Awareness in Action

I put a voice and action to my words today March 22nd 2017.  This is brain injury awareness day and I gave a presentation to students in the Health Education class at Ravenswood Middle School.  This is my first attempt to bring awareness to a non TBI affected group and the reception was actually much better than I expected.  My friend Jeff Weiss is a Middle School Health Education teacher and a Health Education class seemed like a perfect setting for a TBI awareness/prevention presentation but the term “Middle School” had me a little nervous, well, maybe a lot nervous.

I first came in contact with Jeff when my wife, Bonnie and I were taking our afternoon walk around town and noticed a lawn landscaped the way we envisioned ours looking.  We noticed a man working on the lawn and since we had very little confidence in our own landscaping ability, I jokingly asked him if he contracted out his yard work.  To my extreme surprise, he said he sure did.  We stopped and talked a while with him and scheduled an appointment.  We also found out he is the Health Education teacher at the Middle School in town.

Jeff does good work

Jeff did an excellent job on our yard and we stayed in contact afterward.  He was given a porch swing by one of his other landscaping customers and I built a frame so he could use the swing in the yard.  Last fall, he and another friend of his started working on a mountain bike trail around a popular fishing lake north of town and asked if I wanted to help.  We finished that trail and started another one near a school east of town.

When March came around this year, I knew it was Brain Injury Awareness Month so I asked Jeff if he could check on the possibility of giving a presentation to his class on Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness and prevention.  He thought it was a great idea and ran it by the school administration and they agreed.

I searched for presentation material and found very little that targeted Middle School age children.  I thought that was sad because that is the age when kids are starting to venture out and try new and sometimes grownup things.  In our area, deer hunting and ATV riding are especially popular with this group.  I eventually was referred to a PowerPoint High School presentation offered by the Brain Injury Alliance of Connecticut (BIAC)I modified this presentation to fit the age group and added some local area pictures.

On the day of the presentation, I didn’t know what to expect so I was nervous but the thought that kept me pushing forward was that if just one of those 150 students takes the suggestions and puts them into practice, then it will be worth all the time spent.  To my surprise and delight, the presentation was met with overwhelming approval and the class participation was very positive and there was more of it than I expected and this applied to each of the 8 sessions of the day.  The response actually dispelled some of my stereotypes of this age group of children.  They actually paid attention to an adult and wanted to learn.  Jeff and I asked them a few question about the material covered and were pleased that they got almost all of the questions correct.  Contrary to popular belief, there is hope for future generations.

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Reinvention

 

At some point during recovery from most brain injuries, there should be a point, an aha moment if you will, where we realize that changes have taken place and it is time to make the best of things as they are.  Some look at this as acceptance which is viewed by most experts as the final step in the grieving process.  I don’t know about all that but although it was hard to accept, I knew I had to change some things in my life after the tbi.  Some of the changes were necessary because of deficits caused by the injury but others were more personal and the result of a shift in priorities.

Before the accident, I was a computer network engineer working on large sophisticated government systems.  After the accident, though the skills weren’t gone, I couldn’t process information fast enough to do the job efficiently.  After a trip to the office and a few attempts at studying material required for certifications in the field, I knew I would be a liability to my computer colleagues.  I could have thrown my hands up and cried “Why Me” but God and Bonnie wouldn’t let me.  Bonnie kept pushing both me and the medical system and looking back now, we can see how God was subtly directing our steps.  After two and a half months, we were referred to Shepherd Center where I was given evaluations and recommended for outpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways.  That is where my reinvention began to take shape.

Before my accident, I had done some woodworking.  It gave me a chance to do something with my hands like my grandfather had always done and I could see and feel the product of my labor.  When I started occupational therapy (OT), the therapist asked what goals I had in mind and the first thing on the list was woodworking and to make sure I was capable of operating power tools.  We spent a lot of time in my OT sessions working on hand eye coordination as well as other necessary skills such as driving and cooking.  She had me use a jig saw and a circular saw to see how well and safely I operated them.  When she was pleased with my progress, she gave me a project to build over a weekend.  I made a simple recipe box which I gave to my daughter Amy.  We added the engraved label with her childhood nickname for humor.

recipe-box

My first project post TBI

noodlehead

Noodlehead engraving

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through hard work, practice, and of course new tools, my work has gotten better.  Here is a couple of Christmas presents I made for the kids:

entertainment-center

Entertainment Center

sideboard

Sideboard

 

 

 

 

 

I know every tbi is unique and has its own specific challenges. We survivors come from all kinds of circumstances and backgrounds and each individual will have different goals as well as different skills and abilities.  I can only give an example based on my experience.  My hope is that each survivor regardless of their situation will see my story as inspiration and make the decision to move on and be the best you that your condition will allow you to be.

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Creatures of Comfort

dscn1905

Koby

I just got home from taking my dog Koby to the vet.  The vet thinks it is allergies that are making his eyes swell and gave me some drops and pills to treat him.  Seeing Koby look so sad trying to open his eyes makes me sad and fits with a theme that has been floating in my mind lately.  The comfort that pets and other creatures gave me during the aftermath of my accident and a lot of my recovery for the last eight years.

Animals in general and a lot of people would say especially dogs know when you need them.  Our dogs, Bo & Tana, were there when I first got home from the hospital.  If I would go outside to walk around or just get some fresh air, without any prompting, they would go with me one walking on each side of me as if protecting or giving me stability.  Koby came to us in October 2008 as a gift for our son Mike and stayed when Mike got a job at Kia Motors and moved to Alabama.  He showed this same instinctive empathy when our neighbor Larry Burdette was recovering from a heart attack.  The story was published in GEMG Georgia Magazine in October 2014.  Another dog, Vick that Mike shared with his girl-friend, LaVonne, was a pit bull that broke all the stereotypes associated with the breed.  After Bo & Tana had decided I didn’t need their constant accompaniment anymore Vick would still come running every time I stepped out the door.  She was the embodiment of absolute loyalty.

Not all the animals that helped in my recovery were what you would consider pets.  The most significant of these is a Bengal tiger named Golden that now weighs in at over 400 pounds.  When I first saw him, he was not much bigger than a house cat.  He came to an animal sanctuary where I volunteered for more than five years called Noah’s Ark in Locust Grove, Georgia.  My most memorable encounter with Golden came about a year and a half after I started volunteering when he had torn some electric fence lines lose in his enclosure.  Charlie Hedgecoth, the founder’s son was going to Golden’s enclosure to remove the lines before Golden got tangled in them.  The problem was Golden was now around 120 pounds and very playful.  I was working the Habitat answering guests’ questions and talking about the animals when Charlie said “Hey, Rodney, can you give me a hand here?  I’ll keep him busy while you get these wires out of his enclosure”  Charlie who stands about six foot five put Golden’s front paws on his shoulders and kept them there while I poked the wires out through the fence.  Pretty impressive especially when I saw what Golden did to a tree with those paws later.  Golden was eyeing me the whole time but Charlie kept him in check.

golden

My Friend Golden

The experience inside Golden’s enclosure was very cool but what happened the next week when I came to volunteer was equally impressive.  As I turned the corner and entered the stretch of the habitat in front of Golden and the other tiger enclosures, Golden saw me and immediately jumped to his feet and ran to the corner of his pen closest to me and followed me as far as he could.  I had been working the habitat and helping feed the animals for almost two years and knew by his actions and the look in his eyes that he only wanted to play since he missed the opportunity the week before.  This relationship continued until I stopped volunteering due to our move to West Virginia.

These are just a few of my experiences with the animal kingdom since my Brain Injury. While I was undergoing rehab at Shepherd Pathways, I saw a number of animal therapies.  They took several patients to the Georgia International Horse Park for equine therapy.  This was the venue for the equestrian events in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They also brought a number of specially trained therapy dogs in to interact with patients.

The bond a person has with an animal can be very special and is a therapy all its own.  I recommend it for anyone recovering from a brain injury.  Sometimes it seemed like the animals understood me and my trials better than people did.

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Turning point

Charlie Brown The Miller

My Grandfather Charles Brown with his grist mill

I think most of us traveling this brain injury road have lost hope at one time or another, some of us more than once.  If you are reading this, that means you are still on the road and something caused you to make a choice to keep going.  The things that cause us to make those positive choices need not be forgotten and should be remembered when the going gets tough.  I was recently reminded of my biggest wake-up call when I reconnected with a childhood friend James Clarkson on Facebook.

Just like everyone with a tbi, I had several ups and downs during recovery and rehab and some significant turning points.  Getting referred to Shepherd Center was a major plus for my recovery but nothing compared to one sentence Bonnie said to me at my lowest point.  That point came several months after my Shepherd Center rehab was finished.

I suffered a major setback when I was stricken with Post-Traumatic Vertigo also sometimes referred to as Meniere’s disease.  This is an inner ear condition that probably happened when my head hit the windshield of the pickup.  With this condition, the victim suffers random unpredictable attacks of extremely violent rotational vertigo.  During these attacks that could last up to 12 hours, the vertigo was so severe that any movement or even opening my eyes for a second sent me into uncontrollable almost convulsion like vomiting sessions.  Once it got to that point, I would do that for as much as an hour.  I think total exhaustion was all that brought these sessions to an end but a few minutes after stopping, any movement could start it all over again.

The attacks were so severe and unpredictable that after only a few, I became completely obsessed with dread and fear of another one that it consumed all my waking thoughts.  I researched Meniere’s disease trying to find treatment options.  I tried to implement everything I found to keep from triggering an attack.  I tried low sodium which is very difficult to do and extremely bland.  I tried eliminating noise, any noise, including radio and TV.  Bonnie was not a fan of these or anything else I tried.  We went to Ear Nose Throat specialists, Audiologists and neurologists looking for help.

Sadly, none of the things we tried made any difference and the attacks just kept happening.  I actually had an attack in a neurologist’s office while waiting for an appointment.  I got to the point where I would spend the entire day in the same location and position in our kitchen looking out the back door.  Bonnie would leave me there when she went to work and I would still be standing there when she came home.

One day, I think in August 2009, Bonnie came to the conclusion that I had given up hope which is something totally contrary to the way I was raised.  From the time I was three years old, I had lived with my grandparents Charles and Ida Brown and these were people who never ever used the word can’t.  They always found a way to make life better for anyone they came in contact with.  I was a prime example or this.  My grandfather was 73 years old and my grandmother was 69 when they took in their three year old grandchild and raised me as their own child from that moment on.  Who does that?  This was of course the most important thing that ever happened to me and changed the course of my entire life.

Bonnie came home that day and looked me in the eye and said “If Charlie Brown were here, he would kick your butt and tell you to stop saying that you can’t get better.”  Those words cut straight to the heart and lit a fire.  Honestly though, the result of that fire is a somewhat ironic.  When I decided to look within for strength and determination, I found I didn’t have answers or solutions for my condition.  I realized I had been trying to fix myself but I was not qualified.

One thing I remember about my Grandfather is that he would use all available resources to get the job done and that included asking for help from people with the necessary skills or equipment or both.  What I finally realized was that though I had looked for help, I had not looked for help from those with the real qualifications so I applied the Charlie Brown technique and went to the one guy with the proper skill set.

I got on my knees and talked to God and said “You made these little parts that are giving me all these problems and none of the smart people I have went to have any idea what to do.  Since you made them, you know how to fix them so please help me.”

God’s way of fixing things is different than most people expect.  Once he knew that I knew I had to trust him, he sent people who also trusted him.  Bonnie had met a new customer at her bank that had a special charismatic air about him that caught her attention the second he walked in the door.  His name is Jeff Boomer and at the time, he was the pastor of a Nazarene church in Griffin, GA.   From the time he heard about my accident, he wanted to come and visit and do what he could to help.  For reasons not understood at the time, she asked him to wait till I was doing better before coming out.

The getting better part never happened and when I was at the very bottom, she listened to a voice that said “it’s time” and asked Jeff to come see me.  He is also a roofer and it so happened that we needed some work done on a shed roof and she thought that was a good excuse for Jeff to come out.  When Jeff arrived, He said “The roof can wait.  Let’s get to what I really came here for”.  We sat down in the living room and he immediately began praying for God to come and if it was his will, work a miracle.  From that moment, I have had no more vertigo attacks.

There is no earthly explanation for the immediate recovery but I can’t help but believe God used what Bonnie said about my grandfather to get my attention and point me where he knew I really needed to be going.  God is good.

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Reclamation Proclamation

Bonnie, my wife, angel and caregiver has always been a master of reclamation.  She could always take things that appear broken, worn out or beyond repair and make them like new and some cases, better.  It doesn’t matter if it is a dying plant, a dirty 80 year old door, or scraps from house demolition, she works miracles.  Her ultimate reclamation however is a 52 year old man with a broken brain.

A lesser woman would have looked at that broken mess of a man, thrown up her hands and went looking for a new unbroken man.  Bonnie is not a lesser woman so she looked at it the way she looks at every other renovation project.  She saw through the broken pieces to what was still there, remembered how it used to look, rolled up her sleeves and went to work.

Bonnie has demonstrated these reclamation skills all through our marriage.  From putting on a band aid and kissing a “boo boo” to fixing a ripped ball gown or washing a trashed out favorite pair of sneakers, she always saw the upside of any situation.  When we moved into our last house in Williamson, Georgia, as we walked around the property, she saw a beat-up king size headboard and said “That could make a great bench for the back porch.”

It went from this                                                        To this

bench-before                       big-bench

Another example of her vision and also of her caring nature is when our friends, Marty and Patti Gunter lost their home to a devastating tornado in Barnesville, GA in April 2011.  We had held church services in that house and had dinner there.  Marty had even repaired my Daughter’s car in his shop that was also blown away.  In the midst of that horrific scene where nothing existed but total devastation, Bonnie saw a cedar tree that was uprooted and in that pile of dead wood, she envisioned a beautiful wall clock that would represent victory over destruction.  You can read about Marty and Patti’s triumph over tragedy in on her facebook page God Is Good All The Time Even In The Storm or order the book at  God Is Good All The Time…Even In The Storm by … – MicroPress, Inc.

From this                                                                      To this

tree                               clock

My accident and resulting traumatic brain injury were a completely different issue but she approached it like any other reclamation project, analyze the situation, formulate a plan of attack and dive in.  First, she literally cleaned me up since the hospital trauma staff is more concerned with keeping the patient alive and stabilizing them than cleaning dried blood from around non life threatening wounds.  This was before she knew anything about what she was really up against.  Then when those who didn’t know me thought I woke up and was going to be OK, she and our children started to see there was a lot of work to be done.

She had to figure out care giving on her own at the start which was a trial and error process.  She used the tough love approach when I refused to eat.  She put the plate of food in front of me and walked away then watched to see if I would actually try which I eventually did.  She navigated the medical system looking for someone who really knew what to do with and for me.  After hitting a few dead ends and unconcerned doctors, by the grace of God, she was referred to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, GA, one of the top 10 rehab hospitals in the country.  There is still a long way to go but she still does something every day that makes this broken man a little better than the day before.

From this                                                                           To this

icu                                   me-at-the-edge

This post is a proclamation of blessings that I wish I could share with those who really deserve them.  I have reservations or at least mixed emotions about publishing this but at the end of the day, this blog is the story of my journey back from the edge and the things in this post are my unique blessings that some of those reading have seen and can appreciate.  I still personally have to look at these blessings with a lot of survivor’s guilt like the Vietnam War which I missed by a year and motorcycle riders who didn’t make it.

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Compensatory strategies

Compensatory strategies is a term I first heard at the beginning of my rehab at Shepherd Pathways which is where Shepherd Center conducts the outpatient acquired brain injury program.  I had no idea what the term meant.  Of course, at the time, I had no idea what a lot of things meant.  I eventually learned they were ways to help us survivors work around or “compensate” for our deficits.  I learned some strategies in speech therapy that were meant to help me deal with my memory loss issues or as we call it, things falling out or not sticking in the first place.  Those strategies would have been far more effective if I had not had the bullheaded idea that I had never needed strategies before so why should I need them now.  That was just one of the obstacles that made these fantastic tools my insurance company paid a lot of money for me to learn not as effective as they should have or could have been.

The effectiveness of compensatory strategies depends on how the survivor and their support system look at them.  My memory was one of my greatest assets all through life prior to my injury.  My head was and when it comes to long term memory, still is full of what Bonnie calls useless information.  I like to think of it as a collection of Jeopardy answers.  I knew all our family birthdays and anniversaries.  I knew all the vital statistics about our children’s births; date, time, weight and length.  Lots of things stuck and not all of them were useless.

On a serious note, one of the above mentioned memories was the one that made me first actually realize I had a problem.  Bonnie and everyone else had been aware for weeks but this one hit me like a brick.  We were at Grady Memorial for a follow up exam on the braces that held my jaw together.  After the exam, I was at a desk where they were scheduling my next appointment and the date selected was August 14th.  I knew there was something special about that date but could not remember.  I looked at Bonnie with what must have been a lost puppy expression and asked what happened on that day.  She said “It’s Bryan’s birthday”.  I had a sick feeling and when we got to the elevator to leave, I completely lost it and cried like a baby for several minutes.  How could I forget my own child’s birthday?

Enough rambling about me, I’m supposed to be rambling about compensatory strategies.  Using compensatory strategies requires a level of discipline and consistency.  Discipline is not always a strong suit of tbi survivors; at least I know it isn’t for me.  Sometimes that discipline comes from other people.  My wife, Bonnie, helps a lot but she sometimes gets tired of telling me the same thing over and over.  The doctors and therapists emphasize it but they are not with us 24/7.  At some point, if we survivors want to live functional and useful lives, we have to make the effort to take charge of our future.  This has to be done daily since, like Bonnie says, I and most other tbi survivors wake up in a new world every day.

We live in a time when technology can be used to implement compensatory strategies.  Smart phones, computers and gadgets like timers can be used to keep us in touch, up to date and on time if we implement them properly.

Here is a list of Compensatory strategies my Speech pathologist at Shepherd Pathways gave me when I finished Rehab.  Like I said earlier, these are only effective if you use them consistently so read them and use them.  By the way, the strategies are not just good for brain injury survivors but anyone who wants to be more organized and efficient.Compensatory1

Compensatory2

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Memorial Day

 

I am retired from the US Army so I know Memorial Day was established to honor veterans of the US Armed Forces.  With that said, though, this year I have done what most of the rest of the country had done and applied my own twist to celebrating Memorial Day.  Mine is not as commercialized as most and actually involves memorializing people I have known, some Veterans and some not.

Bonnie and I visited many of the cemeteries where members of each of our families are buried.  We traveled with her parents to some and went by ourselves to others.  We listened as her Dad told us stories about his memories of times spent with those whose graves we visited.  Some of the stories were of good times and positive experiences while others were of tough times and hard work.

 

Ma and Pa Grave

The grave site of my maternal Grandparents who raised me from the time I was three years old.  I owe them everything.

We spent some time with a close childhood friend who has many family members in a cemetery where I also have two brothers.  We reminisced over the fun we had growing up and some of the not so smart things we did.  We mourned the loss of people who were with us through all of those good times.

I stopped by the home of my older brother, Mike whom I probably hadn’t seen for close to forty years.  We talked about the loss of our brothers, mother and father and about losses caused by time, bad decisions and misunderstandings.  The decisions and misunderstandings, sadly, contributed to our not staying in contact.

Another loss reflected on is my own due to my accident but I look at that from a few different perspectives.  Yes, I lost some functionality and handle things differently now but I’m happy with where I am.  The changes caused by my tbi have more impact on those close to me and you can read about them in my post “The Other Victims”.  My injury caused me to look at things in a different light.  I try to be more concerned with things that really matter now.  When you almost lose it all, you realize there are a lot of thing in your life that are not all that important.  I have to be honest, it sounds a lot easier than it really is.

I now wonder how to best use this second chance that I have been given.  Since I am not lying beneath one of those stones we visited, how can I share the life that has been given back to me?  There is a scripture that keeps coming to mind:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NKJV)

I used to think the only way I could live this scripture was to help those who had an injury or condition just like mine.  I guess I selectively ignored the part that says “those who are in any trouble”.  As I talked with family and friends this weekend, it dawned on me that maybe I could help and encourage people with troubles that are not related to mine at all.  Tbi does tend to make you a little slow on the uptake sometimes.  I wonder how many opportunities I have missed to encourage people with problems because they weren’t in a wheelchair or brain injury rehab.  I must be more conscious of people’s tribulations and less concerned about why they have them.  Their issues don’t have to fit neatly into my tbi box for me to care about them.  I just need to be available and willing to help whoever God puts in front of me in any way possible.

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