Recently in my college writing class, I was assigned to write a paper on a learning experience. Naturally, I chose to write about living with a brain injury. I hope that this can be of help to anyone suffering, or any caregivers who may need hope.
Sunglasses on, and slumped in my seat, I awaited the verdict at the first of many appointments with my neurosurgeon. After producing an unsatisfactory symptom chart, and failing almost every test, I knew that I would be diagnosed with a severe concussion and neck injury. Everyone I had come in contact with could tell that something was just not right with me. Was it the fact that I had no short-term memory? That I wore sunglasses inside my dark house? That I could not walk on my own? Or, that I was unable to hold a conversation? My fifteen-year-old self never could have predicted the physical and emotional effects that followed this first appointment. While painfully recovering from this injury for over three years, persevering and giving hope to others has helped me to find my place in this world.
Starting when I was four years old, sports were the most important aspect of my life. Prior to my injury, I played soccer and ice hockey, and ran track for my high school. I was extremely active and loved my teammates. When I was injured my sophomore year in an October soccer game, I knew that I would be sidelined for at least a few weeks. The thought of watching my friends play, and not being able to help my team, killed me inside. After all, it was not my fault that someone tripped me and I hit my head; I did not ask for this life-changing event.
What I had known my entire life was taken away from me in a matter of seconds. Although I had memory problems, this was something that I unfortunately could never forget. My neurosurgeon explained to me the severity of my head and neck injury at that first appointment and as a result, I had to miss the rest of the school year, and I have not been cleared to return to contact sports since. I was ordered not to look at a screen of any kind, do physical activity, homework, talk on the phone, or even draw for over four straight months. Essentially, complete “brain rest” was my prescription because I could not risk another head injury, and I needed to recover from this one.
Recovering from a brain injury is extremely exhausting, stressful, time consuming, and of course, painful work. A positive attitude and flexibility would determine the rate of my extensive recovery process. Planning ahead was never an option because my symptoms were unpredictable on any given day. I had to re-learn how to comprehend orally, to follow a conversation, to read effectively, to walk in a straight line, to catch a ball, and to do basic things around the house like turn on the stove. Now, over three years later, I can see that I am a more patient person. I had to recognize that not everything would come as easily to me, and that to be a successful person in the future, I would need to take care of myself by putting forth an effort to regain my personality, and abilities as a human being. Accepting what happened, and taking on each new challenge with an open mind were the keys to moving on, and avoiding depression.
Several months after that first appointment, I was finally allowed to use my computer. Discovering that I was not alone, and that I could be a resource for others was a climactic moment. I joined several Facebook groups, started a website, and began speaking on behalf of the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. I recognized that sports were not all I had to offer, and that I could use my free time helping people in similar situations. I discovered a passion for writing, public speaking, and counseling other teenagers with brain injuries, as well as their families. Telling my story, and lecturing about sports safety to doctors, athletes, and families became my mission because the devastating effects of head injuries are not well known. An opportunity to try new things, and learn about a fascinating condition became a part of my daily life, even if it was in a painful way.
I am fortunate to be alive. Thankfully, I was not paralyzed when I snapped my neck. Walking is a blessing, even if it is not dribbling a soccer ball, ice skating, or running in a race. Graduating from high school seemed impossible a few years ago but because of my determination to recover, I can proudly call myself a college student. Good health is something to be appreciated. Even though I am still suffering from Post Concussion Syndrome, there are more detrimental medical conditions. Life is hard, and does not always go as planned, but it could always be worse. Everyone has something difficult that they have to handle, and keeping an open mind when talking with people has become a conscious effort on my part because one can never know what someone else is going through. Simple things like keeping the shades open in the house, watching television, and going to the mall are gifts never to be taken for granted because at one point even just a year ago, they were not possible for me.
Learning about my brain every week at the doctor was mesmerizing and eye opening. There is much to learn about the essential organ, and this has influenced my decision to pursue a career in neurology, something I would have never considered before my injury. This past summer, I was treated 2-3 days a week and at each session, my doctors would explain the exercise, and which part of my brain it would help. Though they did not have to do this with every patient, they understood that I had an interest in the subject matter. Investing time in understanding the process and reasoning behind each treatment made appointments less agonizing. Spending time with various types of doctors has taught me that there are numerous ways to help people, and no uniform procedure for treating concussions yet.
Spending hours on Facebook groups with teenagers across the country has been an incredible experience. The fact that someone needed my help and advice was extremely rewarding. Giving someone hope, guidance, and friendship brought a new type of joy to my everyday life, filling the void of sports. Three years ago, I would not have considered myself an empathetic person. If someone were to ask me to describe myself today, compassionate and empathetic would be at the top of my list. Although thinking about that first day in my neurosurgeon’s office does not revive happy memories, it was a new beginning. I am concussed but compassionate; disabled but determined; healing but hopeful. Every experience is one to learn from, and even though mine was out of my control, I have found a way to take control of my life again.