97: Once a Teacher . . .

97: Once a Teacher . . .

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

Once a Teacher . . .

We don’t receive wisdom; we discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

~Marcel Proust

One second I sat in a solid line of traffic on Interstate 70 near Broncos Stadium in Denver, Colorado. The next, my upper body pitched forward after a thunderous crash and jolt. A standard lap belt grabbed at my hips. The back of the plush captain’s chair broke off behind me in the middle of the van. A hot semi-truck engine replaced the two back doors. The van slammed into another four-door sedan. I felt like a cowboy on a bucking bronco, with no way to brace myself between collisions. Other drivers pulled their untouched cars to the side of the road. Drivers rushed to the ditch to allow the first responders to render aid. Someone yelled, “Get everyone out of the vehicles! There are fluids all over the highway!” The smell of burning rubber and smoke made my adrenaline kick into overtime. My muddled brain registered how close my van had come to flying off the overpass. The blood in my mouth made the bile rise in my throat. I struggled to stay awake. My mother and sister forced me to talk until the EMTs arrived. I felt a huge lump forming on the back of my head.

Several hours later, the staff at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver diagnosed me with a concussion, severe bruising to my abdomen and hips, a sprained neck, and a locked jaw.

I returned to my home in Kansas a few days later. I was not about to let my TBI stop me from starting the master’s degree program in special education I had been accepted into. Over the next several years, I studied, interned, and taught children with special needs. All the while, I fought the after-effects of the original traumatic brain injury and spinal damage from the accident on June 15, 1995.

Odd neurological things occurred over the next seven years. One hot day, I mowed my lawn and passed out in my back yard. A physical therapist put me on a Stairmaster for ten minutes and I blacked out. A couple of years later, I awoke unable to stand.

Late one Friday night, I found myself on an MRI table once again. I had lost feeling on the left side of my body. The radiologist asked if I could stay another hour for additional scans. At that moment, I knew the numbness was serious. My stomach roiled with questions. About 7:30 p.m. he strongly advised me to contact a neurosurgeon and neurologist on Monday morning.

On October 4, 2002, the neurologist confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

“Do you understand that there are treatments available, but no cure?” the doctor asked.

I wanted to scream, “No, I don’t know anything about MS.”

As I underwent treatments, I cried on the kitchen floor when I couldn’t pour a glass of milk. I laughed when I walked out of my mules without feeling a thing. I fell, but I kept getting up, even if I had to humble myself to ask for help.

Some moments my symptoms felt insurmountable. My ambulation difficulties hadn’t even been rectified when I lost my depth perception. I arose one Christmas morning without any vision in my left eye. It made slipping through a doorway a full-contact sport. Teaching taxed my body beyond human limits.

While doctors struggled to slow down the MS exacerbations, my inspiration came from a nine-year-old student.

Duncan spent the majority of his days in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, a fate I became all-too-acquainted with myself, since I started steroid treatments.

A team of teachers, including myself, tried to encourage him to operate a special computer to be his voice. Duncan seemed perfectly content to continue his silence and bob his head to say, “Yes” or “No”.

Then I visited him at school during a short leave-of-absence. I’d heard that Duncan had withdrawn from everyone when I didn’t return to school. There I sat in a wheelchair, weak, with an I.V. tube taped to the back of my left hand.

Duncan accessed the computer’s voice and asked, “How are you? . . . Miss Reid . . . I miss you.”

“I’ve really missed you, too,” I replied. “Thank you so much for speaking. Great job! The teachers told me that you won’t use your voice at school.”

“Miss Reid . . . lie down . . . nurse’s office.”

“Duncan, you’re correct. I’ll have to leave soon, but I need you to help me. Other people don’t know how funny and smart you are when you refuse to speak with your computer. I’ll make you a deal. If you speak to your other teachers each day, my substitute teacher will turn on the speakerphone for you to call me at home. Would you like that?”

Duncan smiled, nodded his head, and said, “Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes.”

Thus began Duncan’s life with a voice. With each physical setback for me came new insights into the lives of my exceptional students. Duncan became my champion, as I became his.

I called technology specialists who taught me how to operate Duncan’s voice output system. They visited my home and brought mobility devices to borrow until I walked independently. The same specialists, who trained me on assistive technologies for my students, now pulled me up from the quagmire of my new life. What were the odds?

For the next seven years, I fought to continue teaching. I’d received steroid infusions and physical therapy to recover most of my abilities. My career ended when the superintendent of schools decided I presented more of a liability than a benefit to the district.

People asked me if I would have skipped graduate school and chosen a different career path in life had I been diagnosed after the car accident. But I know I wouldn’t have survived that first year after diagnosis if not for my students with multiple disabilities.

As a teacher, I never allowed students to entertain the idea of giving up. Together, we learned to adapt to the vast challenges tossed our way. I’m indebted to these children and their families forever. They reminded me what was most important in life—loving relationships.

Today, I’m content to help people in hospitals and schools by performing pet-assisted therapy with my companion dog, Zoey. When patients hear my story, they inquire about local organizations that provide assistance for their new physical challenges. I’m only too happy to oblige. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

~Leann Reid

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