This is the second Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) death I've heard of in as many weeks, and it's hard for me to articulate how this news affects me. Aside from the obviously grief for the families involved, it's hard not to recall my own TBIs, and again wrestle with both thankfulness for the life I still have and sadness for the life I did lose.
On January 21, 2004, I took a break from work to get some snacks at the Speedway station just down the road. It was a cold, blustery Michigan day and there was ice on the sidewalk leading to the store. I wish I knew what happened exactly. Best I can figure, I slipped on the ice and struck my head on the concrete sidewalk. I don't know if I passed out. I don't know if anyone saw me. I don't know if anyone helped me. I do know that I got up and drove the mile and a half home. People fall all the time and so I figured it wasn't a big deal. In actuality, my life has never been the same.
Once someone sustains a TBI, they are more likely to sustain additional head injuries, and those additional head injuries tend to have more serious consequences. I was very fortunate. A colleague could tell I was a little off and drove me to the Urgent Care. Again, I brushed off any concern over my head. I was advised to have someone spend the night to observe me. It was a good thing, because the next day I had a throbbing headache. My doctor sent me to the ER for a CT. It didn't show any bleeding, and that's where my story differs from Natasha's. Her TBI led to bleeding which led to death. My TBI was more like, as my neuropsychologist explained it to me, a bowl of Jello being jolted around. The pathways in my brain were shaken up and in some ways, five years later, they are still recovering. I am a different person today. I have a different personality, and my mental functions are not what they once were. I used to be a writer. Now, too often, I find I don't have anything to say. I used to be super organized. Now, I too easily find myself overwhelmed by disorder. Routines and structure are more important to me now. I can't rely on my memory so I need lists and reminders. I'm not as social as I used to be, because, quite frankly, I can't handle as much stimulation. I lack the filter out what I don't need so in a room with several conversations, I hear them all at the same level and get overwhelmed. I tired much more easily and need much more sleep. I work very hard to structure my days to make the most of them, but my most productive days now, are just a shadow of what I used to be able to do.
It's hard, often, to describe to others what it's like to be head injured. And people say the strangest things: "I know just how you feel." "I do dumb things like that sometimes." "You don't look head injured!" Sure, everyone has bad days, but people without head injuries don't have structure every part of their day just so they can function like a "normal" person. I think of the Alzheimer's patient who has a rare lucid day. On rare occasion, I do have days when I can function well, get a project done, record my thoughts in a meaningful day. It doesn't mean I'm cured, it just means that, that day, God gave me a gift.
I'm very fortunate though. Within two weeks of my fall, I was in a brain injury program where I saw a physical therapist, speech therapist and occupational therapist three times a week. I also saw a neuropsychologist and neurologist. But even as I came to understand my injury, so many others around me, couldn't. TBIs are a silent disability. I look fine. It's frustrating to those who know you when all of a sudden you can't keep up with your job, your commitments, your relationships. I lost some friendship, and strengthened others. I'm very loyal to the friends who walked with me through my recovery.
In May of 2006, I hit my head again, this time on a sharp corner in a friend's home. It seems insignificant at the time, but now I know I sustained another TBI, and this one cost me my job. After 18 months of trying to work with my rehab program, it became painfully obvious that I was not capable of the work I was hired to do.
My head injury is one of the most life-changing events in my life. It took my job, my ability to write, my house, my independence, my security. It changed my personality and how I view and approach each day. But I am fortunate. I managed to find a man who was not scared off by my disability, and when I told him about it, expecting him to run, he instead asked me how he could learn more. I married that man and he is my greatest advocate on my bad days.
As I think about the grief Natasha Richardson's family is facing right now, I grieve the life I lost, the books I'll never write, the way things could have been. But, typing this blog in my comfortable home, with my dog curled up in my lap and my husband and newborn son in the other room, I feel blessed.
I hope that Natasha's death can be redeemed a little bit with articles like this one, to educate others about the potential seriousness of a "simple fall."