85: What I Learned from a Severe TBI

85: What I Learned from a Severe TBI

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

What I Learned from a Severe TBI

I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.

~Ronald Reagan

Tied down to a hospital bed, I moaned and cried, trying to wiggle free. “Haaaalooooo! Haaaaalooooooo! Anybody?” when suddenly my mother leaned over me. What was she doing here? Shouldn’t she be in Germany? And where was I anyway? This didn’t make sense at all!

“The doctors want to transfer you to a different hospital, one that specializes in your kind of injury. Is that okay with you?” my mother asked me in our native language. I nodded, not even knowing what “my kind of injury” was, and drifted back into unconsciousness, a place I much preferred to be.

Weeks later, I learned that Anatole, the horse I had galloped and jumped over hurdles one morning at the track, took a misstep, stumbled, and fell, which left me unconscious with a severe traumatic brain injury. To my relief, Anatole was unharmed and continued his racing career successfully. I was happy for him, but I also wondered: What about my racing career?

My shaved head and long scars were evidence of the craniotomy the neurosurgeon had performed to give my brain room to swell and hopefully avoid more damage. For that reason, I was required to wear one of those ugly plastic safety helmets at all times. Not only did my head get hot and sweaty underneath, I also hoped that no one would ever see me with that ugly thing on my head.

And why did they put me into a wheelchair during the daytime? Was there something wrong with my legs too? Then again, I appreciated the wheelchair for the time being, since I felt too weak to stand or to walk on my own. It seemed almost unbearable to sit up all day. All I wanted was to lie down and rest, logging out for a while, hoping that the next time I woke up, my old life would be back: filled with laughter, friends, horses, and the racetrack, with all its excitement.

Because of terrible coughing attacks accompanied with gasping for air, breathing wasn’t easy either. I had a breathing tube in my throat, which looked and felt creepy. More than just once a day, the filter would fall off and needed to be screwed back on. It irritated me every time that there was this thing that could be screwed back onto the front of my throat.

The tracheostomy, where the doctor had made a cut underneath my vocal cords into the windpipe to allow air to enter my lungs, needed to be revised because of growing scar tissue. This time the doctor disconnected my vocal cords to prevent that from happening again. That procedure shut me up for six weeks. Not even a whisper came out of my mouth. Left with my own dreadful thoughts, pen and paper became a necessity to make communication possible. I waited for the day the doctor would give me my voice back and I would be able to ask for some clarity about my situation.

After the craniotomy, a bump had formed on the left side of my head. It kept swelling and jiggled uncontrollably with every movement. In another surgery the neurosurgeon put burr holes into the bump to drain the collected fluid out. My head shrank back to its original size. Great! Now my ugly safety helmet fit again!

After all of the medical intervention, as well as five months of speech, occupational, and physical therapy, I regained strength and balance. The missing piece of my skull was replaced. I traded the safety helmet for a wool cap. I now looked more like a cancer patient waiting for my hair to grow back. Day after day, week after week, and month after month, I searched for someone to blame, before I finally gave in and believed that God came through and protected me for a reason. Now the more important question became: Where did I go from there?

Despite my physical and mental recovery, I had turned into a complete wreck emotionally. Returning to where I had been didn’t seem possible, or so I was told. Due to steroids and inactivity, I had gained over forty pounds, which prevented my reentry into the world of horse racing. The excess weight stopped me from doing what I loved most and left me feeling unworthy and unattractive. Suicide as a complete checkout and the final solution for my misery sounded more and more appealing.

But something inside me wasn’t yet ready to call it quits. I surely wanted to ride horses again, feel the sunshine warming my skin, breathe in the fresh morning air, and show the world I still had something to contribute. I channeled all of my energy to find a new path. A friend recommended a career as a therapeutic riding instructor. But was it possible to start a new career in that field? And how would I get there?

This time my four-legged therapists helped me find the answer. In equine-assisted therapy, an activity that included my old and my new worlds, the horses gave me the idea that there was plenty of room in between, and that it was okay for me to not already be exactly where I wanted to be. They showed me how important it was to stay calm, focused and enjoy the journey. And most of all they reminded me once again to live in the present moment, since yesterday was nothing more than a memory, while tomorrow was nothing but a dream.

With determination and focus, I was able to stay productive. With time, newly learned patience, the ability to take life day by day, and the assurance of being perfectly guided, I would conquer the mountain that, at first, seemed too high to climb. There was so much more to learn from horses than just enjoying the thrill of going fast.

~Vanessa Friedrich

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