“That’s Just My GPS, Sir” – The Heartbreak of Brain Injury
It’s clear to me after representing people who have suffered catastrophic brain trauma that the people who endure these injuries and then go on to live their lives with grace and love are probably the bravest people I’ve ever had the honor to meet. I have a friend who is a veteran and retired out of the military. He told me a story of being at the VA Hospital in Murfreesboro waiting for a checkup when this young nice looking well dressed man came in and sat down across from him. My friend noticed a strange type of necklace on the young man and asked him what kind of new fangled electronics it might be. The young man responded sheepishly “it’s just my GPS, Sir. If I take it off, I’ll lose it and if I lose it I’ll never get home”. He’d been injured by an IED in Afghanistan and had recovered everything, driving skills, memory of family, motor skills, except that he had absolutely no sense of direction and could not follow even the simplest of them. He could do complicated math, but he couldn’t find his car in the parking lot without help. My friend cried unashamedly for the young man as he told the story.
People who suffer brain injuries have months and sometimes years of therapy ahead of them to reclaim their lives and, all too often, they can never regain all of the function they had before the accident. The ways a victim of brain trauma is impacted, as well as their family, is just too much to go into on this blog. I do want to cover some steps that I have seen and found through research that a person with brain trauma goes through on their journey to cope with and overcome their injury.
1) The first phase is confusion and agitation. This typically happens right after the accident, but can take days to appear. I have seen victims of car accidents who, after a grinding car crash, jump out of their car and act completely fine – even directing traffic around the accident or providing aid to the other occupants in the vehicles. But then, 3 days after the accident, collapse into a coma caused by a slow bleed into the brain. I’ve seen victims taken to the hospital in a coma who woke up clear as a bell days or weeks later with no obvious damage. However, the vast majority of victims experience a period of confusion and agitation after their accident. I was discussing this article with one of my team members and she recounted how, when she was trampled by a neighbor’s horse (which resulted in a perfect hoof mark on her skull), she had no recollection of month following the accident even though she’d been checked out at the hospital and found to be “fine”. She also said her husband and family noticed she was very angry during this time period and would “flare up” for no reason. This is actually very common in people who suffer even moderate bumps on the head. Sometimes people experience complete personality changes, ie very passive people become aggressive or normally decisive people simply cannot decide what clothes to wear that day. 99% of the people who experience the confusion and agitation phase recover completely after 30-90 days.
2) The second phase is denial. People with head injuries want to be OK because the idea of being “brain damaged” is too terrifying to comprehend. So they tell everyone, including their doctor, that they are “fine”. Even family can contribute to this masking of symptoms as brain injuries can’t be seen, so it’s easy to just assume their loved one is OK. There are two offshoots of this denial when you’re dealing with a brain trauma victim. The 1st is emotional denial – “I simply can’t deal with this because it scares me” and the 2nd is physical denial – the brain will not process information the way it used to so the new information cannot be comprehended. It’s up to a neurologist and sometimes behavioral psychiatrist to know if and what type of denial barriers a patient is exhibiting. Typically, denial is a temporary phase and the person will eventually come to understand they are injured.
3) This understanding usually leads to Anger and Depression which are the most dangerous of the process because victims can get stuck in this phase forever. And there is a lot of be angry and depressed about – there’s no denying that! I have had clients who were minding their own business, living happy and productive lives, when one stupid decision on someone else’s part has completely ripped their life away and left them in a wheelchair or dependent on family or spouses forever. That will make anyone angry (I hate that person who hit me – they should be stuck in this wheelchair, not me!) and depressed (I’ll never get to move out on my own and raise a family now, my dreams are ruined). The phase can be marked by drug or alcohol abuse, a breakdown of family and spousal relationships, withdrawal and perhaps refusal to participate in therapy because the person feels hopeless about their condition.
4) Hopefully, the person suffering the brain trauma will move through the Anger and Depression phase and get to the Testing Phase. This is when the person starts trying to figure out what they can do and what they can’t do. It is a time of trial and error, bravery, and it’s also a period that can be very sad for the victim and their family. It’s hard to try to do something you used to take for granted and figure out you can’t do it anymore. A kid who is in college making A’s tries to take another course and can barely make a D due to the brain trauma. Or the person who used to love riding horses can’t anymore because they can’t maintain their equilibrium. This is the time period where the victim is trying to find their place in life again.
5) Finally, we come to Acceptance. Are they happy about it? No! But they have been through all of the stages and arrived at the end where they say “this is me now, I cannot go back, and this is the life I am going to pursue”. They have made a lot of changes to their lives. They have lost friends, but perhaps gained new ones in the process of their recovery. Mostly, they have understood the very hard fact that no matter how unfair the situation is – it’s the hand they were dealt and they still have a life to lead, even though it has forever been altered.
If you or a loved one suffers any type of accident (whether car, bike, falling off a ladder, etc) and it involved hitting your or their head, please go to the hospital ER to get checked out. Time is really of the essence with brain trauma and treatment and swelling of the brain or bleeding into the brain can be silent killers. If you or a loved one suffers a traumatic brain injury, please reach out to area support groups. While your accident and injury is unique to you, living with brain trauma is a burden shared by many in our community and the strength and acceptance you can find from someone who has walked your road before you is invaluable in your journey. God speed if you’re currently on it.