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Traumatic Brain Injury: My Family’s Story

Traumatic Brain Injury: My Family’s Story

I was twelve, eagerly awaiting spring and all that unfolds with the blossoming of tulips and daffodils. Spring break was dancing before me and beyond that summer with its freedom where I would take refuge in the local pool. Soon we would pile into our white Honda Accord and drive north to Montana for the break and Easter weekend. We would take Jessica, the daughter of our family friends, with us to see her family in Billings. She stayed behind after their move to finish up her senior year. I couldn't wait to get away from the hell that was 6th grade.

missy_soccer photo

The initial plan was to leave Friday night after school was over and our parents got off work. That changed when we looked at the soccer schedule. The East High School team was set to play rival South on Saturday and Missy, my older sister, would be leaving her team in a lurch without her star defensive skills. That and Dad was assistant coach thus our departure was postponed.

Friday, March 23, 1991, she would go out with her friends and Jessica along with them. The details of that night escape me except that I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing, ringing and ringing. I couldn't understand why Missy wasn't answering it. It was always for her - especially late at night. Jessica came into my room, told me my mother wanted to talk to me and handed me the phone. I was confused, it was the middle of the night. Why was my mother on the other end of the phone and not in bed?

She told me that there had been an accident and I needed to come to the hospital. Jessica would take me. We got dressed and I don't think we said much on that 15-minute drive from our Belmont neighborhood to St. Mary Corwin sputtering along the curves and under the bridges of south I-25 in her red Carmengia.

My father met us outside the emergency room entrance. He led me through the curtains of patients awaiting care and diagnostics. It didn't really register at the time, but there were a pair of familiar feet sticking out of a blanket. A family hovered over a boy right next to them and they looked at me intently as we made our way to a waiting room where we would stay for the rest of the night. It was dark, lit only by the light of adjoining rooms. There they explained it was a car accident. The car she was in was hit by a drunk driver — a hit and run. She needed brain surgery and might not live.

missy_hospital photo1

I had spent much time in that hospital. I was born there. Missy was born there. Our father was born there. Our mother ran the nursery and pediatrics unit. My father accompanied patients to the ER as a paramedic at the fire department. I remember getting a chest x-ray when I was 4 and had pneumonia, visiting my friend Christopher in kindergarten when he had meningitis, and the countless visits to see my mother on her floor for various reasons. The hallways and floor tiles all familiar to me, but this waiting room, vast and dark and only inhabited by the four of us, was new to me. It was odd at the time that we were cordoned off in a separate special place. But now, looking back, I understand we were placed there for a reason, and it wasn't because our family was important. Death was looming and our family was given a place to receive it in peace.

It would be several hours before the surgeon in blue scrubs would come and talk to our family in the dimly lit waiting room. She would live for now he told us, but her injuries were severe, and we would have to wait and see how or if she progressed. She sustained a subdural hematoma to the right side of her brain. On Lake Avenue, the car she sat in as a passenger had been hit broadside as they turned left onto Northern. The assaulting vehicle would then run them into the adjacent light pole resulting in brain shearing as her brain bounced in her skull from the dual impact. In addition to the brain injury, she sustained a broken right clavicle, her right ear had to be sewn back on, she had several broken ribs, and a collapsed lung.

Our cousins' cousin who was transporting another patient in an ambulance to the hospital witnessed the accident. I was told they postponed transport of that patient to tend to my sister's accident. Other witnesses came forward and identified the car belonging to someone who had been drinking heavily at a bar that night. He turned himself in several hours later when the effects of the alcohol had worn off.

Had she been wearing her seatbelt, as our father had always demanded, her legs would have been crushed; the passenger seat had completely folded taco style. Her pupils had fully dilated by the time they got to her. There was some difficulty reaching her as she had been thrown out of her seat into the back area of the Datsun 240-Z. We saw the impounded car several days later, with police permission to gather her purse and other belongings. It was a difficult site to see — blood and other bodily fluids had not been cleaned from it.

Our family made the transition to the waiting room outside the Neurological Intensive Care Unit where we would create a makeshift home for the next two weeks. I realized that the feet I noticed in the emergency room were my sister's. The boy on the bed beside her was the driver of the car she was in and the people who looked curiously at me were his parents. He too sustained a brain injury, but was not hurt nearly as bad as she. He would spend a few days in the NICU and go on to live what appeared to be a normal life. She was not supposed to be with him. There was an argument and she went home separate from her friends.

Visits were limited to 15 minutes of each hour for immediate family and those we designated only. She lay there unrecognizable in a coma with a bandaged head, a valve attached on top with a drain to release fluid, and a ventilator behind her humming. The scent of her was gone, replaced with what I imagined were smells from the inside of her body that were not meant to be on the outside — not bad or foul, just not right.

For some time the halls outside the NICU were lined with visitors. It seemed like hundreds of family friends, the soccer team, crying teen-aged girls and boys flooded upon us, some mere strangers. She was the outspoken popular girl — the antithesis of my inward timid self. We put the chairs in the waiting room together so that we could lie down even though sleep was impossible. Trays of food, homemade casseroles, and other comforts appeared out of nowhere. I didn't leave the hospital for three days when I was finally made to go home and take a shower, escorted and dropped off by a family friend.

Friends and family dwindled to the few most committed and two of her best friends began to take her place in my life as best they could trying to distract me from the trauma doing things that sisters do. Jessica's family came to Colorado instead of us going there. Life was never the same. Missy spent two weeks in the NICU and then after spent months more in the hospital relearning how to walk and talk and live life all over again.

She graduated even though she missed the last quarter of her senior year. She could have graduated in December, but our parents urged her to stay in school. She was allowed to leave the hospital to attend the ceremony. Her best friend pushed her in her wheelchair up to the podium to receive her diploma in stark contrast to who she used to be — a short feisty blonde, athletic, talented, popular young woman about to embark on the world to a bald girl with a strange smile and unintelligible speech, dependent on others for everything.

It was a long time before we would learn the true extent of her brain injury. Among a long list of diagnoses, she lacks short-term memory; conversations get repeated often. She struggles with inhibitions, but she's never been apologetic about speaking exactly what is on her mind. College, career, and family dreams remain out of reach and her dependency on others to do basic tasks such as dressing is beyond frustrating to her. The left side of her body continues to get weaker and at some point will not work at all. We are told she will age faster and dementia will set in sooner than age usually determines.

Through all of this, she remains strong-willed. She chooses to look at her own inner determination to drive her forward and she serves as an uplifter for all around her pointing others to their own strengths. A raw sense of humor and sharp wit make her a hoot to be with. A natural non-conformist and rebel since birth she is unabashedly herself milking joy as it comes, working hard to stifle sorrow. This is just the beginning of a much larger story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control "every day 153 people in the United States die from injuries that include [Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI] Those who survive a TBI can face effects that last a few days, or the rest of their lives. Effects of TBI can include impaired thinking or memory, movement, sensation (e.g., vision or hearing), or emotional functioning (e.g., personality changes, depression). These issues not only affect individuals but can have lasting effects on families and communities."

This past month was Brain Injury Awareness Month. Let my family's story be a reminder that disability does not discriminate. At any moment any one of us can become disabled. PEAK Parent Center was there, one town away from where I grew up, and yet our family never learned about PEAK until I was an adult and had my own children. I cannot tell you how helpful it would have been to have PEAK's vast knowledge guiding us through trying times. Please consider donating to PEAK to make our services available to more Colorado families. And please share information about us to families you know.

Tags: Disability Awareness, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)