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Drew Magary may never know what caused his traumatic brain injury — and he’s OK with that. The author and popular writer for says he’s happily living his life as “slightly damaged goods.”
In December 2018, Magary, then 42 and a writer for , collapsed in a hallway at a New York karaoke bar after hosting the site’s annual tongue-in-cheek awards ceremony. He’d suffered a brain hemorrhage, then fallen and fractured his skull on a bare concrete floor. In his words, his brain “exploded.” In a painfully ironic twist, Magary had just finished singing a karaoke version of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”
Despite his horrific fall, Magary indeed got lucky. As he details in his moving and often humorous memoir, , published in 2021, his Deadspin co-workers moved quickly and saved his life.
About 69 million people worldwide suffer a traumatic brain injury every year. Yet TBIs still aren’t as well-known as strokes or other disabling events, leading some experts to CNET’s ongoing series seeks to bring TBIs, and other brain afflictions, to light.
There’s no one single cause of TBIs — car crashes, falls, skiing accidents and more can cause a head injury that may or may not instantly reveal itself. In January, Full House star Bob Saget was found dead in a Florida hotel room, with the cause of death eventually determined to be .
Four hours to live
Although Magary was alone in a dim hallway when he fell, his Deadspin co-worker Jorge Corona somehow sensed a “thud” and looked back to see Magary on the floor. Editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell argued vehemently with responding EMTs who thought Magary was drunk. She also pushed for the hospital to do a CT scan when doctors were trying to send Magary home. Lucky for him she did.
“The first CT scan showed two dark spots on my brain: blood seeping through the cracks in my skull and flooding my brainpan,” Magary writes in The Night the Lights Went Out. “I had suffered a subdural hematoma: a brain hemorrhage that was growing and closing in to kill me.”
Magary’s a pro at hyperbole in his columns, splashing them with ALL CAPS wording and poking fun at himself as often as he does his beloved Minnesota Vikings. But he’s not exaggerating here.
Dr. John Caridi, the trauma surgeon who operated on Magary, told him later: “If you’re not taken to surgery within four hours of that hematoma, then you have no chances of living.”
Forever a mystery
Magary himself doesn’t remember anything from the fall. He woke up two weeks later in a hospital bed, where he’d been in a medically induced coma. So he relied on his journalistic skills and interviewed the friends who witnessed the event.
Some of their memories hint that there may have been something already stirring in Magary’s brain that caused the hemorrhage. Greenwell recalls Magary asking for Advil before the show. Colleague Victor Jeffreys says Magary was lying down on a couch, quieter than his usual self. But others say Magary was “absolutely” himself, and “in high energy.”
The accident’s cause remains a chicken-or-egg mystery. Did a sudden brain hemorrhage cause his fall, or did falling cause the hemorrhage? Or did something criminal occur in 10 seconds or less, seen by no one?
“The idea of an assault is not inconceivable because it did kind of look like somebody hit you really hard in the back of the head with something,” Caridi told Magary for the book. “Every fiber of my being believes that this was not spontaneous. Something happened.”
An explanation is complicated because Magary suffered injuries to both the front and back of his head.
“The reigning theory at the time was that the hallway was so narrow that you had hit your head on the wall on the way down while falling, then hit your head again on the floor,” said internist Dr. David Heller, Megan Greenwell’s husband, who helped rush Magary to the hospital.
Some thought Magary had an undiscovered condition, such as a brain tumor, that caused him to fall, but surgery didn’t find anything. He had no history of fainting. If he had been attacked, the culprit would’ve had to be “the fastest assailant in the world, or merely the luckiest,” he writes.
“It’s a case where every possible explanation is somehow equally unlikely, and yet one must be true,” Magary told me. His book examines the various possibilities, but in the end, he admits a cause might never be known.
“It really doesn’t matter to me, because it won’t undo what happened, nor will knowing prevent it from happening again,” he told me. “I’ve frankly moved on entirely from the accident and am happily living my life as slightly damaged goods. I don’t think about the accident much anymore, which I think is the healthier way to go. If I thought about it constantly, where would that get me? I wouldn’t be living amicably with the mind and body I currently have.”
Road to recovery
Magary knows he’s living the title of that Tom Petty song he sang before collapsing — he did get lucky. But the road to where he is now, in 2022, wasn’t as simple as a song lyric. .
TBIs can cause a wide range of symptoms, , including seizures, loss of memory, depression and cognitive problems. Magary experienced most if not all of these.
He lost 30 pounds in the hospital and remembers imagining all sorts of things that weren’t true. He thought the hospital was on rails, like a train, constantly shuttling between New York, Boston and Los Angeles. He believed a celebrity chef had been murdered at the karaoke bar and that he was a suspect. He thought hospital staff believed he was a Mexican special-forces officer. Two days after waking from his two-week coma, he tweeted that he’d passed out while drunk and choked on his own blood, none of which was true. Magary’s wife then tweeted out a correction, and took away his cellphone.
Magary is now thankful for what his family and friends did for him — his book is a tribute to having a close circle of friends and a loving family who will first save your life, then guide you through the abyss of near-death. But with a blunt honesty that’s familiar to fans of his writing, he doesn’t sugarcoat his own attitude. After waking from the coma, Magary was no Mister Rogers. He was angry, loud and in pain, and he argued with medical staff and others, especially when they insisted he try to remain upright, which was agony for him.
“My lack of gratitude was its own exhausting mystery,” he writes. “Whatever darkness had enveloped me the night of my hemorrhage was still there, poisoning my soul.”
Other mysteries unfolded. Magary donned a pair of headphones and claimed they were broken, not realizing yet that the injury had made him deaf in one ear. He suffered nausea and vertigo, and was comfortable only when lying flat, though doctors told him he needed to sit upright.
After two weeks in and out of the coma, and three more weeks in physical therapy, Magary was able to return to his Maryland home, where he lives with his wife and three children, now 10 to 16. His dog, Carter, shook with happiness and nestled into his lap.
But there was no immediate happy ending. At just 42, Magary temporarily had to use a walker to get around, and had to shower while sitting on a stool. Ten minutes with friends exhausted him. He was freezing all the time. He’d damaged his vision, and did exercises to teach his brain to work around the damaged areas.
Dealing with deafness and more
Most of all, he could no longer hear out of his right ear. The fracture had torn through his inner ear, and the damage was too extensive to heal. To add to the misery, his left ear was also damaged. The limited hearing that remained was easily fatigued, and sounds came across as much too loud. Doctors fitted him with hearing aids (at over $2,000 per ear).
Magary’s other senses were affected as well. It was now spring in the Washington, DC, area, and he discovered he couldn’t smell the cherry blossoms and other flowers. The loss of smell, , meant Magary, an avid cook and “smoke boy” (smoked-meat aficionado) who won an episode of the cooking (click through the next page) game show Chopped in 2015, could no longer taste things properly. Ice cream tasted like thickened water.
“Left on my own, I’d be in danger of unwittingly eating leftover taco meat infested with botfly eggs,” he jokes in his book, remembering once eating spoiled feta cheese and not realizing it until his wife was horrified by its smell.
The damage from his brain injury wasn’t all physical. Magary became unreasonably angry with his family. He quotes an unnerving statistic: According to the National Institutes of Health, half of all survivors of traumatic brain injury experience mood swings and clinical depression, often for life.
“The brain itself is a wild and uncertain beast,” he writes. “They will never finish learning about the brain, just as we, as a species, will never have outer space fully mapped out and explored.”
Magary knew he needed help. For the first time in his life, he sought therapy to deal with anger issues. It helped him become calmer and more tolerant, he writes, and he learned to “get over my own thoughts.”
He also gave up alcohol.
“I got mixed messages from doctors on booze, so quitting was ultimately my decision, and I don’t regret it for a second,” Magary told me.
Additional help came in the form of a cochlear implant. Doctors attached a surgical device to his cochlear nerve that takes vibrations that reach the ear and interprets them as sound. In short, the implant does what his injured inner ear can no longer handle. Magary got lucky again, twice: The FDA approved the implant for single-sided deafness just two weeks before his scheduled surgery, and his insurance agreed to pay for it.
The cochlear implant worked. It even survived when Magary accidentally dropped its sound processor, called the Rondo, into the toilet. (He got a new Rondo.)
Magary’s sense of taste even slowly began to return. In excitement, he sampled nearly everything in his kitchen, from sugar to fish sauce, only getting some of the flavors. (Unfortunately, the overly salty fish sauce was one of them.)
Magary’s accident was more than three years ago now, and he looks back with some hard-earned perspective.
“I think, and my wife might disagree, that the biggest difference in me now is that I’m far more mellow,” he told me. “Sometimes that drifts over into being antisocial, but in general I’m much more chill than I was before I got hurt, and especially before I went into therapy AFTER I got hurt.”
Even before his accident, Magary was an internet personality, known for his brash takes, self-deprecating humor, and columns sprinkled with hilarious local commercials and poop stories. His 2015 is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Readers thought of him as a friend, and when he disappeared from Deadspin after his injury, they worried.
“I got so many emails and tweets wishing me well that, to this day, I can barely process it all,” he told me. “Everyone was so, so nice. Real ‘restore your faith in humanity’ shit. I’ll never stop being grateful for that.”
Outside of some familiarity with NFL players suffering concussions, Magary knew nothing about traumatic brain injuries before his own accident. But afterward, those who’d gone through their own experiences reached out.
“I think I misunderstood how legion [traumatic brain injuries] are,” he said. “Before, I sort of envisioned TBIs as either NFL concussions, or strokes old people get when they’re about to die anyway. It’s not true. These injuries are much more diverse than that and they afflict a much greater number of people.”
He notes that the same thing goes for deafness, though such movies as and the Oscar-winning are helping bring some cultural representation.
“People should know how widespread these afflictions are, because then they’ll be in a much better position to confront them when they get one or a loved one does,” Magary said. “There are so many of us. It’s all of us.”
Now, in 2022, Magary is much improved from those dark days of 2018.
“My hearing isn’t 100%, but it’s good enough to keep me comfortable pretty much anywhere,” he says. “And if I ever get overwhelmed by noise, I know how to take sound breaks and manage my condition in other ways. My smell is shot. My taste is still damaged, but I’ve adjusted to it to the degree where I don’t sense the loss when I eat anymore.”
If he could change anything, he’d take his hearing back.
“I’m so used to being deaf I don’t even think about it anymore, but I wouldn’t say no to having two functional ears again,” he told me.
But just as he can’t dwell on what exactly happened in that dark hallway, he can’t allow himself to obsess over the physical changes.
“In order to recover, I really can’t miss what I’ve lost,” he told me. “Otherwise I’d be bereft all day, as I was in the beginning.”
And he is, after all, still the guy who fought a mirror in a department store and lived to joke about it, who produces a yearly , and who previews each NFL team’s season by telling fans . In short: His sly humor and self-deprecating jokes are still intact.
And one more thing remains intact, too, he told me.
“As for my appearance, I’m handsomer than ever.”