46: Building a Tree House

46: Building a Tree House

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

Building a Tree House

All things must come to the soul from its roots, where it is planted.

~Saint Teresa of Avila

Labor Day, the last hurrah of summer. The kids were in the tree looking for the perfect branches on which to build a tree house. They were so young, and no one ever thought to tell the children not to reach out toward a power line. But my adventurous daughter Christina did just that and 4800 volts of electricity catapulted her thirty feet to the ground. She lost consciousness as her clothes and flesh began to burn. I was worried that she might not survive the fall and the burns. I never thought about a possible traumatic brain injury.

Christina was angry because the first responders wanted her to have an IV; it took four men to hold her down. Once at the ER, I heard the word “electrocution” for the first time. I hadn’t quite processed what had actually happened to her. Meanwhile, I had to make sure that my older daughter Rebecca was told by an adult what had happened and have someone care for her. I was overwhelmed, but I had no idea how much my life had changed in that split second.

At the hospital, I could hear Christina scream as she was put into a shower to clean the dirt, grass and leaves off her body. The nurses needed to give her morphine during the shower to better handle the pain. I still hadn’t cried.

Christina would have a total of three surgeries, each on a Wednesday. The first was to thoroughly clean her wounds, the second was for skin grafts and the third was to take out all the staples. Her nurse said that as the surgeon walked into the OR, Christina broke out in song with the “Hallelujah Chorus”—what a kid!

Christina eventually made it back to school. Rebecca seemed to be doing well also, but was at a loss how to deal with Christina and all the medical attention she needed. Life seemed to slip into a routine, but centered on medical and therapy appointments, as well as special baths for Christina. Rebecca felt ignored by everyone around her.

Christina seemed to be adjusting to school. She received extra help with language as well as physical concerns. But I was noticing she was less even-tempered than she was previously. I thought perhaps it was part of the normal recovery from the accident. But then puberty struck. Christina became unmanageable. She would run away, fight with others at school, and refuse to do her work. Even though she had a one-on-one aide at the middle school, she would hit others (including me.) She even threatened suicide.

Seemingly overnight, she had become a person I did not know. Our lives were upside down again. Christina spent many days in mental health facilities. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and although I kept saying she has a traumatic brain injury, no one wanted to listen to me. The police were at our house nearly every week and would end up transporting Christina to either a detention center or a mental health hospital.

Eventually, Christina went to live with her father in a nearby city. This did not help either. It seemed her father had less control than I did, and now teen shelters were added to her places of residence. Eventually, she came back to my home and was assigned a county social worker. In fact the county at one point took guardianship of her and placed her in another residential treatment center, this time long term. Christina flourished with 24/7 care and structure. She began school again and was doing well. However, because she was doing so well, she was released home. Her behavior escalated again. She ran away for days at a time and engaged in a number of illegal, inappropriate behaviors.

The calm, new normal we had developed as a family had unraveled. We kept all the knives in the house locked in the trunk of the car. I had to hire local college students to sit with Christina at night while I was at work if Rebecca was gone. Rebecca was getting ready to graduate from high school and enroll in college; she was being ignored again. Rebecca was embarrassed by her sister’s behaviors. I didn’t blame her. I was embarrassed, too. I felt guilty because I didn’t know what to do to help the situation.

Before the accident, Christina was very social, very talkative and had a lot of friends. After the accident, her impulsiveness and erratic behaviors affected her ability to establish and keep friendships, and to get along with others.

Having a traumatic brain injury can be difficult. Generally, someone with a TBI does not look any different than anyone else. However, once you talk with her, you might notice something a little off. This made it harder to get support services for Christina—she looks like a typical twenty-year-old, with long blond hair, a winning smile and an engaging personality.

Our lives changed when Christina was electrocuted. It took me about a month to reach out to friends for support. I was so overwhelmed with the daily routine of being a single mom and trying to be there for both the girls that I did not take time for myself. I eventually did reach out to friends, family and my church. I would sit in the quiet pews and cry, but also feel hope: hope that everything would get better.

And it has. With time and persistence and the love of family, Christina is now growing into the young adult she can be. She is beginning to believe in herself again. She is the nurturing, caring individual whom everyone loves. Now she can talk about the accident without too much regret about what she used to be able to do and no longer can.

This life-changing experience provided a foundation from which to grow, to develop understanding, to begin seeing people for who they are. I want to believe that I am more open-minded, that I look beyond the initial first impression. I ask people how they are doing and really listen. I am more empathetic when talking with parents about concerns they may be having in their families. I have found that everyone has concerns; a personal or family difficulty that is hidden from others yet is a burden for them. Being available to listen, to offer a helping hand, can go a long way for that individual and also give purpose and meaning to our lives.

The tree house was never built. The tree was eventually cut down. However, the roots of caring for others, the roots of our family, are strong.

~Jan Heinitz

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