77: Injury at an Early Age

77: Injury at an Early Age

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

Injury at an Early Age

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was 1965 and I was eleven years old. My sixteen-year-old sister was driving, crossing I-35 just north of Liberty, Missouri when the other car T-boned us at an estimated 100 miles per hour. My memories of the following year returned in bits and pieces during my recovery. Almost fifty years later, they are still vivid.

This was before paramedics and ambulances, when funeral homes would often transport the injured. I remember the funeral home attendant—his name was Bud—talking to me as he wrapped me in a blanket and lifted me onto a cot. Bud lifted the cot into the station wagon and sat beside me as we rode to the hospital. I remember a young nurse making a terrible face saying, “Her head is split open.” Then she turned and walked away. I remember seeing an operating room with doctors and nurses moving around; there were metal shelves with cloth bundles and instruments. I saw this as if I were sitting on the bright lights hanging from the ceiling. The next thing I remember is my mother helping me count the days before I could leave the hospital. There were thirty-one days marked on the calendar clutched in my hands on the ride home. Later I realized I had been in the hospital for four months. Where did the other 90 days go? Whenever I had questions my entire family would quickly change the subject.

Thankfully I was young enough that the internal injuries and broken bones eventually healed. The three hundred stitches from my right eyebrow to the top of my head left a scar but I could easily cover it with my hair. Sealed inside a body cast for the next six months, I had to relearn how to write and then how to walk. I was voted the “fastest kid on a stick” in reference to using wooden crutches. Personal interactions were difficult. I tried to fit back in with my old crowd but it never happened. I turned to reading or any activity that would keep me in my own little world.

Since then I have spent my time with a very small circle of friends. I still have trouble with large groups. Shopping at our local superstore turns my stomach as I walk through those big doors. I force myself to hold my head up high and look at the faces of people around me. And the knowledge returns that everyone is just as human and sometimes just as frightened as I am. I was never labeled slow or felt any deficit of intelligence; but I lacked ambition. It was the physical limitations I fought, never once considering the possibility of brain injury.

At age fifteen I ran away from home; the year was 1969. The friends I found were heavy into taking acid and drinking alcohol. It took one time trying the mind-bending drug and one time getting drunk to know that they were not for me. I did not like the loss of control over my thoughts and actions. I settled down to smoking pot to fit in. I blame teenage rebellion and enjoying the effects of marijuana for my lack of desire for an education.

My physical limitations qualified me to be tested for financial assistance in finally seeking an education. I passed my GED and completed an associate’s degree. I’ve had a happy and productive professional life.

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At the time, I was working as a nurse. I was responsible for others’ health and wellbeing. I monitored and administered medications and treatments. I felt competent, my superiors agreed and I loved my job. I also understood suffering and being scared to death. I felt qualified to be in the position I held.

I had the tumor removed. It was located directly over the same area as my childhood injury. The doctors could not say if the two were related. During recovery I found myself standing in the shower, unable to decide which faucet was hot and which was cold. I could not remember if the blue bottle was shampoo or body wash. When I reached for the phone, I couldn’t remember my mother’s phone number. At work I could not remember how to spell the simplest of words.

I could not continue to work in my chosen field if I questioned my abilities, so I had myself tested. The results were above average intelligence, no deficit, no dementia. I went out and bought colored tape, red for the hot faucet, blue for the cold, I bought a huge bottle of body wash and a much smaller shampoo bottle. I taped my mom’s phone number under the telephone and at work I started a list of the most common words I used to document patient complaints. These things helped to kick in my memories. Soon I didn’t need the reminders. I discovered that when I asked God to return my confidence, He answered me almost immediately. I continued to work as a nurse and in the field of pre-hospital emergency medicine until my recent retirement.

Am I just the luckiest person in the world, to have survived brain injury twice? Medical science knows less about the brain than any other organ in the body.

I have joy and laughter, good friends and family, and the desire to overcome any obstacle. I take each challenge piece by piece, and I inch my way along until I get it right. Yes, baby steps. That’s how I learned to walk and write again at age eleven and it is how I accomplish things today. Do I believe in complete and total recovery from a brain injury against all odds? Absolutely, without question or doubt.

~Cheryl Richards

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