On June 22, 1987, my life changed forever. Suffering – and surviving – a traumatic brain injury does that. Even if it does not appear that way to anyone else.
The day of the accident was a walk in the park, literally. I spent the morning and early afternoon rock climbing for the very first time with a good friend, then a hurried drive back to Green Tree on the way to a dentist appointment. I was running late. While driving by Station Square, I asked my friend to stop so I could run to the Metro Train Station and use the pay telephone to call my dentist.
Why on earth did I insist on calling my dentist just to let his office know that I was going to be a few minutes late? I wanted to be thoughtful. I like being thoughtful. But my compulsion to inform my dentist I’d be a few minutes late irrevocably changed my life.
Running across four lanes of traffic on East Carson Street, two lanes going in opposite directions, must have appeared easy to accomplish. I have no recollection. After successfully crossing the two westbound lanes, there was, I am told, a large truck in the eastbound left lane. The truck had stopped to let me cross. The truck’s girth apparently blocked the right lane eastbound driver’s view. I collided with her car and was thrown 150 feet, my head crashing to the concrete pavement.
Doctors and nurses at UPMC Mercy Hospital, where I spent the next 3 months, saved my life. Another contributing factor: I’d run and completed the Pittsburgh marathon seven weeks earlier. My body’s excellent physical condition and fifty-five beats per minute resting heart rate surely played a role in my survival.
Not many understand – or believe – that TBI causes permanent damage and lifelong cognitive, psychological and physiological deficits. The left and right frontal lobe and parietal brain contusions and hemorrhaging I suffered forevermore affected my brain’s executive management functioning and visual-spatial capabilities.
My 30+ year “road to recovery” continues to this day. Dramatic improvements? Yes. Full recovery, ever? No.
Given the bone fractures to my right pelvis, left tibia and left leg peroneal nerve damage (which resulted in foot drop – I wore a brace for many months after hospital discharge), I was unable to run. In fact, my left leg (below the knee) was nearly amputated. But a fasciotomy – incisions made on either side of my calf – relieved the compartment swelling. Mercy Hospital doctors saved my leg.
In addition to retraining my brain on how to take in, process, and respond to each and every life transaction – which included repeatedly reading through the dictionary to re-learn words I used to know but now would not come to mind – I believe exercise and music played a significant role in my brain’s healing. I could not run, but I could cycle. And I spent hundreds of hours in physical therapy on a Lifecycle bike, peddling away the anger, frustration, agitation and other “not me” thoughts, feelings and emotions which now inhabited my injured, but healing, brain.
The cognitive retraining that I participated in – both while a patient at Mercy and after discharge – had a huge positive impact. These vocational programs helped me to organize my thoughts and improve the circumlocution and other expressive verbal challenges I suffered after my TBI.
I support the University of Pittsburgh brain injury research programs because – if it weren’t for the extraordinary medical care, nursing, pharmacological, physical and cognitive rehabilitation services I received after the ambulance found me unconscious at the scene of the accident – I would not be alive today.
It is vital that we all contribute whatever we can and support Pitt’s brain injury research programs.
I will bet that everyone in the world is just one step removed from knowing a TBI survivor. Just because your sister, cousin, stepson, best friend or co-worker has not shared the details of his or her brain trauma – or one of his relative’s or friend’s experience with TBI – does not change the reality. These people in your life may be reluctant to share. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to TBI.
Please, support Pitt’s TBI programs and help us change that.