33: Joanie

33: Joanie

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries


Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.


“Larry, I’m hurt,” Joanie yelled, as I jogged around the corner some distance behind her. I raced toward where she was lying to see blood dripping down her face. My first thought was that she had been struck by a car and tossed onto the lawn where she lay—that’s how torn and battered she appeared.

“My feet got caught in my sneaker laces, and I fell on my face onto the asphalt. I crawled over here to get out of the road. I felt such a whack when I hit,” she said, adding, “this can’t be good.”

It wasn’t. The emergency room physician concluded that she had sustained a subdural hematoma. In an instant, my wife of almost four decades went from being a vibrant, physically fit woman enjoying the prime of her life, to someone seriously injured with a traumatic brain injury. In the following days, Joanie experienced extreme head pain, confusion, lethargy, nausea, sleep disturbances, impaired attention, memory loss, a speech disorder, hearing deficits, emotional distress and behavior changes. Within ten days of that freak fall, she could not respond, move, stand, or walk. Within a month, she experienced three emergency room visits, two hospitalizations, and one brain surgery.

At home after her first hospitalization, Joanie’s symptoms—especially her head pain—began to worsen as fluid accumulated around her brain. I found her in bed a few mornings later unable to respond, walk, or talk. I called an ambulance to take her back to the hospital. Days into that second hospitalization, the neurosurgeon took my grown daughter Janna and me aside to tell us, “She’s going to need surgery to drain the fluid; I’ve scheduled the operation for seven thirty tomorrow morning.”

Just after arriving home that same night, I received a phone call from another member of the neurosurgery team saying that the swelling in her cranium had increased suddenly. “We’re not going to wait until tomorrow morning to operate,” he said. “We’re going to perform the surgery at eleven o’clock tonight.” Janna and I hurried back to the hospital, arriving just in time to see the surgical team wheeling my wife into the operating room. As they did, I barely managed to choke out, “Take good care of my girl.”

At one o’clock in the morning, the neurosurgeon came to the hushed waiting room to tell us the results. “The surgery went well,” he said. “Her breathing tube is even out.”

At that point, both Janna and I breathed a lot easier ourselves. We stayed with Joanie every day in the hospital, saddened to see the stitches along the nine-inch incision on her shaved scalp, listening to the quiet shush-click of the inflatable cuffs on her legs designed to help prevent blood clots.

While her symptoms began to lessen after surgery, Joanie still had a long rehabilitation to go through to regain the physical, cognitive, and coordination abilities her injury had impaired. After her discharge, a rehabilitation team of four therapists made regular home visits over several months. They worked on rebuilding her core strength and balance, restoring the planning and sequencing abilities that normal living requires, and returning her reading, speech, and memory to their former levels. Then it was several more months of outpatient speech and reading therapy to continue strengthening her cognitive functioning. Joanie vigorously and conscientiously practiced all the exercises her therapists gave her. She was highly motivated to get better. Janna and I (and our son, Todd, who had flown in from the opposite coast) saw it as our jobs to be her cheerleaders, listening posts, and confidence builders as she worked hard to regain function.

Still, it took almost a year after her descent into helplessness for her to fight her way fully back to health. In this, she was aided by the love and support not only of our family but also our friends who plied us with visits, cards, food, and concern, and the talented health care providers and rehabilitation therapists who treated her. Remarkably, throughout most of this ordeal, Joanie was conscious and aware of what had happened. The irony of having been injured while exercising to keep in good health didn’t escape her, as she repeated often what we came to call her mantra: “What a stupid thing to have happen to me.”

One day, late into the year of her rehabilitation, Joanie and I were out walking. As we walked, she asked if I happened to see a segment earlier that week on one of the national morning television shows where people were invited to summarize their lives in just three words and to write those three words on their hands. I said I hadn’t seen it. Joanie introduced it to me by commenting how deeply emotional it was for her. She said it showed people expressing highly charged sentiments, like “Miss my soldier” and “I love life.”

She went on, “The one that sticks in my mind was . . .” but she couldn’t finish her sentence. Her eyes welling up, she said, “I don’t know if I can get this out.” We fell into a long silence and continued to walk as she regained her composure. After several minutes, she took a deep breath and began to speak. As she did, there were no resounding cheers, no triumphant fanfares. Only quiet tears of victory.

“The one I want to tell you about,” she said, “was the person who wrote a sentiment on each of her hands. On one hand, it said, ‘I FELL DOWN.’ On the other hand, it said, ‘I GOT UP.’ ”

~Larry C. Kerpelman, Ph.D

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