Smell the roses, and be grateful
Anosmics – those without a sense of smell – miss something often taken for granted.
By Bryan David Finlayson
I was 13 when I lost my sense of smell.
Skateboarding downhill in Santa Barbara, Calif., my stepbrother Christian and I were racing. It was not important where we were going; there was no reward for winning, no punishment for losing.
We were competitive.
Gaining speed, I broke ahead of Christian, who was 17. I remember feeling elated over seizing the road from him.
Then the road disappeared.
Minutes passed before I came to, with Christian carrying me to the curb. My transition into the accident that turned my world upside down, for me, is seamless because I cannot remember. The fall was sudden, resulting in the direct impact of my head on the hard asphalt.
I was not wearing a helmet.
A week later, after I was released from the hospital, Christian described what he had seen.
“When your head hit, your glasses went flying straight up, 10 feet in the air,” he said.
Doctors at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital told me that I had received a brain contusion, a more traumatic form of a concussion, involving bruised tissue. When the back side of my head hit the asphalt, the impact caused my brain to first bash into the back of my skull, then ricochet strongly against the front.
The ricochet did the damage.
There was extreme bleeding over my frontal lobe, there was the possibility of blood clots leading to seizures, and pressure was mounting inside my skull from the excess blood and swelling brain tissue.
They would have to drill if the pressure worsened, doctors said. I was given morphine and other medications to prevent seizures and reduce the swelling.
The medication worked, and the swelling subsided. They didn’t have to drill.
Four days later, though dizzy and groggy, I went home from the hospital.
It was over a plate of spaghetti at dinner that I realized I couldn’t smell the food. In fact, since leaving the hospital, I had not smelled anything.
My family dismissed my condition as temporary and said once I was off the anti-swelling medication my sense of smell would come back.
They were wrong.
Weeks later it hadn’t come back. It has been eight years now, and I am still waiting.
My head injury left me with more lasting damage than I or anyone else in my family could have predicted.
After consulting a neurologist, I learned the violent ricocheting of my brain against my skull had severed the nerve endings connecting my olfactory glands to the lower cortex of my brain. I was not regaining my sense of smell because scar tissue had formed over the bone, blocking the nerves from regenerating.
I am among nearly 14 million Americans who are anosmics – people who have lost their sense of smell. For us, there is next to nothing in the way of medical treatment.
The medical community sees anosmia as a minor disability, like the common cold.
Generally, treatment is a choice between a biopsy or Cerefolin, a seizure medication.
Biopsy involves drilling into the skull. Noninvasive recovery with Cerefolin has been limited.
A reality of medical research is that smell is the most understudied and least understood of our five senses. The impact of losing your sense of smell on your physiological well-being is just beginning to be explored.
To an anosmic, there is no difference between smoky air in a pool hall and the fresh air outside, save for a lighter feeling on the skin.
I never smell the cologne or deodorant I apply to myself every day. I have no knowledge of the smell of my girlfriend. At the beach, I used to relish the salty smell of the ocean; now my skin just feels sticky.
Smell is a sentimental sense, and missing it can cause depression in anosmics.
Some of my fondest memories are smells: a rose, fresh-cut grass, the ocean. Smell is a valuable sense that is too often taken for granted and sorely missed when it is gone.
It is frustrating that there isn’t more treatment for anosmia. For now, I must accept that I lost my sense of smell over nothing, a silly race down a hill in California leading nowhere in particular.
That’s what stinks.