Victims of Brain Trauma Driven to Create

This is not a sentimental journey into the mind. It is a story about people whose brains were jolted and re-engineered by trauma, leaving them with curious new talents.

A chiropractor, an ex-convict and a neurologist were all linked to the same medical mystery. How could a common occurrence like a stroke unleash an unceasing and uncontrollable outpouring of creativity in two regular people? And what became of the people they used to be?

In Liverpool, England, Tommy McHugh painted. And carved. From wall to wall, from ceiling to carpet, he covered everything in his home after a stroke caused by aneurysms on both sides of his brain.

It was a creative obsession that began a few days after he returned from the hospital. He began talking in rhyme and filling notebook pages with poetry.


"Line after line, all the time it was in rhyme," McHugh said. "Cup of tea, just for me, nice and sweet, just be neat."

Eventually, his then-wife Jan McHugh handed him a sketch pad.

"And he'd filled a page with these little alien heads," she said. "There was hundreds on the page and every one of them had a different expression."

An Unwelcome Change

The old Tommy McHugh was no artist or poet. Early in his life, he was wild and hot-tempered. He got in trouble for fighting, theft and heroin addiction.

When he suffered a stroke at 51, it was as if this man who once had been processed in and out of prisons had now been processed into a new existence and doctors were no help in attempting to explain it.

"It was just awful," Jan McHugh said. "And I was constantly on the phone to people, trying to get help. Or an understanding of what was going on. I thought he was ... going insane."

Tommy McHugh was convinced that he had two brains and he confronted his wife by claiming to be Vincent Van Gogh.

"At this point I was getting really scared," she said. "And he said, 'You just don't know me at all.' And I thought, well, I don't. I don't know you at all, really."

The pair eventually divorced, but remain friends.

"I wasn't the person they were telling me who I was," McHugh said. "I wasn't the Tommy McHugh they knew."

Kindred Spirits After Strokes

Unknown to him there was a man across the ocean who knew exactly what was going on, because years earlier he also had experienced a kind of creative metamorphosis after a stroke.

Jon Sarkin, who in his old life was a successful chiropractor in Gloucester, Mass., was stricken at the age of 35, as he prepared to tee off during a golf game.

"I felt this intense explosive flood in my head, you know, and it just changed everything," he said. "Sounds were different, things looked different. I knew that something had cataclysmically changed."

Surgery led to a stroke that necessitated more surgery. And after months of difficult rehabilitation, his creative compulsions also began with multiple drawings of the same object.

"I remember I came home from the hospital and I started to draw a picture of a cactus over and over and over again," Sarkin said.

If the world suddenly seemed inhospitable to Sarkin, the tempest in his brain flung out words and images in such a raw and unrestrained way that his drawings now fill an entire storage room in Gloucester.

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