40: Racing the Sunset

40: Racing the Sunset

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

Racing the Sunset

I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.

~Maya Angelou

Life, as they say, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. And on July 24, 2004, at the age of twenty-five, life definitely happened. I became the victim and thankful survivor of a near-fatal car accident, leaving me with countless physical wounds and a traumatic brain injury.

A friend and I were doing some sightseeing that hot and sunny Saturday morning, about 1,300 miles from my hometown. En route, I saw a turtle lounging in the middle of the highway. I simply could not leave him there to die, so we pulled over, got out of the car, and my friend picked him up and took him to the other side of the street. And off we went. It was not until ten minutes later that a speeding pick-up truck, with those unnecessarily enormous wheels, came barreling down a side street, ran the stop sign, and plowed into the driver’s side of my car, sending us spinning. Upon impact, the driver’s side mirror flew into my side window, breaking it, and injuring the left side of my face and my eye, before landing at my friend’s feet. Next came the grill of the truck.

My accident was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. In seconds, everything changed. Had the mirror hit me just an inch higher, I would have been killed instantly. Instead, I lay there, gushing blood from more places than you can count on two hands, in the one hundred degree sun. Given the blood loss, the heat, and the delirium, I didn’t think I’d stand a chance of making it through the hour-long ambulance ride to the nearest hospital. But, I told myself, I survived the impact for a reason bigger than and beyond me, and now it was time to fight.

Looking back, I had no idea what that would come to mean. I had no idea the strength and resiliency I’d need to summon from within and rely upon from others; the support of family and friends infused my own. I would see X-rays of screws and plates but it wasn’t a piece of electronics I was looking at. It was my face. Having something so foreign in you gets to you after a while. I’d wake up each day not knowing what my eyes would allow me to see—my vision fluctuated so frequently, from complete darkness to doubled, blurred vision, to everything “floating” as if there were no gravity.

There was the constant pain, many medications and surgeries, and the endless doctor and hospital visits. And yet, as other TBI survivors know, all of that is nothing compared to having to face your brain injury on a daily basis. The cognitive fatigue, the sensory overload, the perseveration, the emotional flooding, the confusion, the memory and time lapses, the depression and anxiety, the extreme frustration, and let’s not forget those complete “shut-downs.” My TBI wreaked a lot of havoc, and stole a lot from me, but over time, I came to realize that it did not touch the essence of who I am; it did not change what I find sacred or precious. What a tremendous and invigorating revelation! Some TBI survivors find the biggest loss to be themselves, but I don’t believe that to be true—it’s simply a matter of learning to work with the new obstacles and not trying to plow through or will them away.

I learned, much to my chagrin, that my new life would revolve around the sunset—quite literally—as my TBI and vision problems didn’t allow me to function well in the dark.

TBI is just that—an injury. An injury that happened to me. It is not me. Remember what used to make you truly happy? Make room for it. The more you are able to bring those things back into your life, the more you will see yourself in you again, and be less apt to let your TBI become your identity.

So what exactly were those plans that this car accident had so rudely interrupted? I was working toward becoming a lawyer, due to begin my third year of law school that September. I was also planning to pursue one of my lifelong dreams of doing Basset Hound rescue work. So, should I abandon my dream of becoming a lawyer, or forge my own path? And how on earth would I do that?

In May 2004, just two months before my car accident, I was listening to a commencement address by a state Supreme Court Justice whom I admired. She said something so striking that resonated with me not only then but also countless times, through every medical hurdle. “You will have your chance to make a difference. The issue is whether you will take it. You can be an ordinary thread in the tunic or you can be that royal touch of purple that gives distinction to the garment. Be that royal touch of purple to the world.”

I took the chance and stayed in school. I finished, albeit with a lot of help, and passed two bar exams . . . on my first try! I forged my own path. I started a legal services non-profit organization with a focus on helping people living with brain injury and educating the general public about TBI. I learned very quickly that to be successful in my work, I needed to control as many variables as I could—given the multitude of limitations I had to manage along with a workload. In short, that meant being my own boss. And so, I found myself becoming an entrepreneur. There’s that resiliency at work again.

I have finally been able to truly begin my rescue work. My Basset Hound Kenna was rescued from extreme neglect on Christmas Eve, 2012. Not only has she been fantastic for me—helping to keep some symptoms in check and detecting those overloads before the shutdowns—but she now helps our clients as well. We are quite the dynamic duo; returning veterans and others dealing with PTSD and TBI find the comfort of Kenna coupled with my personal experience compelling, and are much more open about their own struggles. The real kicker? She was rescued just a few miles from my car accident, 1,300 miles away.

Almost ten years later, I still struggle with my TBI. I still have bad and very bad days. I live every day doing my best to balance my own desires with the demands of my injury, and while I don’t always win, I do always try.

Once my cognitive fatigue sets in, nothing else will get done until I get recharged. Nothing else positive, that is. As someone who pushes the envelope, it is a daily race to beat the sunset. I live every day racing that sunset, forging my own path.

~Melissa A. Gertz

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