44: It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint

44: It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint

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

It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint

I find hope in the darkest of days and focus in the brightest.

~Dalai Lama

“It’s a marathon not a sprint.” Whenever I heard those words, I always thought of world-class athletes running a grueling twenty-six-mile race. Today, those few words resonate quite differently with me. They were the first words told to me multiple times by my son’s doctors and nurses when my son became a reluctant member of the traumatic brain injury club. Little did I know, my son and my family would be running the marathon of our lives.

During the early morning of May 27, 2012, twenty-three-year-old Richard was speeding, going over 100 miles an hour on the freeway. He over-corrected on a turn heading off the ramp. His car flipped three times. He was thrown forty feet from his car through the sunroof, landing in some bushes. He was not wearing a seatbelt.

Within seconds, my son, a national collegiate tennis player just beginning his studies at Arizona State University, was fighting for his life.

Luckily, the first responders arrived within minutes. Richard almost died three times in the ambulance but was revived. When he arrived at a level-one trauma center, the neurosurgeon performed an immediate craniotomy and took out a grapefruit-sized piece of bone from his skull to relieve the pressure from the swelling. His brain was bleeding from a hematoma, and he suffered a diffuse axonal injury, the shearing of parts of the brain. He also broke several vertebrae, shattered his hip, broke all of his ribs and suffered two collapsed lungs.

Doctors gave him little chance to survive the night, much less function cognitively because of the damage to the brain and spinal cord; the prognosis was that he would probably never walk again.

He survived the night, and this is where our marathon began. Myriad tubes and apparatuses surrounded my son so that I barely recognized him. My husband said I fell to my knees when the neurosurgeon said Richard would probably never walk again and would probably remain in a vegetative state. Our world was shattered within minutes.

Richard made it through the first few days and slowly opened his eyes, staring into space at something only he could see. Little by little, the life-sustaining tubes were extracted, and he breathed on his own with the help of a tracheotomy. Within three weeks, he underwent two brain surgeries and two spinal cord operations.

We were told in the beginning that all brain injuries are different and that patients do best with family support. The recovery process for brain injuries takes a very long time. Some doctors will give a two-year mark; however, research now shows that brain injury recovery can continue for years.

Our daily vigils with Richard began in the ICU while family and friends talked to him and played music. In time, he started mouthing the words to Blink 182’s “Small Things” and James Blunt’s “Beautiful.” The nurses, angels in disguise, asked Richard to show them two fingers every day until finally two fingers were what he showed them. Although we were told that there were no nerve connections in his feet, we saw his toes move. Weeks later, he was moving his legs like a bucking bronco.

The marathon continued.

His next transition was to move to a specialty hospital to heal until he could enter an inpatient rehab unit. Here is where the trach came out, and we could hear his unique voice. He first started talking in numbers, but then, slowly, everyday conversations began. Braininjured patients sometimes suffer from dysphasia where they mix up words. A cup may be called a table and a table may be called the number five.

The long days of Richard’s recovery were some of my darkest. I did not know if my son would ever be the son I knew before. Would he have the same sense of humor? Would he walk again? Would he be able to get a job and live independently? Would he get married and have children of his own? I allowed myself to break down and cry. Then I scoured the Internet for success stories and got down on my knees and prayed.

Two months after his accident, Richard stood for the first time. Weeks later he took his first steps with the help of a walking apparatus. He had to laboriously learn to do everything all over again like a child—talking, walking, eating, brushing his teeth, showering, and walking to the bathroom. This took five months.

And the marathon continued.

Richard graduated to the inpatient rehab unit where his progress accelerated. It was not always easy to motivate him to get better, and at one time, we told him we would pay him ten dollars for each session of “stupid therapy” as he called it. Money was always a motivator for him. By the time he left the unit three months later, he could walk with a walker, get dressed by himself, and was working on his short-term memory. When the nurses asked where he was, he still did not know if he was in a hospital or a hotel. He had no idea what day it was or who the President was. Every day he begged to go home. He finally got his wish.

But the marathon wore on. At home he continued with his outpatient therapies and still used a feeding tube because his swallowing muscles were not strong enough to eat. At first I panicked about how I was going to work the feeding tube machine and was afraid I would starve him to death. We had our laughs when I would not quite get the feeding tube into the slot and the liquid would squirt all over him. But by December 2012, he could eat and drink again on his own. Slowly, his weight, which had plummeted to 140 pounds, climbed up to 200 pounds on his six-foot-five frame.

Since Richard needed complete twenty-four-hour supervision for a year, I became his best friend. We went everywhere together—the grocery store, doctors’ visits, outpatient therapy, social security appointments, and the movies. It was a time period where he was relearning social etiquette—brain-injured patients can be quite blunt. Luckily, his good friends stayed by his side to give me a reprieve. After all, does a twenty-something really want his mom to be his best friend?

After daily hard work, and with the help of his outpatient therapists, he can now run, play basketball, bowl, play tennis, read, write, and drive a car. In October 2013, his neuropsychological testing showed he still has deficits in short-term memory, processing information, and attention span. But he was told just a few days ago it is time for him to go back to college.

Over a year ago, I thought I had lost my son. I was clueless as to what recovery involved and hated that I was forced into the world of traumatic brain injury. But through a lot of education, help from amazing professionals, friends and family, a new normal emerged.

My tears are now not for me but for another mother who will watch her son or daughter begin his or her own marathon. Hope is the key. Our marathon still continues but it gets easier every day. I never liked sprints anyway.

~Sheri Siwek

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