71: Sometimes the Little Fish Wins

71: Sometimes the Little Fish Wins

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

Sometimes the Little Fish Wins

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble in the road.

~Henry Ward Beecher

Never lie to your parents. It always comes back to bite you in the butt, especially the big ones (the lies, not the butts.) Many years ago, I told my parents I was going on vacation to Wisconsin with a girlfriend. In truth, I was driving alone from our family home in Chicago to a North Carolina military base to visit a boyfriend (whom they didn’t like) who was stationed there. Had I known I’d end up in a head-on car crash on my way home, almost losing my life, I’d have gone to Wisconsin!

On an icy bridge, my lightweight car ricocheted off another vehicle. It jumped the guardrail and slid down a forty-foot snow-slicked embankment, coming to rest at the bottom on railroad tracks. I broke the front seatback and flew like a human rocket, smashing the right rear door open with my head. This happened in the days before seatbelt laws. The engine ended up in the front seat where I would have been had I been seatbelted.

I lay near death several yards away from where I had been launched, and my brand-new car was totaled just a couple of weeks after I’d made the last payment on it (surely punishment for lying).

I sustained a blood clot on the brain, severe whiplash, several lacerations, and a fractured collarbone.

The North Carolina clinic nearest the accident site wasn’t equipped to treat a traumatic brain injury, so they transferred me by funeral hearse (their version of an ambulance) to a large hospital in Virginia, better equipped to treat me. Imagine my parents’ confusion after being telephoned by someone from the Virginia hospital telling them I’d been in an accident in North Carolina and that I needed emergency brain surgery to save me.

They were urged to make their flight arrangements immediately and wait for the neurosurgeon to call back. Several hours passed, and in the middle of the night, the doctor called, advising my folks to get there quickly while he tried to keep me alive.

Early the next morning, they took three connecting flights, arriving in Roanoke, Virginia, late in the afternoon. The young girl at the hospital information desk said in her sweetest Southern drawl, “Oh, y’all are the parents of the deceased?”

My parents gasped, “What?”

Realizing her mistake, the poor girl stammered, “Oh, I’m sorry! I meant the patient in a coma,” and then quickly gave them my room number.

My mother and dad rushed to my room and froze in the doorway. They didn’t recognize me because my shaved head was cocooned in a turban-like surgical bandage, and my face and body had turned black from bruising.

I remained in a coma for ten days and, even so, tried repeatedly to scratch out my IV and then claw the nurse attempting to reinsert it. When I finally regained consciousness, I would find that my fingernails had been clipped short and splints strapped beneath my arms to prevent further injury to me or my nurses. I also discovered I had double vision, partial paralysis on one side, no memory at all of having the accident, and no car.

The first time I tried to walk on my own, my doctor held his arms out to me. But I was more concerned about keeping my hospital gown closed in back than I was about walking to him. Those hospital gowns don’t leave much to the imagination. I suppose that’s where they got the term “ICU.”

Weeks later, when I was discharged, we flew home to Chicago. We boarded the aircraft and made our way down the aisle to our seats in the last row. The seatbacks wouldn’t recline, and as soon as we settled in, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit ramrod straight throughout the long flight ahead. The flight attendant agreed to move us, but we had to hurry because takeoff was imminent. Without thinking, I quickly stood up, forgetting the overhead compartment was just inches above my head.

I hit the hard ceiling with such force that the pain doubled me in half over the seatback in front of me. I began crying, the wig covering my bald head was askew, and my gauze eye bandage for my double vision became soaked with tears. I thought the flight attendant would faint as well. After all the drama subsided, our seats were changed.

Once home, I needed several months of medical follow-ups as I healed. At one appointment, I sat in the crowded waiting room until it was my turn to be seen. After examining me, the doctor decided to administer a cortisone injection in the back of my neck to ease the lingering pain from the whiplash injury. I screamed the entire time it took him to give me the shot, once again soaking my eye bandage with tears. When I left the examining room, there wasn’t a soul there. Who knew I could yell loud enough to clear an entire waiting room?

In the weeks that followed, I regained my strength, and life returned to normal. Special eyeglass lenses finally controlled my double vision, which disappeared entirely after about six months. I’ve never fully recovered my memory, and I’m also at that age now where I’ve entered the “Wonder Years”—I wonder what I’m going to forget next! But maintaining a positive outlook (plus several datebooks and calendars) has helped me deal with the effects of the traumatic brain injury and get on with life. I guess you can say for me “TBI” means “To Be Inspired.”

Back at work, I had continuing difficulty with my memory, a residual effect of the traumatic brain injury. What other people took for granted—learning new assignments or remembering everyday routines—slipped quickly from my recall. My supervisor was very understanding, though. When he found I hadn’t completed certain tasks, he tactfully suggested I keep a notebook. I could use it to add entries to help remember the things I had to accomplish during the workday. All was well and good—that is, until I forgot where I put the notebook!

Some people grow plants in an office, but I kept a fishbowl of guppies, one of whom was very pregnant. I monitored her advancement daily, and prepared a smaller fishbowl beside the larger one in anticipation of the delivery day. I knew to retrieve the guppies as they were born because I’d read that the fish ate their young soon after delivering.

As my supervisor conducted our weekly staff meeting, I sat recording the meeting notes when mama began cranking out the newborn fishies. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting it. I just forgot to look up from my notetaking. By the time I remembered, it was too late. I jumped up from my chair and raced toward the fishbowl just as she gulped down all but one. That experience taught me a valuable lesson: Sometimes you’re the big fish and sometimes you’re the bait. It’s all about endurance in life, and sometimes you have to work hard and swim like mad just to survive.

~Annette Langer

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners