Fishing For Hope, A Daughter’s Story of Traumatic Brain Injury.

I have always been a daddy’s girl. Right from the start, I wrapped my dad around my finger. My dad was my superhero – there was nothing he couldn’t do. He was always there to take care of me and to make things better. Little did I know that I would soon become his superhero instead.

My dad, Ken, was such an outdoor’s man. He loved everything about nature. He was an avid hunter, loved to take rides through “the great outdoors” as he would say, and loved to go fishing.

It was early Friday, June 13, 2008. I was at work discussing various things with a co-worker who told me she had a lot of land and a great big pond that my dad could go fishing at. I was so excited to tell him! My dad was at my house babysitting my youngest daughter, Savannah, who was nine months old at the time, so I went to see him at lunch.  My dad and Savannah were sitting on the rocking chair together, as usual. I told him about the pond and he was so happy. My mom usually went to my house after she was done with work at 1:00 to take over the babysitting duties. That day, though, she brought the kids to her house while my dad went to check out his new fishing hole. I picked my kids up there after I finished work.

When I arrived at my mom’s house, nothing seemed different. The kids were playing and my mom was playing with them. My dad wasn’t home, but that wasn’t unlike him. Then the phone rang…

I picked up the phone, “Hello?” “Is this Mrs. Coons?” the man’s voice asked, “This is the Guilderland Police. We need to speak to Mrs. Coons.” I passed the phone to my mom, hoping in the back of my mind that my dad had been walking in the woods, as he usually did, and just ended up  trespassing on posted property. No big deal, right? But this was not the case. My mom took the phone and her face turned white. She began crying hysterically, “Daddy has been hit by car. They are sending an officer over to take us to the hospital.  They don’t’ know any more than this.” I was standing outside on the patio, and threw up. Something deep down told me things were now different because an extremely horrible event had happened. Would I ever see my dad again? Would I be able to talk to him? What would he look like? A million thoughts raced through my head.

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I called my husband at work and told him he needed to meet me at Albany Medical Center. He sent his mom and his sister to watch the kids. Suddenly, the Guilderland Police showed up at our house and drove us to the hospital.  We found out that my dad had parked his car on Western Avenue by the horse stable and crossed to look at what he thought might be a fishing pond. He was making his way back across to his car, and that is where a motor vehicle struck him. He bounced off the hood and windshield of the car before slamming hard on to the pavement. The police wouldn’t tell us what condition he was in.

We finally arrived at the hospital, a five minute car ride that seemed like five hours. The doctors and nurses told us that my dad had substantial road rash down his legs, arms and side.  He also had a large gash on his head, but they didn’t know how severe he was. Later we learned he had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

We had many mixed emotions during the next few days.  My dad was unable to communicate with us except in his own made up language. He knew what he was saying, but the words were coming out jumbled and twisted. We depended on white boards, markers, sign language, and guessing games to know what he was trying so desperately to get across to us.

Days turned into weeks and each day got harder. His language slowly started to come back, though not 100%. His temper and anger issues were out of control and he had his own vocabulary for many things. The staples they put in his head he called pistons.  He transferred to a rehabilitation facility, spending only 2 weeks there before being released much too early.

When he was home, his anger issues were a main concern. He could not be left alone because he could not do the simple things you and I take for granted. Things got to their breaking point one night after my mom, overwhelmed and exhausted from being his primary caregiver, passed out cold. Thank goodness I was there, as I was able to call 911. I called my moms’ best friend and her husband who came over to help. My dad couldn’t process the information and thought his wife had died when the EMT’s took her out on a stretcher. He then went to the kitchen, pulled out a knife and tried to commit suicide. Everything happened so fast. Luckily, my mom’s friend’s husband was able to bear hug him, wrestle the knife out of his hand, and hold him while I dialed 911. The police came and I tried desperately to explain that my dad had a brain injury. “Tara, help me, don’t let them take me away!” My heart broke into a million pieces as they took him from his house. Those words still haunt me to this day.

My mom was in the hospital at St. Peter’s and my dad was down the road at Albany Medical Center. I shuffled back and forth, taking care of the both of them. The staff admitted him to the psychiatric ward as a holding place until we were able to find someplace more permanent. We were fortunate enough to find the Northeast Center for Special Care in Kingston, NY. This would be his new home for 15 months.

He received so many services at this rehab hospital, and learned many wonderful tools and skills to help him regain his memory, function independently, control his anger and temper issues, and (as he would call it) to help “fix his brain.” He found comfort in art therapy. He covered his walls with over 300 pieces of artwork that he had done himself – drawings, paintings, colorings, etc,. He also made necklaces out of anything. His favorite item? Lobster claws. He would clean out the lobster claw (lobster thumb as he referred to it) and string them together with beads and chains to create necklaces, painting the lobster claw and adding glitter when he felt it needed a little extra bling. He made about 50 of them. My mom and I, my daughters, my husband, my brother John and his family would proudly wear them when we went to visit him. That brought him so much joy. My dad was lucky enough to have some of his art work on display at the Brain Injury Association of New York State’s annual art exhibit. He was so proud of himself and what he had accomplished.

My dad was always happy when I showed up out of the blue to visit him.  He was about an hour away from my house so I would go there as much as I could every weekend and sometimes during the week. To see the look of happiness and the tears roll down his cheek when I would come in and yell “surprise!” was precious to me.

When he was finally able to come home after 15 months, I decorated the house with “Welcome Home” signs, banners, balloons and a cake. I really tried to make him feel loved and special. Those 15 months were so long without him.

Right after my dad’s brain injury I reached out to the Brain Injury Association of New York State and Mayor Jennings. I needed reassurance for my dad and for my mom and I, and we all needed the support. I worked with Mayor Jennings to have my dad’s birthday, August 25th, proclaimed as Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Day in Albany, NY. I have created Fishing For Hope (which is also on Facebook) in order to raise awareness about traumatic brain injury. I have told my story to other people affected by TBI and joined support groups. Thanks to a multitude of helpers, my dad made an incredible comeback. Though he had some permanent set backs with his brain injury, he discovered that there is hope and life after brain injury. And, there is love and support.

By some strange “coincidence”, in 2001, nearly seven years before my dad’s accident, I had witnessed a car accident in which an 18 year old girl was struck by a car while pushing her disabled vehicle across the street. She had internal bleeding and a brain injury, and was soon pronounce brain dead. I held her in my arms in the street while she lay dying. Afterwards, I set up a memorial at the tree where the accident took place. My dad later told me that he had visited that memorial at the tree about a year after I placed it.  The memorial was only a mile away from where he was hit by a car. I believe he had an angel on his shoulder that day and her name was Mary, the girl that died. She was there with him and saved his life.

My dad was diagnosed with leukemia in March 2011 and died 4 weeks after his diagnosis. He wasn’t able to communicate much after he was admitted to the hospital, but he was able to tell me he loved me before he died.

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I miss my dad every second of every day. I know he’s looking down on me and is proud of all that I am doing in his memory. We are constantly promoting traumatic brain injury awareness in his memory. The more we can get the word out about how to prevent brain injury, how to support survivors, and how to support the caregivers who take care of these special and amazing people, the better.

I am blessed to have had my dad for 29 years, and I will continue to honor his memory in the most positive and loving ways.

written by Tara H. for The Brain Injury Association of New York State    www.bianys.org

photo 4A message from Carol, Ken’s wife and caregiver:

My husband is 18 years older than me.  He was my best friend and always will be.  Being his caregiver after his brain injury was one of the hardest things I ever did. It was frustrating at times but it was one of the most precious times of my life. We were a team.  He depended on me for so much.  Helping him through his recovery was a journey with lots of winding roads and many hills to climb, but we did it together. It made us stronger as a couple and our love grew even more.  I was his caregiver again when he was diagnosed with leukemia until the day he passed away. Our love took a path I never expected it to take with the brain injury.  He changed, I changed, and we changed together.  Through it all we took this path hand in hand as one, and that is how I will always remember him – my partner, my love, hand in hand.   It’s so hard without him now. I would do it over again in a second. I carry him with me in my heart and everywhere I go.

3 thoughts on “Fishing For Hope, A Daughter’s Story of Traumatic Brain Injury.

  1. Pingback: After Brain Injury: The Myth of “Try Harder”

  2. This is a beautiful story!! I love the words “he changed, I changed, we changed together.” Keep up the good work of promoting awareness!! Sometimes I think I was released from rehab too soon too!! It is amazing how many things I took for granted before my TBI! Thanks for sharing!! It always feels good to relate with other people after living in a world that “doesn’t get it” Blessings as you move forward with life now!!

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