Living With a Brain Injury

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It was a beautiful sunny day in early May 2006. My friend and business partner and I were working on a house we were flipping. One of the tasks we had set for the day was to get up on the roof and sweep out the gutters–after a blustery winter there were a lot of pine needles. It was a one level ranch house with a low incline roof. Neither of us was worried about getting up there. We had a good, steady ladder we had already used inside to get up to sweep out cobwebs from the cathedral ceiling in the living room.

I climbed up the ladder a few steps and tossed the broom ahead of me so I could give climbing my full attention. As I began to transition from ladder to roof, everything went awry. The ladder began to fall, but I did not have full grasp on the roof. At this point, my memory becomes spotty at best. I remember trying to corral the ladder with my legs. I remember thinking that what I needed to do was  roll out of the fall. And I distinctly remember a peaceful voice in my head advising “relax relax relax and drop”.

I fell. My right leg was tangled in the ladder which upended me. I landed face first on the concrete. Caught in the ladder, the Achilles tendon in my right ankle tore completely apart. I did not lose consciousness. I looked down on the pavement and saw a lot of blood and my teeth. I remember being in the ambulance. I remember a brief moment in the emergency room when a nurse commented on my pedicure. Then I don’t remember anything until I was home.

I never really had any treatment for my brain–I think because I didn’t lose consciousness and I was always able to answer the questions the doctors asked. The ankle injury took months to heal–I was not allowed to put any weight on it at all for four months so I had lots of time just sitting–and during that time, I was advised to do crossword puzzles for my brain. At first, I couldn’t even complete the ones for brand new readers (first grade level). It took too much concentration. I couldn’t read a book, or a magazine–too much focus. I couldn’t even watch TV–I lost track of the story after about 10 minutes. I had a lot of healing to do. Ultimately, it was two years before my mouth had healed enough to put in implants. I had no nose the day I fell–it was reassembled. The plastic surgeon I had was amazing–today few can see any of my facial scars unless I point them out. I see them– there are dozens of tiny scars. I did sit and rub vitamin E oil all over my face for days on end which probably helped a lot.

Slowly, my attention and focus increased. At some point I realized I had no sense of smell. For several years I assumed this was because of nose damage. Finally I realized it was brain damage. Although the fall happened right before my 40th birthday–or right when things like memory are going to change–I ascribe memory issues most often to the fall. Memory issues can be anything from walking into a room and forgetting why I walked in (not uncommon in people ‘my age’) to having no memory at all of things, even when several people tell me I was there (people I trust). These issues are most pronounced if I am tired–brain tired, not physically tired. If I have been concentrating at work, or reading all day, or writing–there is a definite falling off point. It’s not gradual–all of a sudden I can’t continue. I can’t focus long enough to do one more problem, one more sentence, one more invoice. This is the legacy of my fall– loss of a sense and loss of some memory.

I often make light of my injury–I’ll laugh at an error and say “oops, brain damage!” I once had a co-worker roll her eyes and say “You know, you can’t use that forever.” and I replied “Actually, yes, yes I can. That’s exactly what a brain injury means–forever I have brain damage.”

I’m actually pretty lucky. Losing my sense of smell and getting brain tired  aren’t really that much of a permanent loss. There are many many more TBI patients who deal with far more profound losses every day. I don’t “look” like I have a brain injury, whatever that means. But if I can in any way make it so others with more profound injuries than I can be better accepted, I will do it.

This is Brain Injury Awareness month. Many people with brain injuries don’t want to talk about it because they are afraid of a stigma. My hope is that by talking about it, the stigma can be erased. Get educated, get informed. You probably know somebody with a brain injury. Like me.

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