It was a day like any other day, and, like every other one, I got ready for work and headed out the door. I climbed on my motorcycle, as usual, and drove to work, circling around the tight, hairpin turn in front of the emergency room at Saint Benedict’s Hospital where I worked as a counselor. I had arrived 15 minutes early and parked in my usual space in front of the admissions door – nothing new there. The day was as mundane as expected. The psych ward where I worked was filled with patients, half of them teens and young people. I went to my shift change, learned the medical history on my patients then began to gather the supplies necessary for my group session.
One by one, my patients filed in to attend my group session. I handed out supplies and we went to work, discussing the problems surrounding what caused them to enter the hospital in the first place. This routine had been repeated daily for eight years and every day had been identical – arriving to work at 3:00 in the afternoon and working until 11:00 at night.
This night, though, it was 11:00 p.m. and my shift relief failed to show up. I was required by my employer and the law to stay on the job for the second shift, so that is what I did. While I thought the first shift was long, the second shift felt longer, and, by lunch time, I really needed to get off the hospital grounds. I clocked out and drove down the road to McDonald’s to pick up a hot lunch. My lunch needed to stay hot on the short ride back to work, so, I took off my helmet and placed the paper bag inside it. I wish I had given my head as much consideration as my lunch; I was now driving down the road, helmetless.
As I rounded that familiar hairpin turn by the hospital’s emergency room entrance, a car pulled out right in front of me causing me to lie my motorcycle down. The bike pinned my right leg under it then dragged me 100 feet down the road. Without a helmet on, my head bounced just like a super ball between my shoulders and the ground. I acquired a massive amount of “road rash” on my right side. My chaps and uniform became shredded from the grinding of the motorcycle scraping across the road. I received a severe traumatic brain injury, had a compound fracture of my right collarbone, and shattered my right elbow. I crushed my right cheek and almost ripped off my right ear. I broke my right leg and my right eye was hanging out of the socket. To control brain swelling, the doctors introduced a shunt and placed me into a prolonged coma. My Big Mac sandwich did much better than I did.
While I was in my coma, I did not know that I was injured. I imagined myself on a mountaintop overlooking the city that I lived in. I kept thinking to myself, when are they going to start the fireworks? I believed I was only in the mountains to observe the fireworks from up above for a better view of the show, instead of from down below. The fireworks finally went off. The next thing I knew, I was looking through hospital bed bars. I had no idea where I was, how I got there, or when I got there. The last thing I remembered was being in the mountains watching the fireworks go off with friends.
I was in my coma for 25 days. On the 24th day, the doctors began preparations to remove me from the life support equipment. I wouldn’t live long. My parents, not wanting my daughter to see me dead, had made arrangements to bring her into my hospital room to view my body before they disconnected me. My daughter had not seen me in nine years. The doctors, nurses, my parents, and several friends watched passively as my daughter, who was 10 at the time, walked over to me and asked, “Daddy, do you want a cup of coffee? To everyone’s amazement, I started to laugh. I had inexplicably come out of my coma. The doctors immediately started back peddling. Nobody could explain how it was that I didn’t die, or how a simple question from a little girl had turned things around so abruptly. That whole experience lasted three weeks then my rehabilitation began.
The documentation on head injury is incomplete at best. Rehabilitation therapists follow a standardized guideline on how to treat a head injury, but every article I have ever read states that all head injuries are unique from one another. So, it stands to figure that the standardized approach did not work well for me. The doctors did not like the fact that I was questioning my treatment. I was transferred to three different rehabilitation hospitals over a period of five years while I relearned how to walk, talk, interact with other people, eat, cook for myself, shower, use the toilet, wash my clothes, add, subtract, and even how to use a phone. I had to relearn all of my relationships, even my own family.
Ten years into my disability, because of my coordination problems, I slipped and fell in my own home. I broke my neck. It was a miracle I did not paralyze myself from the neck down. Because I was brain injured, nobody believed that I was badly hurt. They thought I was exaggerating my symptoms. My x-rays were not interpreted by a radiologist at first. Instead, the emergency room staff sent me home with instructions to be careful. The first thing the next morning, the hospital called and informed me that my neck was in fact broken. They wanted me to return for surgery. I was operated on for a permanent fusion of my t-1 and t-2 vertebrae.
Eighteen years into my disability, I received a second head injury. It occurred while I was just walking across the road! A truck driver hit me in the crosswalk and that injury gave me new neural deficits and PTSD. At this point, I am rated by social security as 105% disabled. Now I am totally disabled only because I walked across the street!
I am now 23 years post injury. I have learned so much that I cannot even begin to describe what my journey has been like. We, as survivors, need to negotiate trials that the average person may find overwhelming. Little things, like deciding what to wear or what to eat, and even just talking to people, can be a challenge. It sometimes feels like my own body is the enemy. People misunderstand me all the time. I am a loner, but not by choice. It hurts me inside to be alone. Being alone isn’t healthy, yet, many survivors of TBI are alone. Relationships are hard for survivors, with many marriages ending in divorce. As the saying goes, you don’t know what it is like until you walk a mile in another man’s shoes.
Regardless of the challenges I face every day, my favorite quotes are, “You are only as old as you feel”, “You only live once”, and “You won’t know unless you try”. Never give up on yourself. For if you don’t believe in yourself who will? Time is the answer and patience is essential for a successful recovery. There is no known correct prognosis or treatment. It all varies and changes daily. Take charge of your own recovery and ask that your treatment program be designed around what you think you need the most. You will see dramatic changes if you hang in there and never give up.
Written by DuWayne H. for The Brain Injury Association of New York State