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Surviving TBI From a Bike Accident

Surviving Traumatic Brain Injury From a Bike Accident

By Bridgid Ruden

From bicycle to brain injury

I began training for my first triathlon in 2008 at age 44, encouraged by my wonderful Pediatric Nurse Practitioner colleagues in Neonatology at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.   On May 24, 2008, I began to bike ride 14 miles with my friend, Angie Cookman, on a trail in Coralville, Iowa.  We came to an area with a large downward and upward hill; we were not speeding and were both wearing helmets. At the bottom of the hill there was a six-foot section of water and mud.    I unfortunately hit the muddy area, lost control of my bike, and hit the concrete on the right side of my head.  The helmet was cracked all the way through on the right side for 1-2 inches.   I immediately passed out and started bleeding from my right ear and nose. 

When I arrived at University of Iowa Hospital Emergency Treatment Center I was in and out of consciousness and then began to suddenly vomit.  I wore a neck brace as I had a fracture of the C6 (cervical spinal injury) and had also broken my right clavicle.  The CT scan revealed that my right side of my skull was fractured with a small amount of internal bleeding. Also, my left temporal lobe was bruised and bleeding.   The neurosurgeon advised immediate surgery to remove a left skull bone flap to release internal pressure and allow my brain to swell. I had the first surgery that morning but by the mid-afternoon I required a second surgery since the small hematoma on the right side of my head grew to be about fist-sized.    This large blood clot was causing brain compression and a midline shift. The purpose of the second surgery was to remove the large blood clot and cauterize the torn blood vessel. I had the value of a six on the Glasgow Coma Scale; the best level is fifteen.  Therefore, I was in a coma for about eight days.

Traumatic brain injury miracle

On 6/4/08 a physician sutured my left ear to protect the movement of my cerebral spinal fluid that my left ear was draining. On 6/8/08 the cerebral spinal fluid was still draining, I was more lethargic, and had worsening vital signs.  An MRI showed that I had a brain infection and required immediate surgery to culture, clean and irrigate the area.  In hindsight, which still amazes me, I have been told by several physicians, who have looked at my CT’s and MRI, say, “Bridgid, you are a miracle!” 

On 6/10/08 I was returned to the neurology step-down area after I had my right head staples and hemovac removed.  On this day, I exceeded everyone’s expectations!  I opened my eyes independently and they were bright and responded more frequently.  For the very first time, I was able to follow commands and simple directions.  My family felt that this was my most remarkable experience.

Struggle with aphasia

Over the next few days, I made remarkable steps forward to a surprising recovery. I spoke my first words in three weeks!!  My voice was very soft but what I said when the physician removed the tracheotomy was “thank you!”  I would struggle with the right words and I would not understand questions.  I slept with a fan every night and instead of me calling it a fan, I called it “an electric flower.”  This type of language was the result of aphasia a speech condition caused by the brain injury.  Occasionally, I don’t remember words and sometimes I make up words and I struggle with spelling and reading. 

Balancing brain injury recovery and motherhood

I left St. Luke’s Hospital on 7/3/08 and I was so thrilled!  The accident had happened nearly six weeks before.  However, I couldn’t be the same busy mom I had been prior to my accident.  I still had a long way to go in recovery. I returned to the University of Iowa for titanium bone flap replacement surgery on 8/5/08 since my right bone flap was found to be contaminated with bacteria (anaerobic strep).  Unfortunately, in January, I suffered from a grand-mal seizure.  I was doing more work than I should have taking care of my children and didn’t get a nap that day.  My son Ryan saw me fall head first on the hard wood floor in the kitchen.  He called 911 and turned me to my side and pinched my nose so that I could breathe!  Ryan is my hero!

Seizures can be another part of brain injury and additionally so is depression and post traumatic stress disorder.  I have dealt with all of these unfortunately, but what else has helped me survive?  Healthy food and working out. I exercise 5-6 days per week with running, biking, weight lifting or yoga.  I have amazed my physicians because I refuse to give up!  I rode my bike on the same trail one year after my accident; that day I prayed to the angels to help me survive and I did it!  I cried as I peddled beyond the previous area of trauma but the tears where from the JOY that I felt in my soul.   Another powerful aspect of healing from brain injury is the power of music and dance.  I was scared of my dizziness and memory loss but nine months after my accident, I was able to perform a Latin dance at the Iowa Dance Fest! 

Accidents, especially severe head injuries, change people without warning.  However, they don’t take away all our abilities to heal and to adapt.  If you have one, just remember that every day you get a little bit better.  You can make unbelievable progress with love and support from family and friends as you work hard in speech, occupational, and physical therapy.   It just takes time and refusing to give up!  I am so grateful for all that I have accomplished and the outstanding medical care I received from the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics and St. Luke’s Hospital.  I wish for you to believe in your own strength and ability to endure whatever helps you heal from your brain injury.