Returning to School after Brain Injury

Brain Injury Blog by Madeline Uretsky

October 12, 2012

Returning to School after Brain Injury

The Anticipation of School

I was finally able to return to school part time in January, but with much apprehension. I had just started to put the days of the week and the months of the year in order and I was working on being able to walk better in a straight line and stand still without having to grab onto something.

I was still extremely symptomatic, and did not feel well at all, and consequently, I was unable to be my old self. One really cannot understand the frustration of this until they experience it first hand. I am usually a very energetic and upbeat person, but now my personality was completely flat and emotionless. I simply could not be “present” in any situation. I had damaged my brain and had been isolated from the world for three months. I was nothing but nerves and I was feeling self-conscious. Social situations of any kind were stressful. I could feel myself wanting to socialize and be with my friends, and take part in things, but physically, I was in such pain and completely exhausted, that I just could not do it. I could hardly follow a conversation and many people talking at once were a real bother to my head.

I was also very concerned about my schoolwork – how would I make up all that I had missed? How would I be able to do my homework after an exhausting day filled with headaches? How could I concentrate in the classroom? Would I be able to do work and study at the same capacity as I did before? It all seemed insurmountable to me, and just thinking about it all caused me much stress and worry. 

A Typical School Day

I spent 2 hours a day in school, and I hardly ever made it through. I spent much of my time every day in the nurse’s office sleeping or with ice on my head. When I got home, I would spend the afternoon sleeping and doing absolutely nothing. I physically had no energy in my body nor any capacity to think inside my head. My fatigue was unbearable. This is not your average type of tiredness. This is worn out, exhausted, cannot move, cannot think, brain fatigued where your body shuts down completely and cannot  function normally. This fatigue controls my life to this day, however, it is more manageable now.

There were over twenty-five diagnosed concussions at my school last year, but mine was one of the first, and definitely the most serious. It was an extreme situation, and a learning experience for me as well as for my school community. I did not know how the other kids would react to me, after being out for three months. I got many different reactions that first week from, “Were you in a coma?” “Did you black out?” and “Are you all better?” I was not in a coma, I did not black out, and I was definitely not all better. This shows how much people simply do not know about concussions. You do not need to black out to have a serious brain injury. I knew that the school was going to accommodate and help me, and that helped me to feel better during my recovery. 

The Difficult Schedule

They set me up with a refined schedule with 2 hours a day in the morning, and tutors outside of school. I had to drop four classes and make an easier course load for myself for this current school year. I had to try to balance this new lifestyle with doctors’ appointments, some sort of social life, and my pain. I was seeing my pediatrician every week, a neurosurgeon every eight weeks, a chiropractor three times a week, a chiropractic neurologist twice a week, a massage therapist once a week, a neuro trauma rehab specialist every eight weeks, and an herbalist every six weeks. It was a lot to handle as a teenager. My friends were very supportive but all I wanted to do was be a normal teenager and socialize with them. They understood what I was going through and included me and asked me to do things, even when they knew I would be unable to participate, just so I wouldn’t feel left out. It is a lonely and painful injury and my family and friends have given me so much support. I am so thankful for all of them. 

The Challenge of Doing Schoolwork

The schoolwork was a real challenge, as I had expected. I could feel that my brain did not in work the same way that it had before my concussion. This is such a strange feeling – to suddenly not be able to process information, or think, or do anything, in the same way that I had for all of my life – I felt as though my mind was letting me down. I could not look at a computer screen, I had short-term memory loss, problems concentrating while reading, difficulties putting my own thoughts together, issues solving simple math problems, and listening comprehension issues. I could not do a lot of work at one time, have a lot of words, bright colors, lots of lines, or pictures on a page, and I could not have any noise or distractions whatsoever if I had to do work of any kind. Tutoring at my house helped with this, because there were no distractions and I could take breaks if the work became too much for my brain to handle. I also had my tests broken up so I would not have to memorize as much information at one time. I had a question prompter to help with the memory recall. I was surprised that even just having someone say one word to trigger my memory or say the topic we were doing, or even have the tutor say, “Remember yesterday when you told me….” was extremely helpful on exams. My brain gets tired when I do schoolwork and even things like going in the car, in a store, or talking to people tire my brain, as well as the rest of my body. This is the total body fatigue, and many different things really do contribute to this.

Struggling to Get Through a Day

There are so many things that can change – the way you think, sleep, handle stress, structural issues with your jaw, neck pain, having constant head pain, balance problems, fatigue, learning issues, memory loss, noise and light sensitivity, to name just a few…all from one hit to the head. This makes school, and life, a real challenge. Those two hours of school every day from January through the beginning of June felt like twenty-four hours. Just being in school with the noise, crowds of people talking, lights, lockers slamming, bells, having to focus, walking on a hard floor, going up and down stairs, sitting still, not falling asleep, bright colors, keeping up with conversations, disorganized areas of rooms, taking notes, a constant headache, and listening all make a day of school with a concussion nearly impossible. The smallest things that bother a person with a brain injury would never be noticed or considered by the average person. To this day, my mom and I will go in a store and I’ll immediately get a headache. Now it is second nature for her to ask me, “Was it the shopping cart? Those colored boxes over there? The music playing? The long line at the checkout? That baby crying?” Other students just do not realize what you are going through because they cannot physically see my injury. Although I always looked tired, they never knew what was going on inside my head; constant pain and a struggle just to sit in a classroom. I looked “OK” but I was not; this is why concussions are the invisible injury. This is also why people need to be aware of the effects, because they can be very judgmental sometimes. I was afraid that they would think I was faking all that I was feeling, and the severity of it.

Those two hours at school however, were a great part of helping in my recovery, in several ways. I got to see my friends, so I did not become depressed, which can happen when someone is so isolated from life in general. I also made it a point to reach out to other kids with severe concussions like mine, so they would know they are not alone. I went on a regular sleep schedule, which helped bring some relief. I exposed myself to the things that bothered my head so I got more used to them rather than becoming completely desensitized from them. I started going to stores, movies, and socializing, all on a limited basis. It would not have been healthy to continue to just sit in my house. Every day is still very difficult for me to get through, but I am happy to be able to resume some sort of normalcy in my life. People just do not realize how serious concussions can be and how they can affect a student; they are not to be taken lightly. They are brain injuries; the brain controls the rest of our body!

2 responses to “Returning to School after Brain Injury”

  1. Kristie says:

    Wow! I’m so lucky to have stumbled on this article. I’m a middle school nurse and last year was the first year we had several pretty severe concussions where we had to modify their school schedule for long periods of time. It was such a learning experience for me and the other staff members. I’m curious if you ran into staff that were less than sympathetic after a certain amount of time? We had teachers that, let’s just say, were less than convinced that the students would still need the accommodations after a certain period of time. It was obvious to the rest of us – and sadly, the students as well, that they were being judged unfairly since it’s the “silent epidemic.” You look the same and no tests can prove differently (unless you had a baseline ImPact test which isn’t that common among middle school students). I would love to collaborate with you and some of the teachers and administrators that helped you through this. Would that be possible to exchange contact information sometime?

    Thanks for putting this out there for those suffering from TBI’s and those of us trying to help those that are suffering!

    Kristie Hatfield, BSN

  2. Michelle Thiel says:

    Madeline, I really enjoyed your article. You hit on all the bells that we brain injured can relate to. Very insightful about cognitive and other brain fatigue – all the examples you have such as going to a store, this is not often mentioned even by my doctors. I also found it helpful that you were able to expose yourself to those things and to get more used to them. Very good article, this will help others and friends and family 🙂


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