Life Gets In The Way

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  Romans 8:28 (NKJV)

The past two months have been a blur.  There has been so much sadness with the loss of a good friend, my brother and my mother in law.  All three losses, though, have had good things come out of them like the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good…”

The first passing was a good friend and fellow wood worker Burl Buzzard who was the step father of my brother in law, Terry Benson.  He was a navy veteran who was recently honored at the state capital for his service.  The good part was the time we got to spend with his and Terry’s family.  Terry got to spend time with a brother he had not talked to in years.  It is sad that these occasions are so often what bring families together but never the less; we need to make the most of the opportunities.  Oh, and I was able to add Burl’s wood to my collection and will make some nice projects out of it someday.

The next loss was a lot closer to home when my brother Mike Smith died on August 1st 2017.  I had just started spending some time with him since we moved back to the area four years ago after being gone 35 years.  I did have some good conversations with Mike and was glad to get to tell him that though I could never fully understand what he went through growing up that I was aware of his struggles and was also aware of the great things he accomplished in spite of what he had to overcome.  The upside of losing my brother is the way I have gotten to know His wife Mary and daughter Angie and her family much better.  Mary is in an assisted living facility and Bonnie and I visit her when we can.  I have been taking notes and putting together information from Mary, Angie and others trying to put together a story about all Mike and Mary overcame to be together and the legacy Angie and her children have become.

Speaking of Angie, she is a very creative young lady and makes very beautiful primitive designs from vines and other things she collects from the trees on her farm.  I recently spent three days at a craft fair with Angie where we sold our handmade wares.  I was very glad for the time we had to talk about her time growing up and the positive influence Mike and Mary had on her life.  I don’t see any signs of the struggles they faced when I watch Angie and her children.  That tells me they didn’t bring that excess baggage into their marriage.

One of Angie’s Primitive Creations

The third loss was very close and very sudden.  On Friday, August 11th Bonnie’s mother, Shirley DeQuasie was in her Baseball card shop talking to customers and on Friday August 18th, she passed away with her family by her side.  It was a long week for the family as we spent all day and all night every day taking care of her but it was still an unbelievably sudden loss of someone we all expected to outlive every one of us.

Shirley ran the card shop for almost 30 years, opening it in July 1988, three years after the tragic death of her son and Bonnie’s younger brother, Wilson.  There is a story chronicling the history of the shop on Sports Collector Daily, an online magazine for sports card and memorabilia collectors, written by Bob D’Angelo.  Click here to read it.

Bonnie at the card shop

These tragedies have been emotionally draining, all consuming and are the reason I have not posted on the blog for quite a while.  Things have settled down a little but they will never be what you could call normal again.  Our responsibilities have changed significantly with Bonnie and I running the card shop now and trying as best we can to fill the void left by Mom’s passing.

These circumstances have also given us a chance to evaluate the status of my brain injury recovery and the observations have been both positive and negative.  On the negative side, my inability to focus effectively on more than one thing put the blog on the back burner but the fact that I was able to prioritize correctly was a good sign.  Through all the stressful situations, I applied compensatory strategies like using lists, alarms and the smart phone.  Bonnie actually said she was impressed with how I stepped up to the plate.

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In the Moment

This post is, in a way, a continuation or an addendum to my last post My Shrunken World.  When my world shrunk, my focus did as well.  Not only was I limited to focusing on only one thing at a time, I was also limited to focusing on only one moment at a time.  What I have found on this journey back from traumatic brain injury is that the moment we live in is all we have.  The next moment could be our last so let’s make the most of this one.

Early in my recovery, I started reading books about brain injury and especially survivor stories.  I’m not sure if I was looking for a miracle cure or if it was a feeling of “misery loves company” but I was looking for something I could connect with.  There was a story in a book called Head Cases by Michael Paul Mason that caught my attention.  It was about a woman named Melissa Felteau who was in a car accident and her injury as well as her circumstances seemed very similar to mine. She was a corporate professional, it was a motor vehicle accident, and it was a closed head injury so on the outside, she looked fine.  Somehow, I was able to find an email address and sent her a message though I never really anticipated getting a reply.  You can read Melissa’s story on Brainline here.

I was very surprised when two days later; I received a reply from Melissa that was incredibly encouraging and very informative.  She talked about her struggles both physical and psychological and told me some of the things she did to get moving in the right direction.  Melissa’s journey eventually led her to a system called Mindfulness that uses techniques such as meditation and yoga to dial the mind into the here and now.  Mindfulness has become Melissa’s passion and she is one of the leading researchers and developers of Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.  You can read several articles about her research here.

In the early months of recovery, in the moment was all I had so mindfulness was easy.  As time passed and I became more aware, thoughts of what had happened to me and what the future could hold, became overwhelming and I started to get depressed.  Many times, I yelled at God and asked him “Why can I remember things I used to do when I cannot do them anymore”?  If I had allowed myself to stay in that negative frame of mind, I probably would have become an angry victim.  Though I still feel those negative thoughts creep in occasionally, because of Melissa’s encouragement and what Jesus said about letting tomorrow take care of itself, I made a conscious decision to live in the present moment as best I can.  My hope is that we survivors can make the most of every one of those moments we have since each one is a precious gift.

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My Shrunken World

I try my best to be positive in all my blog posts.  If I were to sound like a victim, it would undermine the very reason I started this blog in the first place which is to do everything I can to encourage other TBI survivors and convince them there is hope even in the midst of tragedy and despair.  That being said, I have to be as real as possible about our struggles.  I do not want to sound like the people we meet who say “It’s just a bump on the head, shake it off and move on.”  I’m also not shallow enough to think there are not people living with much more severe brain injuries than mine.  I also don’t want it to sound like my recovery has been easy.  It has been a struggle and probably will continue as long as I want to keep fighting.  I love reading about the recovery of people like Bob Woodruff and Gabby Giffords and I know my issues and deficits are different and maybe not as bad as theirs but mine have been challenging enough to make me realize that anyone dealing with a TBI needs all the help they can get.

On May 14th 2008, my world shrunk and even now, over nine years later, I’m still discovering just how shrunken it is.  Just this morning, we were going to pick up my father-in law’s car and wash it. I thought both of us had to go to get the car so one could drive ours back.  It didn’t click that I could drive ours down and drive his back.  Since the injury, I have great difficulty seeing even simple processes all the way through. I have no idea how many times Bonnie has compensated for my lack of foresight because it has probably become automatic for her.  This is just one example of how my world has shrunk because of tbi.

While I am extremely thankful to still have the ability to drive, the experience of driving is much different than before my injury.  Previously, I could actually observe things other than the road and traffic while driving but now, the highway requires my full attention. It’s not like I didn’t watch the road before but now even playing the license plate game proves to be quite difficult.

Another of my most frustrating deficits can best be described as out of sight out of mind.” Almost all tbi survivors have problems with what is commonly referred to as short-term memory.  A more specific term is working memory which is defined as the part of short-term memory that is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing. My working memory took a pretty serious hit from my tbi. One of my strengths was my ability to keep a lot of “balls in the air” which is a big part of a computer network engineer’s job. After the accident, my working memory shrunk to two or maybe three things on a good day especially early in the day.  On bad days, which still do happen, I can handle only one thing and that is not guaranteed late in the day. “It’s after three” is a line we use a lot when I forget something late in the day. Early in my recovery, three o’clock was about the time I would start to shut down so we turned it into a running joke.  We laugh about a lot of the things I forget as you can read in an earlier post Laughter: The best medicine.  Even though the issues are not really funny, laughter has become a good coping mechanism for us.

Although my world was severely shrunken by my injury, it was not the end of the world. To be honest, a smaller world is not necessarily a bad thing, just different. Another factor is that with the introduction of modern technology, traumatic brain injury today is not as devastating as it was in years past. Smart phones, tablets and adaptive devices as well as far more accurate diagnosis give tbi survivors a much better chance for productive rewarding lives than those even as recent as the Vietnam era veterans.

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Nine Years Out

It has been nine years since our lives were sent in a new direction.  The new direction is not one we would have chosen but at least it is a direction and not a termination.  Many in my life, especially my immediate family have had to adjust to the changes brought on by Traumatic brain injury but many others only know the new me.  Bonnie has called me “Husband number two” on numerous occasions; Mike says he likes the new guy better; Amy says different isn’t always bad…just different and Bryan and I are doing home renovations together via video chat.  Everyone is moving ahead and doing the best they can.

I have come a long way but the farther I come, the farther I see that I still need to go.  As I have gotten better, I have started to realize how inconsiderate I was to others and that makes me want to set things right by giving more of myself.  This, of course, has to start at home where I am trying my best to talk more openly with my wife but more importantly, I am trying to genuinely listen and understand what she deals with daily.

This past year, I have used the gifts God gave me to help others.  At home, I built a kitchen island and we renovated our hall bathroom.

Kitchen Island

Hall Vanity

 

 

 

 

 

I built a decorative wheelbarrow, a built-in spice rack; three raised planters and installed a new dishwasher for Bonnie’s parents.

Wheelbarrow

Raised Planters

 

 

 

 

 

Outside the family, I put together a shadowbox collage for a Vietnam Veteran who lives next door that brought tears to his eyes.

Vietnam Vet Collage

I also fixed a riding lawnmower for a good friend of ours who’s knees won’t let him push a mower any longer.

I began two other projects that I hope will widen my influence in the local community and help tbi survivors in need.  I gave a brain injury awareness presentation to Health classes at the local Middle School in hopes that at least some of the kids will think safety when doing what kids do.  I also volunteered for a council that advises the state of West Virginia on the implementation of the Medicaid Waiver that helps tbi survivors move out of care facilities and back into a home environment where they can feel more comfortable and have a much better quality of life.  I was elected council chairman at our last meeting.  I hope I can provide quality service and make sure the survivors in our program have everything they need to live the best life they can.  Here is a link that explains the services we provide:  The West Virginia Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Waiver Program

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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

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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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