Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the unexpected scent of chocolate

I spent much of the week before Christmas at the UConn Health Center. A daily four hour commute of dry heat shooting up from the floorboard vents of my car, the constant sound of NPR swirling through the back of my mind, half-formed thoughts circling around my nose, and the muted color palette of leafless trees flitting past the frozen windows. Each morning, as I took exit 39 off of that bleak Interstate 84, a gnawing claw began in the pit of my stomach, growing in sensation as my car slowly wound its way up to the gigantic hospital perched on a hill. The UConn Health Center Hospital is a forbidding mass of gray, high up and alone, lording over the landscape. It reminded me of the Emerald City, far in the distance on my journey to Oz.

Inside that concrete castle is the small lair of the UConn Taste and Smell Center (cheerfully decorated with a battalion of cardboard Santas). There are only a few of these specialized centers concentrating on things such as loss of smell due to head trauma in the US; I’m lucky one exists close by. In my days there I was tested by neurologists, dentists, ENTs, surgeons and internists. I spent hours swishing clear liquids from miniature plastic cups around my mouth, each one a different strength of ‘bitter’ ‘salty’ ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’, to test my taste buds. I rated each of the seventy flavors on a scale of 1 (weak, a hint of salt lurking in the back of my mouth) to 10 (strong, almost gagging on the overpowering bitter of quinine). I breathed in deeply while puffing air from mystery bottles up my nose, trying to decipher which had the aroma of strong chemical and which was odorless (virtually impossible for me to tell). I sniffed mystery jars of familiar food smells, touched my finger to my nose, walked a straight line, said ahhh as they peered down my throat, grimaced as they inspected my teeth and tongue. They looked at my cranial MRI and sinus CT scans from last week, the multitude of head x-rays from the accident. They drizzled blue drops into my nostrils, causing me to lose feeling in my nose and mouth, while they stuck a long devise practically up to my brain, looking for unknown obstructions.

And in the end, after a bleary 5am drive in the darkness of Friday morning and long final inspection, they gave me their final report. The head doctor, an elderly man with soft wrinkles and a piercingly sharp gaze, looked at me for a moment, silent and sincere. Just when I began to feel uncomfortable he gave me a gentle smile and said Work is therapy, Molly. Stay busy.

I was confused by his response. Confused and a bit deflated. But it soon became clear that the solution to this problem is nothing but time.

The olfactory nerve, they explained with the help of colorfully simplified medical diagrams, is studded with small neurons that curl off to connect the nose and transfer the smell sensations to the brain. When I was hit by the car and fractured my skull, my brain bounced roughly in my head. Those small smell neurons were most likely severed in the trauma. Optimistic, however, was a word often used. They are optimistic my smell will return; my olfactory neurons will re-grow. The fact that I can smell a bit, greatly improved from the time of the accident, is a wonderful sign. The fact that I sometimes smell things that aren’t there (phantom smells, they call them) means that my nerve is already beginning to rebound. But this is a long process. Two to five years, they said. Perhaps even as many as seven.

A younger doctor bouncing energetically around the office smiled at me with confidence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the bright red and green tie emblazoned with a cartoon Grinch in a red santa hat, nestled behind the stethoscope on his chest. If you had to damage a nerve, this was the best one to choose, he said softly as I tore my eyes away from his holiday get-up. Of all the nerves in your body, this one tries the hardest to regenerate.

And so I left Connecticut, driving directly to Vermont for the holidays, the official medical opinion about my smell ringing in my ears. Wait and see. Seven years from now. Optimism. Time. Olfactory regeneration.

And truthfully, I feel wonderful. As much as I would have loved to hear that my smell would be back in a few months without problem, I now feel buoyed up with hope. The official diagnosis of experts in the field of taste and smell has taken a huge weight off my shoulders. I know, now, what to expect. I understand what has happened and what needs to happen. I no longer feel in the dark. I am filled with possibility. The last of my large medical events is over and now all that’s left is the time to make a new plan.

It has been hard for me to write in the last few months, not sure of where my body, smell and general future stood. But things have cleared since the culmination of my smell evaluation, a fog evaporated from my mind. I spent the holidays in Vermont with my family and for the first time in months I felt that familiar passion to write, no longer needing to force myself to type. I curled up for hours in an armchair next to the constantly crackling fire and finally was able to write without painful effort.

The timeframe of olfactory regrowth forces me to look at the future with a new mindset. My plans are slowly moving away from the CIA and restaurant work. I am no longer going to work in the Bakery. I am thinking about other options, other things that I am passionate about. This certainly does not mean I am giving up my love of food and all that is culinary. But my body has changed; smell, taste and the subsequent ability to work in the food world are hovering somewhere in the distance. Instead of fighting the inevitable, feeling lost and unavoidably depressed in a kitchen where I cannot fully operate, I will be morphing my plans to cooperate with my body. How exactly? I’m not sure. It will be interesting and a bit confusing, certainly. Always accompanied here with writing and food, of course. It looks to involve a one-way ticket to New York City in the near future. And it will without a doubt be different than I expected.


One morning in the UConn Taste and Smell Center, I sat perched on a stool in the office of a lanky, bearded doctor. He was twisting open white plastic jars, their mystery contents covered in thick cheesecloth, and sticking them under my nose. I held one nostril closed at a time, testing each side of my nose in measured sniffs. Each jar held an invisible but familiar scent – woodchips, coffee, cinnamon, rubber, soap and jam to name just a few. The majority of jars whisked under my nose contained no odor for me. It was a large procession of scentless containers. But just when I was beginning to feel overly frustrated (and a bit short of breath with all the deep breathing), an unmistakable smell came bursting out of a jar through my right nostril with unabashed aggression. That’s CHOCOLATE, I practically screamed at the doctor, jumping to my feet in excitement. He looked at me, obviously shocked.

Chocolate? he asked, incredulously. You can smell that?

Yes, I said gleefully. He had me sniff again with the right side of my nose. Yup. That’s chocolate. He smiled and then had me sniff with my left nostril. My shoulders sunk, momentarily defeated. No, I can’t smell anything on that side.

The doctor looked off into space, thinking. He looked perplexed, yet the sides of his mouth were curved in a small but unmistakable smile.

This is unexpected, he said. Generally chocolate is not an odor that those who cannot smell first pick-up on. Very unexpected. But no matter what, even if only through your right nostril, this is wonderful.

And I felt like doing a little dance right there in that pristinely scrubbed doctor’s office. The taste of chocolate, the doctor told me, is almost entirely dependent on smell. Without the ability of my right nostril, chocolate would be nothing but a texture. And so, in the largely decimated field of my olfactory neurons, the one for chocolate stands strong. It’s a fighter, hanging in there despite its loneliness. Joined by the rosemary neuron and occasionally the soap and wine crew, this small band of my favorite neurons have most deliciously decided to stick around. So I’m happy. Unexpected, yes. All of this is unexpected. But my neurons and I will happily re-grow. And chocolate will certainly help.


Alicat said...

I don't want to minimize what you have been through, or the scents that haven't *yet* come back - but hurrah for the chocolate scent!

I'm so glad you are feeling positive. Keep your chin up girl! :o)

Anonymous said...

Hey Molly! I work across the street from the UCONN Med Ctr at CT Culinary Institute as a Chef Instructor. Wow. I am reminded of the trips I used to make from a nearby town here in CT to get to work at MGH. What a drag. Well, next time you're in the neighborhood & have a desire for some gourmet v. hospital food, give a ring. Chef Scott

Anonymous said...

Molly, I can be reached at Take care!!

Tricia said...

I feel sad for you, having to give up your culinary dreams, but it makes sense in light of everything else you've written - especially if it makes you depressed to be not fully aware. Best of luck in your new ventures - with your passion and compassion (e.g. the dishwasher at the summer restaurant) you'll surely do well.

And hey - maybe you should make some chocolate rosemary truffles to give those smellbuds a workout :^) [December Food and Wine has a recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles Rolled in Spices.]

Rainey said...

I almost cried while reading. In my heart I knew this is what the outcome would be — although 7 years is a looooong time to wait.

Let us hope your youth and vigor will be working for you and the progress will come much faster. Meanwhile, I'm sorry to hear that you'll be giving up the bakery. You know, of course, what decisions are right for you, but it seemed like such a good intermediary place until you could resume your plans for the CIA.

Whatever your next goal will be, I'm sure you'll do well and that it will be fascinating to read about. And what pleasure that the dread of writing is gone! Being hopeful and looking forward to the progression of events makes so much difference, no?

For now, Happy Channukah and I hope it will hold lots of chocolate for you!

lucette said...

Chocolate is a good smell to have as one of your few! I love your writing by the way--the description of your clinical visit was very evocative, detailed, precise, absorbing.

s'kat said...

Molly, I've tears of joy brimming in my eyes... such wonderful news!

Seven years can quickly pass away, and I'm sure you'll find something engagingly therapeutic. Cheers, and happy new year!

Helen said...


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Oh, I am so excited that you could smell chocolate. Way to go, girl :) Just remember -- little steps.


Anonymous said...

Dear Molly, I came across your wonderful account while researching loss of smell due to HT after my 16 yr old daughter was struck by a hit & run driver. She like you is a survivor & has made a remarkable recovery & is back at school finishing up her junior year on schedule. The loss of smell/taste & the awful smells is really distressing as we are a real foody family. I am taking her to the U Conn Clinic for evaluation and your account has provided us with hope. Thank you! Susan.