SKOWHEGAN — Longtime trial lawyer Dale Thistle thinks he might have found a ghost in his brain.

The ghost takes the form of traumatic brain injury — the lack of cognitive skills, persistent seizures, mini-blackouts and a lack of direction — all from an automobile accident on Nov. 17, 2011, on Main Street in Palmyra. The resulting brain injury caused him to make mistakes in the courtroom to the point that he finally reported himself to the state Board of Overseers of the Bar.

That report and other complaints about his work led to Thistle’s indefinite suspension from practice last year by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Now, Thistle, 67, said there is hope for a full recovery through recent research into brain plasticity, or the ability to alter pathways and junctions of the brain and nervous system to form new ones and eliminate or modify the old ones.

That research, along with mental exercises and the use of a special set of corrective lenses called “brain glasses” and treatment by Chicago doctors Donalee Markus, a cognitive specialist, and Deborah Zelinsky, an optometrist who focuses on neuro-optometric rehabilitation, has brought Thistle and his family new hope.

“It doesn’t look like anything’s wrong with me on the outside,” Thistle said at his Skowhegan home. “I’ve been very embarrassed and ashamed about this whole thing. Humiliated. All of a sudden I was a different person than what I had been.”


Intellectually, he said, he was able to link his mistakes and his depression to the accident, but not emotionally.

His children told him his personality had changed.

His son Eric Thistle, of York, who has just finished the bar examination, said this week that he noticed his father’s house on Water Street was different. There was more clutter and less order than before the brain injury. His son Peter said in a blog post that “Dale no longer shines. He is suffering.”

In late July, Thistle took a break from caring for his dying mother and went to a bookstore in Augusta. That’s when serendipity stepped in.

“I walked in and the first book I saw was ‘The Ghost in My Brain,’ the very first book — serendipity,” he said.

The book was written by Clark Elliott, of DePaul University, an associate professor of artificial intelligence. The subtitle of the book is “How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back.”


“I just looked at the cover jacket and a little bit of the introduction and it just blew my mind. I just said, ‘Wow.’ This fella had a car accident in 1999 and he was suffering from the very same thing, traumatic brain injury,” Thistle said. “He thought just like I did: ‘I’m going to have to live with this. I’m changed. I’m different. I’m just going to have to adapt.'”

Thistle said Elliott found the two Chicago doctors and began treatment.

“The theory is — this is not wild-eyed speculation on my part — that the visual signals sent to the brain need to be redirected from where they have been,” he said.

Beginning this month, Thistle will visit with Zelinsky, the neuro-optometrist, who will fit him with new glasses.

“She’s going to put prisms in my glasses to redirect the impulses,” he said.

He then will visit with Markus, the cognitive specialist, who will help him perform “mental games” such as connect-the-dots, in which three-dimensional structures are created. He will do this for nine consecutive days for two hours a day. Thistle said Markus told him she had never worked with a person with a concussion or a traumatic brain injury in which the person’s vision was not adversely affected.


He said he will go back and forth between the doctors each day over the course of his 10-day stay in Chicago. Then he said he will have to wait for the prism glasses to come in, and he will wear them all the time for about a month and return to Chicago. He said over the course of the optical treatment he could wear as many as six different sets of glasses at varying stages of intensity as they adjust his vision backward into his brain and nervous system.

“I’m very optimistic. I read this book right away. ‘The Ghost in My Brian’ — I have this problem; this is the same thing,” Thistle said. “Elliott recovered 100 percent. He worked with both of these people.”

Thistle’s son Peter, who lives in Maryland, has opened a GoFundMe campaign, Fix Dale’s Brain, to help his father raise the money to pay for the treatments, airfare to Chicago and back, and meals and hotels during his stay. Thistle said he hasn’t been able to work for at least the past couple of years. Peter said the total cost could exceed $30,000.

“Until recently, we all thought that the effects were irreversible, and he would have to learn to live with them,” Peter wrote in the blog associated with the funding campaign. “We would have to learn to live with this new person. Today we have new found hope, and he needs our help to fix his brain.”

Peter Thistle said the “Ghost” in the context of the title refers to the shadow of the person the author was before his accident, always aware that he was capable of more earlier in life, but incapable now and unsure why.

Dale Thistle became known in Maine criminal justice circles in 1994 when he represented Sheri Lee Johnson, of Old Orchard Beach. Johnson was 14 years old in October 1993 when she stabbed her great aunt, Hazel Davison, 106 times with a kitchen knife in Davison’s Skowhegan home. Thistle convinced the judge to try Johnson as a juvenile, rather than as an adult.


“Sheri Johnson spent six years in the Youth Center rather than 65 years in an adult female prison,” Thistle said in an interview in June 2014.

Johnson was released from the Youth Center in South Portland in December 1999 when she turned 21.

Thistle also represented Jeffrey Cookson after he was charged with double homicide in 2000 for the shooting death of his former girlfriend, Mindy Gould, 20, and 2-year-old Treven Cunningham, whom she was baby-sitting in Dexter. Cookson ultimately was found guilty.

Thistle also represented clients in civil cases in federal court, including a class action lawsuit brought by dozens of people who said they were strip-searched illegally in the Knox County jail, ending in a $3 million settlement.

Thistle said if he can demonstrate medical improvement, he can apply for reinstatement of his right to practice law. Time will tell whether he is able to banish the ghost in his brain and return to a normal life, he said.

Doug Harlow 612-2367

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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