Relay: Anosmia’s Silver Linings

I uncorked a bottle of good white burgundy, poured two glasses, twirled the wine, and zeroed in for a sniff

    I have a nose, but it doesn’t work. Actually, my nose works; it’s my brain that doesn’t. Nine years ago, visiting my sister-in-law in rural Pennsylvania, I fell down a flight of stone steps to the cement floor of her basement. A six-pack of Rolling Rock cushioned my fall. When I picture how it must have looked, I see a hilarious pratfall. But to my wife, son, in-laws, and nephews looking on, it wasn’t funny.

    I woke up a few hours later in a room at Hershey Medical Center. I had suffered a concussion, a subdural hematoma, a broken foot, and a few bruises. I smelled of beer. The paramedics who had rushed me to the hospital assumed a drunken stupor was responsible for my mishap.

    We drove back to East Hampton after I was released the following day. Aside from soreness and a bit of a headache, I felt well enough to take the wheel at the Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, since Christa is reluctant to drive in, through, or anywhere near New York City.

    The headaches persisted for severaldays, but by the third or fourth day, weaned from Vicodin, I felt well enough to celebrate. I uncorked a bottle of good white burgundy, poured two glasses, twirled the wine, and zeroed in for a sniff.

    “What’s wrong?” Christa asked when she saw my puzzled expression.

    “This wine has no nose.”

    She inhaled from her glass and told me I was crazy.

    I sipped the wine. It had some taste, but lacked the depth and complexity I expected. And no aroma at all! I went to the refrigerator and removed a piece of Roquefort. Nothing. Almost immediately, a family activity was born. Who could rustle up the most malodorous article in order to confirm my curious condition? Ammonia got the prize, though a windows-down drive past the sewage disposal facility on a sultry summer day was a close second.

    It didn’t take a medical degree to assume a connection between my concussion and my anosmia. My doctor agreed, but couldn’t tell me if or when my sense of smell would return. Before I get to the lawsuit, I should explain something. My brother and sister-in-law admitted that the storm door to the basement was, in their own words, “an accident waiting to happen.” It was really two wooden doors that sat flush with the floor in the middle of the mud room. Late one afternoon, I went out to my car to get my glasses. During the 20 seconds I was gone, my sister-in-law went to the basement and left the doors open. When I returned, I wasn’t looking straight ahead, but rather at my family off to the left in the kitchen. Down the rabbit hole I went!

    After the accident, my brother-in-law, an expert at all forms of home repair, unhinged the two doors and shifted them 90 degrees so that when opened, one of the doors would block the hole in the floor from anyone entering the room. Nearly undone by guilt, my sister-in-law urged me to sue them. I was initially disinclined, but after visiting the Taste and Smell Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, where after a day of testing I was told the damage was most likely permanent, I reconsidered.

    My local attorneys didn’t handle such cases but recommended a lawyer  who did. When I met with him and expressed my ambivalence about suing family members, he told me that homeowners insurance was the most profitable kind, since almost everybody carried it but relatively few people ever made claims. My action wouldn’t negatively impact my relatives, and he was confident the insurance company would be willing to settle.

    After many months, the company did, indeed, make an offer, which was well shy of the six figures I had come to anticipate. By the time I reimbursed myself for medical expenses and the attorney took his 33 percent, there would be almost no compensation for my diminished quality of life.

    “Let’s take them to court,” I said.

    “Not so fast,” he replied. “Your sister-in-law lives in Lancaster, where the case will be tried. I don’t think you’ll get much sympathy from Amish farmers just because you can no longer appreciate fine wines.” 

    I realized he was right. I had never thought of my anosmia as a significant disablement, but once he had told me I was entitled to a settlement and that the insurance companies were rolling in profits, I began to picture a college fund for my kids and an early retirement for me. In the end, we settled, and I realized the compensation was appropriate.

    There are many obvious things I will never smell again — flowers, wood smoke, pine forests, perfume, barbecue, to name just a few. There are also occasional dangers. Once, at an art gallery opening lit entirely by candles, Christa’s dress caught fire, and I was the only person who didn’t smell the smoke and come to her rescue.

    However, there are as many foul smells as there are enchanting ones. Imagine all the vile scents I’ll never have to experience! I realize that if you have to lose a sense, the best one to kiss goodbye is the sense of smell. I am now the go-to guy for cleaning up after our pets. Christa tells me my cooking has improved, as I have learned to season more generously in order to taste what I’m making. There are also potential employment opportunities. Somebody has to remove long-dead animals from attics, not to mention decomposing bodies from crime scenes. These are just a few of anosmia’s many silver linings.

    Mark Segal is a writer at The Star.