Moving Past the Guilt of Surviving Traumatic Brain Injury
Why did I survive?
July 4th is the anniversary of my car accident. It is a story I try to share every year to prevent people from driving under the influence of any substance.
My accident happened not because I was under the influence—but because the driver of the other vehicle was. After all, it was just another day for me. I picked up a shift that I don't normally work for the overtime hours. I desperately needed the money. On my way to work, I was run off the mountain road by another driver.
My life changed that day, and since then I've undergone a constant evolution in my mind, body and soul.
The first few weeks after I finally woke up from my coma were the hardest. I did not know why I was in the hospital, why I was in so much pain, and why I had so many doctors overwhelming me with random information. My mother had signed off on seven surgeries while I was unconscious, and that right there was a lot to absorb. What had happened to me?
One side of my body constantly shook, and I couldn't feel the other. I could barely move my legs, and I was read off a list of injuries that I had sustained in a car accident. I was told repeatedly how lucky I was to be alive. I didn't feel lucky. I felt scared and every time I even took a breath I hurt.
I could not absorb all the faces that kept coming into my hospital room during my stay. I do remember my mother telling someone that she hoped that I could talk, and "what if she can't remember all of her college education?" I laid there with my eyes closed... listening. Are they talking about me?
When I finally woke up, I recognized a few faces but was scared about why I could not talk. I felt tubes everywhere and straps on my wrists to keep me from moving. I was able to write simple words on a piece of paper when asked questions. Sometimes I made sense and sometimes I didn't. I was already exceeding everyone's expectations, which to them was progress but to me was daily torture.
Days moved into weeks, and weeks into months towards my recovery. It was not fast. I had sustained a three-point traumatic brain injury and had severe swelling of the brain. The most disturbing thing was that the swelling started to move towards the front of my head and face. This was caused by the impact that I'd had from behind. The tremors, which were considered small seizures, were also a concern. Is this how I am going to be for the rest of my life? I cried a lot, especially when I was alone.
My recovery was a very long process and I had a family that was not going to give up on me. I was very grateful to have a mother who was a retired registered nurse because she was the one following my hospital discharge that assisted me the most. I could not raise my arms above my head, I could not complete hygiene tasks on my own, I could not cook for myself, stand for long periods of time, walk very well—and all this time I had a large neck brace on.
My days were filled with medical appointments and rehab sessions. Without those people pushing me I wouldn't even be writing this. It took me months with the help of a psychotherapist to even remember the accident. A couple of years ago I took a writing class that helped me piece together all of my notes from my journals. I hope that my story inspires others to never give up and to always think twice before they get behind the wheel under the influence of ANYTHING.
July 4, 2004 (photos of me while I was in my coma)
Glenn: A fascinating case
I want to share the story of a fascinating case I had the pleasure of working on that made a huge impact on me. I was a case manager for 10 years working with adults with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. I never thought about ever meeting another TBI survivor in an environment that is targeted more for Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and various intellectual disabilities.
Glenn changed my life when I took over his case in 2014. He was a constant reminder of how lucky I was to be able to walk and talk without the use of assistive devices. Sometimes I would hold his hand while he smiled at me. Why am I the way I am, and he struggles so much? Why are we so different? I could only pray to the higher powers that be that I will always dedicate myself to help others as much as I can. My calling for over a decade has been to work with disabled adults. Advocating for people like Glenn, educating myself and others working with them, and ensuring that they live the best possible lives imaginable.
I became very close with Glenn's family because not only are they the most impressive and down-to-earth people you will ever meet, but there is no doubt that they did everything that they could possibly do for Glenn 20 years ago when resources were so limited for something with TBI. Luckily, "Magnolia School" which is now called Magnolia Community Services was able to give Glenn a safe environment that he can be a part of. Glenn is an inspiration to everyone, especially myself. I am so grateful to the Touro team, his family and his psychiatrist at Tulane for helping me connect to Glenn and learn more about long term TBI.
I wrote to his sister, to make sure she did not mind me sharing his story. HIPPA rules and regulations are very strict about confidentiality. I hope this story inspires hope and provides useful resources to people that may have a loved one with a traumatic brain injury.
Mardi Gras 2017
Never give up on a person! LIVE, LOVE, FIGHT!
Glenn was in his early 20s when his accident happened. He was a very intelligent young man, electrician by trade, engaged to a gorgeous girl and had just bought a motorcycle. He took his motorcycle for a ride and did not have a helmet on. When he turned at a stop sign he tilted the turn too much and wound up falling and hitting the side of his head extremely hard. This was the source of the severe brain trauma. He was unable to walk, speak or communicate despite the dedicated efforts of his support team during that time. His sister and his parents tried everything with him; rehab, specialists, etc. No progress. His mother remembers one day he just stood up from the wheelchair and started walking without any warning and it simply amazed everyone. He was able to read simple sentences and figure out ways to communicate even though most of his verbal speech made no sense at first. He started to impress everyone with how he was able to complete puzzles, word searches, and especially math problems.
Glenn found a home at Magnolia Community Services in the New Orleans Area almost twenty years ago, because there were no facilities at that time that specialized in traumatic brain injury. He was submerged in an environment with other disabled individuals, but he was so different than the average magnolia resident. He had lived a normal life before and somewhere in his brain, there was a piece of him that was holding onto that life. Hygiene, appearance, tidiness of his room were all things that meant quite a bit to him and he was actually able to do for himself. He prides himself in his "Tom Selleck" mustache and will often give someone he likes the most mischievous grin while smoothing out his mustache.
The first time that I ever saw him do a complex math problem, it blew my mind. three to four digit math problems he zipped through, but was actually doing them from left to right instead of right to left. His brain was working but it was obvious that there were some gaps and pieces missing. As I got to know Glenn, I noticed how easily frustrated he would get when he would try to talk to someone and they did not understand him. Or another example would be if someone was talking to him (especially staff) and they gave him a direction, he would yell or push at them. There were many occasions where he actually pushed his walker into me and cursed at me because we were not getting through to each other. What was really interesting is that he would not hold onto his rages or the fact that he was upset or frustrated for very long. The head trauma and the years of scar tissue that had accumulated left him with extremely short term memory. BUT, if you moved something of his in his room, he would notice. I had to see if there was more to Glenn than what was currently happening. What exactly did he really know?
When I linked him to a neuro-psychiatrist at Tulane who specializes in Traumatic Brain Injury; she was fascinated with Glenn. After looking at his CAT and MRI scans she was in awe as to how he was actually able to write, read simple sentences, say hello, and maneuver himself around with the assistance of a walker. She wanted to see what else he could do and linked him to Touro Neuro Rehab in New Orleans. That was the most exciting time as a case manager to see all the things that he was actually able to do on his own (matching colors, walking with a three prong cane, building basic items using blocks, and even vocabulary that he had made up for certain items. Wet to him meant he had to go to the bathroom and white meant that he wanted some milk. The Touro team had never worked with anyone that had a brain injury this old and they were constantly trying new things with him every visit. The team figured out the best way to communicate to him was by actually writing things down for him on a small dry erase board. The sentences need to be short and to the point. Staff working with him in the home started to write things down for him before they would do things (like setting the table for meals, doing laundry or even changing bed linens) and his outbursts and behaviors actually started to decrease!
The small break through and the teamwork from the Magnolia Nursing Team was beyond impressive. These sessions were three hours a week all in one day and Glenn pushed through them like a champ. He would be exhausted by the time we were done but it was up to the rest of the Magnolia family and team members to keep things going. We were warned by his doctor that Glenn will never be the way he was before his accident, but to make any sort of progress on an injury like his was considered "small miracles" and they still continue. He will surprise you with a random kiss on the cheek, a stick of gum he will offer out of his pocket, and even his flirtatious smile when he sees someone attractive on campus. He is truly a miracle on campus.