65: Back on Top of the World

65: Back on Top of the World

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

Back on Top of the World

A goal is a dream with a deadline.

~Napoleon Hill

I was on top of the world. I was twenty-four, dating a terrific guy, and had just been hired as a middle school band director, my dream job. I was already involved with summer marching band and excited about what the year would bring.

I was leaving an evening marching band rehearsal when I made a left turn from a stop sign directly in front of a 17-ton Mack truck that hit my driver’s side door going fifty-five miles per hour. I have no memory of the accident or the month that followed.

My parents kept their hopes up that I would get better. I had been in a coma for days and the doctors couldn’t explain why I wasn’t waking up. They talked to my parents about institutionalizing me. My accident was on August 13th. My dad’s birthday is August 20th. During those days he would tell me his birthday was coming and that I needed to open my eyes: “My birthday is in four days. All I want is for you to open your eyes.” Then Mom would say, “Dad’s birthday is in two days. All he wants is for you to open your eyes.” When the day arrived, Dad took my hand and said, “Chris, today is my birthday and all I want for my birthday is for you to open your eyes. Please open your eyes.” I did, briefly. They ran to share the news with my doctor, who downplayed it, telling them that it was simply a coincidence. In my heart, I know I did it deliberately.

I drifted in and out of consciousness. My cognition at that time was very fuzzy. I thought all the tubes sticking out of my arms were snakes. I had to be restrained to keep from pulling them out. I had four stable breaks in my pelvis. My parents didn’t mention the traumatic brain injury I suffered because they were afraid it would discourage me. Eventually I figured this out on my own when I couldn’t read the items around me.

I eventually learned how close I came to death that first night. The fire department, which cut my car apart with two sets of the Jaws of Life, called the hospital the next morning to check on my status. They were told that I had made it through the night, but would likely die in the next few hours.

The predictions were so negative! I wouldn’t live through the first twenty-four hours. I would never regain consciousness. I would be greatly diminished cognitively. I would have a different personality. I would never walk or drive again. There was only a fifty percent chance that I would return to teaching in six or seven years. But every prediction the doctors made proved wrong.

I was ranked a 4 on the Glasgow Coma Scale. This scale goes from 3-15. Scoring a 3 means that the patient is totally non-responsive. Four is a very bad rating. Years later when I spoke at a music therapy conference, my parents talked to the doctor on the panel about how frustrating it was to have the doctors constantly dash their hopes for my recovery. He explained, “Ninety-eight percent of those who score a 4 on the Glasgow Scale don’t get better. It really is a miracle!”

My cognitive abilities improved with therapy. A nurse asked me what college I attended. I told her. Her response was, “That’s an expensive school!”

I replied, “It is, but I had a . . .” I couldn’t come up with the word and she wasn’t going to help me. Frustrated I asked, “What’s it called when they give you the money?” She smiled. “A scholarship!”

She saw the look on my face and explained, “You just made a new neural connection. The word was there all the time. The old pathway was destroyed, but you just made a new pathway!”

The same thing happened when I relearned my clarinet. Occasionally I would have to be reminded of a note name, term, or fingering. I only needed to hear it once and it was re-established in my mind. It was frustrating to not know when knowledge would be missing, but a relief to know that it could be relearned.

Two things happened that made a tremendous impact upon my recovery. First, I overheard the doctor tell my mother that he wasn’t sure I would walk again. I prayed to God, “Please help me to walk. I’ll do the work, whatever needs to be done.” Second, during therapy to stretch my bent arm, a therapist asked me to put a ball in the box with my left hand. I couldn’t move my arm at all. I finally pulled the box forward with my right hand and dropped the ball in with my bent left arm. The therapist was mad.

Suddenly I realized what needed to be done. I asked, “What’s the objective? What’s the real objective?” The teacher in me understood that surface goals were being used for a greater purpose. She explained that she was trying to stretch my arm out. I replied that after being in so much pain, I was going to find the least painful way to accomplish the surface goal presented to me. She told me, “If you want to get better, it’s going to hurt.” After that conversation, she told me the real goal. I forged on through the pain to meet those goals. My recovery took off.

The day I was admitted to the rehabilitation hospital, tents were set up outside. My parents learned that a survivors’ picnic is held each year to celebrate those who recover. They told the staff that we would return as survivors the next year. The following year at the picnic, the staff shared the story of my recovery before presenting me with the Phoenix Award for the year’s most remarkable recovery. Like the phoenix, I had returned to life from the ashes of death.

The story doesn’t end there. I eventually got my life back. I had the same personality. I could walk and drive. I returned to teaching the next fall and started school to earn my master’s degree the year after that. I married my boyfriend, who had the courage to see me through this, and we have a beautiful daughter. I’m once again on top of the world.

~Christine R. Blue

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