D is for Daniel
When he was 16, my brother was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Alien Hand Syndrome. It occurred after he experienced a massive stroke that nearly killed him. After rehab and therapy, he was able to overcome nearly all negatives effects caused by the stroke. He was able to walk and move normally and speak with almost no noticeable speech impediment. Unfortunately, the single most detrimental side-effect of the stroke was not cured – his alien left hand.
With Alien Hand Syndrome, the affected individual essentially has little or no control of their hand. His hand would act of its own accord, grabbing things, hitting things, and knocking things over without any regard to what Michael wanted it to do. He would often have to restrain his left hand with his right hand in order to get it to stop acting out in place like the grocery store.
Over the next several years, his condition became worse. He went to therapy to try to get his hand under control, but no matter what he or any doctor tried to do, his left hand would act out. It became violent and almost spiteful. Instead of knocking things over, it started throwing things. It would hit people if they got too close and even hit Michael from time to time if he tried hard to stop it from doing what it wanted.
When he was 26, Michael told me something that had scared him for about a year then. He said that he didn’t want to tell anyone because he was afraid of people thinking he was even crazier than he knew they already thought. He said that his therapist had done an exercise with the hand that yielded bizarre results.
He said his therapist put a pencil in his right hand and told him to write his name. Michael did so. The therapist then handed his left hand a pencil and slid that same piece of paper over. He told Michael to write his name.
He watched in horror as the hand began to form letters which were not Michael.
When the hand was done, it put the pencil down and slid the paper over to the therapist.
Below Michael’s name were neatly crafted letters which read “Daniel”.
The therapist wanted to ask Michael’s hand questions, but Michael said “no”. Watching the hand write a different name really freaked him out. He said he’d always wondered if maybe that hand WASN’T his at all, or at least not under his control, conscious or subconscious, and that answer solidified his fear.
He said he genuinely believed that the hand wasn’t his at all.
All while he told me this story, his hand struggled against the white-knuckled grip of the other. It clawed at his palm and pulled against his right hand, and seeing that happen while he told me the story of Daniel made me begin to believe that perhaps he wasn’t as crazy as he thought. Maybe he was actually on to something.
That night, on his way home from my apartment, Michael was in a car accident. He hit a cement barrier going 80 mph. To everyone there, it seemed like it was an attempt at suicide. He survived, but had to be helicoptered to the University of Utah hospital for treatment. He was in surgery for 18 hours and came out with only one hand.
He woke up three days later to a room full of friends and family. I sat down on his bed, having discussed with my family and decided that it would be best coming from me, and broke the news to him.
He lifted his right hand and held it up to the light and began to cry. A broad grin crossed his face and I knew what he was thinking – he was free.
That was the last time I would ever see my brother smile. The next day when I came to visit him, he told me his hand wasn’t gone – he could still feel it. It itched and ached and he could feel things when it touched them. His doctor told him it wasn’t too uncommon for amputee patients to experience this. It was called Phantom Hand Syndrome.
He told me then something that I would never utter again until nearly a year after Michael’s death. He told me he didn’t try to kill himself – Daniel did. He didn’t drive into the barrier – Daniel hit him in the face and grabbed the wheel.
Three days later, Michael was found dead in his hospital bed. Originally it was assumed to be a suicide, but the coroner discovered a pattern of bruises on his neck that formed the shape of a left hand.
A murder investigation was launched, but nobody was ever arrested. The only clue they had to go on other than the palm-print on Michael’s neck was a piece of notepad paper from the hospital nightstand with three words on it. “Daniel is free.”
I’ve never publicly shared this story before, but today marks the third anniversary of Michael’s death, and I think he would have wanted the world to know.