emilie, very good. Very, very good. Do you know where you are?

Emilie: I don't know. I don't know where I am.

Alan: Right now I'm going to write hospital.

Susan: Got there about 4:45 in the morning. Alan is over there by the bed continuing to fingerspell and talk to her and she calls him, Alan. She knows that this person who is fingerspelling on her hand is named Alan, but Alan can't get her to understand who he really is. That it's her Alan.

Alan: I'm just going to write my name again, Alan. She just couldn't make that mental jump to connect her past life with her present.

Emilie: Alan, what ethnicity are you? Are you Asian?

Alan: Am I Asian? Tell her no.

Susan: The next thing I hear her say is pull me out of the wall.

Alan: She kept saying,-

Susan: "Pull me out.

Alan: -Please, pull me out of here.

Susan: It's dark in here.

Alan: Pull me out.

Susan: Help me.

Alan: I know you can do it.

Susan: Pull me out of the wall."

Alan: I kept saying I can't. I would write on her hand, I can't.

Susan: Alan starts to sob and I'm crying too.

Jad: What are you thinking at this point?

Susan: It wasn't enough.

Jad: That wasn't enough.

Susan: It wasn't enough. I said, "Alan, ask her about her hearing aids? He fingerspells, hearing aid.

Alan: Hearing aid. She said, "Okay."

Susan: She agreed to put the hearing aid in for the first time.

Alan: We put it in and switched it on.

Susan: He said, "Emilie."

Alan: Emilie, can you hear me? It's me, Alan. Immediately--

Emilie: Everything came back to me. I was there. I remembered everything.

Susan: The door opened and Emilie stepped out.

Alan: She was back.

Emilie: Yes, I just started hearing his voice. I knew it was him, and then he said my mom was there.

Susan: I heard her say what I had been waiting for her to say all those weeks.

Emilie: I screamed, "Mommy, mommy."

Susan: She said, "Mama."

Emilie: No, I couldn't believe they were there the whole time.

Jad: We asked Emilie, before she came back, where was she?

Emilie: I don't know where I was if I could see at all. All I knew is that I was sleeping and I was always dreaming.

Jad: She says people would come to her in her dreams and say.

Emilie: "Don't touch that.

Jad: Stop scratching your wounds."

Emilie: My dreams, they blended with reality. [crosstalk]

Jad: She says she knew somehow that there are people around her, but she couldn't get to them and that she also knew she was in a dream,-

Emilie: Why am I still sleeping?

Jad: -but you couldn't somehow wake up from.

Emilie: I felt helpless. I felt really helpless.

Jad: Were you waiting for someone like that?

Emilie: I was waiting for some communication and I was relieved. Alan, he's a miracle to me.

Jad: Emilie is now at the Rusk Institute which is one of New York City's leading rehab centers. On the day we visited her, she just had a breakthrough.

Emilie: Today was the first day I could stand on both legs and walk. Actually, walk. I walked 100 feet today.

Jad: After rehab, she'll be moving into an apartment in Lower Manhattan with Alan. She's blind and the chances of her seeing again are slim, but Alan plans to spend his time helping her cope and helping her find a new way to make art. Emilie, can you introduce yourself?

Emilie: Do you want me to say my name is Emilie Gossiaux?

Jad: Yes, just so we have it all on tape.

Alan: They asked me if I would have a title and I couldn't think of one, but I thought of one.

Emilie: A title?

Alan: Yes. I'll do mine. My name is Alan Lundgard. I'm the boyfriend.


Emilie: My name is Emilie Gossiaux. I'm the girlfriend. [laughs]

Alan: You're the star of the show.

Emilie: Oh, that is [unintelligible 00:20:19].

Jad: If you want to know more about Alan and Emilie, go to our website, radiolab.org.

Robert: I guess--

Jad: We should go.

Robert: Yes. Thanks for listening.

Automated Voice: You have reached your destination.

Jad: Oh, and thanks to Karen Jacobson.

Alan: Oh, this is Alan Lundgard. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Tim Howard.

Robert: Our staff includes Soren Wheeler, Ellen Horne, Pat Walters, Brenna Farrell, Lyn Levy. With help from Douglas Smith and Jessica Grose.Special thanks to Alice Gaby, Dave [unintelligible 00:20:50], Molly Webster, Mark [unintelligible 00:20:52], Jordan Bowen, Susan and Erick Gossiaux, George Martin, Craig Anderson, and Garret Cook. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Automated Voice: End of mailbox.


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