A Glimpse into My TBI: A Survivor and Educator’s Perspective
A Glimpse: Dream versus Reality – Refocus — Realization
Slowly regaining consciousness, the altered vision my eyes convey feels more like a dream than reality.
As I stare through the pane-glass window, I look over a secluded parking lot, enclosed by enormous black columns. Making a conscious effort, my eyes slowly move to the right of the window. An abundance of cards hangs on the wall, bringing the pale-cream wall to life. I am experiencing life for the first time, seeing the world through infant eyes.
I sluggishly turn my head, I see my mother. Anxiety distorts her face. Almost comical. She hugs the wall with her back, rigidly standing as if to prevent herself from falling forward.
A teenage boy hovers over me. Sobbing, crying and talking, his words muffled. I am empty — who is this? What does he mean — he never meant for this to happen?
Tension enters my body. My left arm draws inward in agitation. The heavy cast hits my chest and cuts off the circulation at my elbow. Confined to the bed, I close my eyes, silent, completely detached from the dilemma that is now my life.
Severe Traumatic Brain Injury, a glimpse to the past
It has been over 24 years since the car accident on a back road in Hampton Township, PA. At the age of 16, I was a passenger in a one-car accident. Even though I was wearing a seat-belt, I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). My brain stem, the delicate neurological component responsible for life sustaining processes, twisted and stretched, causing the right hemisphere of my brain to hit the inside of my skull. I immediately went into coma and was found seizing at the scene of the accident. I was flown by Life-Flight to Allegheny General Hospital. The doctors’ prognosis was not encouraging; I would be bedridden for life and there was not much chance of any significant recovery. I was comatose for over four weeks.
It was only after I regained consciousness that the doctors change their initial prognosis. Their story now was that it was highly unlikely that I would graduate from high school without major assistance—and higher education was out of the question. This is something my parents never told me as they did not want to discourage me from being me. I had been a 4.0 student prior to my injury, a student who tried to excel in everything she did.
As I soon learned, the cognitive issues caused by the TBI were the least of my worries. The neurological damage from my TBI resulted in numerous physical impairments. I couldn’t walk; the left side of my body was severely impaired; I couldn’t even hold my head up — it wobbled like a newborn’s.
However, the most psychologically draining impairment was my inability to speak, eat, or drink. My tongue lay paralyzed in my mouth. The innate ability to communicate thoughts, emotions and simple daily life experiences was taken from me in only a matter of seconds.
How to Communicate with Others?
A person never consciously thinks about how words are formed and how intricate the process of speaking really is. We unconsciously vocalize thoughts: tongues instinctively move and articulate; vocal cords vibrate with sufficient breath support, combining sounds and syllables, forming words into coherent sentences. My first attempt at speaking, however, wasn’t as effortless. Rational thoughts accumulated in my mind, eventually leading me to verbally express myself, but the only sound I was capable of producing was an incoherent, monotone noise. Only vocalized air, no articulation
Regardless of whether or not anyone could understand what I was saying, I spoke indifferent to my incoherency. The thoughts in my head were clear. I knew what I was saying. Unfortunately, my audience did not have insight to the words in my mind.
Simple Tasks are Mountains
It takes me quite awhile to actually finish eating. I get too tired and too frustrated and am not able to finish the meal. Even though the food is placed directly on top of my teeth, it is difficult to actually move the food around in my mouth. I need to use the nook to move it back over my teeth to chew. My swallowing reflex is getting stronger day by day, however, moving the food around in my mouth with my tongue is another thing. My tongue barely moves.
I do not remember anyone every telling me that I had been in a car accident and that I had sustained a severe TBI. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me the life I had lived for 16 years was now over. Or that I would have to rebuild a life for myself. I had to learn this out for myself, piece by piece, bit by bit.
I felt like a child who was learning everything for the first time, but I knew I would get better it would just take time. There has been a light behind my continuing desire and determination to succeed and it keeps me going day by day. I will always push myself. I have learned to overcome most of my physical impairments, including speech. I do not have my old voice, pre-injury voice back, but I do speak intelligibly now and most strangers I meet do not have trouble understanding me.
But Still Not Satisfied
Despite doctors’ prognosis, I did graduate high school—in the top 10% of my class. I also went on to higher education. I have a BA in Sociology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and two Master Degrees, one in Literary and Professional Writing from DePaul University and one in Transition Special Education with emphasis in acquired brain injury from The George Washington University (GWU). I also have an Ed.D. from GWU in Special Education with a concentration in brain injury and am a Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS). My personal, educational and professional endeavors have been focused on the field of ABI. I am a brain injury education specialist and started ABI Education Services, LLC a business that provides consultation, training, transition services and in-school support for children, adolescents and young adults with brain injury. I have excelled beyond everyone’s expectations but my own.