Brain Injury Survivor Stories

Monday, March 16, 2009

On My Own by Elaine Martinez

My day started as an ordinary one. I got up and fed the kids, talked to an instructor who had become a friend of mine at the University of Wyoming, (UW) where I was in my first year of college at age 36. Though I had no idea what my major was going to be I had reasoned with myself that there were certain general education requirements that had to be met for a degree and I may as well start there. I had recently separated from my son’s father and left him a distance of 325 miles, on the south western side of Wyoming; I was now in Laramie, the south eastern side of the state.

The separation was difficult on the children and I knew the situation that lay ahead was going to be hard for them. I had determined in my heart to stay close to them, to be there for them through it all. Their father and I could not work out certain situations in our lives and so therefore I left. I wanted to get out on my own and do something with my life instead of just living as a wife of a man who I felt didn’t even like me. I was full of bright sunny optimism even though there was a divorce on the horizon I was still somehow relieved. The last time I spoke to my then husband was when he was visiting his sons and had them at the hotel in Laramie. He had told me that night to go file for divorce. This was about two weeks before the crash.

March 4th. My math instructor at UW, Cindy had been generously offering to tutor me in math. Math is not a strong point for me so I accepted any and all help with this subject. She and her husband Pete were both educators, Cindy at UW and Pete a physics instructor at the Laramie high school. So off the boys and I went to Vasek’s home on Sully Street. The kids went to the park across the road after Cindy had treated them to some homemade goodies. I sat down with her to study fractions. After a few hours of work I felt good about what we had covered and gathered the children to go home. We went home and ate lunch then headed off to the big park where I would run and do pushups. I worked out six days a week and had since I was 18. The kids drank Shasta soda, played at the park, called out to me as I ran the encircling path for my seven miles. We then loaded up in the truck and went home. It was a crisp warm March day, unusual for the 7300’ elevation in south eastern Wyoming. I had just insured my 1986 Yamaha Virago 1100 with an eye on riding her every chance I had. I adored motorcycling. I had ridden since 1987 and it was a love affair that one cannot understand unless they do it themselves.

I took the kids home and did some things around the house, they went across the street to play along the banks of Spring Creek. Though it was still winter in Wyoming the warm March sun had allowed the main channel of the little creek to thaw. It was the perfect setting for three little boys to dig with sticks and toss rocks in the water as they scramble along the creek banks. Though the twins, Joseph and Daniel were 8 years old I knew I could leave them with Michael for thirty minutes as I drove to the tanning salon a few blocks away. I called the kids in to the fenced yard and told them I’d be back in a half hour. As usual Michael, the 5 year old had run into the house and was beside me in his leathers and boots with helmet in hand wanting to go with mom. Though all three boys loved riding with mom, Michael was the fastest at my side and we had shared many great fall rides in Laramie. Blasting thought streets that had canopy’s of trees over them and leaves about a foot deep was a great time. The roar and color of leaves with the swishing sound of it all was a memorable experience for both of us. We still recall those fond memories today. I told Michel he could go next time and then said: “Love ya, be back in 30” kissed them, and mounted my beautiful, black 1100. I picked that bike out brand new myself and paid for it while working the oil patch. She still looked like the day I bought her, tooth brush cared for by me.

Wyoming does not have a mandatory helmet law for over 18 and that is the way I rode, helmetless! I liked a bandana and the long hair ratting in the wind; it was just part of the wildness of biking perhaps. I don’t know why I went down 3rd Street  instead of going the usual route from 11th to 17th where the salon was. I do not remember the crash. From reading the police report I have pieced it together what happened. As I was riding down 3rd Street  north behind a blazer and another vehicle in front of that one. I had decided to pass them in the left lane and off on Park Avenue to the right of me was a Nissan pickup with Michael Gannon driving it. There are three stories on the police report that he gave to three different officers so I am unclear if he stopped or not. The fact is he had to stop; I had the unobstructed right of way for about 8 more blocks where the traffic lights started. In one story Mr. Gannon says he did not see me, yet in another he says he saw me and I was moving fast, yet he thought he could make it. He was turning North bound, I apparently did not see him because of the vehicle I was passing obstructed my view of that intersection just enough to miss seeing him. I T boned him doing between 40-50 MPH or so the police report states. A little girl that went to 4th grade with the twins saw this wreck; she also knew it was me as we lived next to Spring Creek Elementary where Daniel and Joseph went to school.

I was scraped up off the ground in Laramie, taken to the ER there and stabilized then put in an ambulance code 3 to Ft. Collins, Colorado as the hospital in Laramie was not equipped to deal with trauma of that kind. Poudre Valley Memorial is a very good head trauma center; this was something I learned many years later. I have no memories of my stay there. I was in a comma, and in fact not expected to live, as the children were told upon seeing me hooked up to life support in the ICU. My children and medical records are the only information I have from the stay in Colorado. When I awoke it was said I was combative. My sons tell of a mom waking up that they did not know and mom did not know them. I called them by other names, those of brothers and sisters. They were confused in the beginning but the staff at the hospital took them in and talked to them about these issues. After I awoke I was flown to Salt Lake City, Utah because it was closer to the kid’s dad’s house in Wyoming. Steve took the kids to Evanston, put them in school and went back to work. My stay in Utah was from about the 29th of March to the 1st of May 2000. I have some shadowy memories from the Utah stay but many of them do not make sense. I have memories of mean nurses and some are indeed true. One nurse in particular was angry with me because I had to use the restroom so much, being just off a catheter and on IV fluids I really had no choice. Apparently the Dr.’s did not want me to go to the restroom or even get out of bed unassisted. I was confined to a wheel chair anyway. They did not want me bearing weight. I stopped calling for assistance and bore weight to use the toilet after this nurse told me “I am just going to keep a bed pan under you.” I was tired of being yelled at and it was easier to do it on my own though it was dangerous I wouldn’t listen.

Though I did not know it until over a year after the crash, I broke both legs multiply, crushed both knees, broke my right arm in three places as well as crushing the right wrist and elbow, nearly ripped the upper portion of my right ring finger off, crushed my right eye socket, broke my pelvis in six places, ripped the muscles of my thighs from the bones, and received a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). There were many other broken parts and torn pieces, perhaps too many to name here but those were the main ones. The police report states I was traveling at speeds between 40-50 mph.  I had not bothered to read medical reports for years to come. I was concerned with getting those kids back by my side and emotionally well; showing them mom was going to be all right.

My first memory was of my husband sitting sideways on a chair in the hospital room with his knees bent over the arm and his back on the other side. He was staring at a small wall. The twins were in chairs, the looks on their faces are burned in my mind forever, anger, fear, hurt, and pain. My five year old Michael was crying at my bedside, begging me: “please mom when you get out home school me.” He had never wanted o be home schooled before. Though the twins had been home taught their whole lives before our separation; this was their first year in public school and Michael’s first year period. How he loved getting on that “Big yellow bus” that stopped at our door in the mornings for his half day at school. He also loved mom coming to class with cupcakes and reading to the other kids in class. I recall the first time I was to read to children in his class. Just before getting ready to go I had done my morning workout and told Michael I’m ready. He looked at me and said “mom no” I said what? You have to wear a dress, do your hair and wear makeup. How cute he was.

I do not know how many days or chances I gave Steve, but he came and brought the children, yet never touched me. He never said “I’m so glad you made it” never did he utter a word of affection to me. I was confused and did not fully realize all that had went on or how things should be progressing between us Perhaps it was a week later, though it may have been days. I have a very limited memory from LDS hospital in Utah. I knew we were separated and basically I had gotten hurt, I knew I was supposed to be there. I decided that if he does not tell me he is glad I’m alive or that he loves me I am calling my attorney. Again I do not know how I rationalized this in my mind. Perhaps I just knew he should have been happy I was alive? That is a question I will never have answered. He never did, I called my attorney in Laramie and told him to proceed. I had no idea what I was doing, nothing really made sense but I didn’t know it at the time. I was not able to rationalize any of the situations. I do know there were conversations between us where he was suggesting he take the boys. You would have to kill this mom first! I cut him off from all information on my condition because I made the Dr.  aware that we were going through a divorce, it is interesting that this order I gave him caused him to call Steve, and ask him “is she back to normal now” Steve’s reply was yes. Steve had assumed that since I was talking of our divorce that things were back to normal. The medical staff had to honor my wishes and not share information with him.  Not too long after I did this, I started faking that I was feeling better and acting just the same to get out of the hospital and get those boys home with me. I was plotting with a sister in California, neither of us was aware of my brain injury.

The cast on my arm was made of foam rubber and light metal framing and it hurt terribly to wear it on my arm so I started taking it off. Apparently it was tolerable at an earlier time when my arm fit into it because of swelling but now the weight of it was very painful.  The nurse and I fought about it, I recall telling her “this is not martial law! It is my choice if I WANT TO WEAR IT I WILL NOW GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE! I was quite combative which I learned many years later is normal with TBI and coming out of a comma. In the early days of recovery, before my memory, and per the boys, I would tear tubes, wires, and anything out and attempt to leave. I fell out of bed one time as a nurse had released me from restraints but turned her back on me. Of course I fell on the side that was more damaged, my right side.

Upon release, May 1, 2000 my sister from Big Bear California drove to Salt Lake City to pick me up. We conspired to get the boys; I had not told anyone else I was to be released. She drove us to Wyoming from Salt Lake City about 90 miles. We stopped at the old family home and she packed all of the kid’s belongings into her pathfinder. Thankfully my F250 was at the house with the keys on the table. We took it to rent a transport, Helen loaded the Nissan on the transport, attached it to the Ford and we went to Clark Elementary where the kids had been re-registered in a new school up the street from dads.  We showed up at the school with Helen wheeling me into the office in my wheel chair as I was confined to it. I asked for each boy and they brought them to the office. The reunion was memorable, they were shocked to say the least, we hugged, kissed, loaded up in the truck and I said lets go boys were going home.

I slept for the next three weeks as my sister stayed with us, cooking and cleaning. Michael got his wish and mom home taught him in bed for the rest of his kindergarten year. We were then left on our own and I was home bound for eight more months as I could not drive or even get down the ramp to the house alone. I did after a time, start driving out of necessity. We were new in Laramie and I did not have a network of friends to assist us. We did belong to a church, Grace Baptist I believe and they were very generous to us, they did what the church should do. They cared for us in many ways such as ordering for, and paying for meals on wheels for eight months. Taking me to surgeries, bringing me home, picking up the boys for Awana youth group and taking us to and from church on Sunday.

Though I was home, I was not there so to speak. I was on heavy medication. I took two oxicotin a day with two percoset every two hours for pain. I eventually became very tolerant to these drugs and remain so to all pain medication. I drove to the grocery store, the kids took me down the ramp to the truck and on one good leg, I put on a step stool, boosted myself into the truck. They loaded the chair. At the store they did the reverse. I shopped for food that did not have to be prepared though as I could not stand up and cook on one leg with only one arm to use. We managed but looking back we should have never been on our own. I underwent three more major surgeries in less than 6 months. One was to replace the metal rod in my leg as when I started to bear weight the pins broke and it would not allow the tibia to heal. Thus I walked on a broken leg until it was fixed. The second was for bone a graft, the third was excruciating, a metal elbow joint to replace the joint in my arm that could not be saved. The pain from that surgery is agonizing pain. I have had three replacements in less than six years as they have all been broken by my will to live. I have had a total of eight surgeries on it in just under seven years.

I was in divorce court less than two months after I got out of a wheel chair. The papers were final in March of 2001 just over a year after that wreck. After the divorce and my first semester back at the University of Wyoming we moved to so California. All I wanted was to move where I could have my horses and see them from the window. I got it here in Phelan. I never did get to just curl up and heal like I imagined I would. Life took over and I put one foot in front of the other and went on. Though my reasoning skills were gone I was not aware of this. A male friend of mine showed up at our house in Laramie as we were packing the Penske truck, or rather people from church and another group of volunteers were packing it. Curt is a school teacher and was in nearby Cheyenne visiting his brother for the summer break. I told him he could have some furniture I was giving away. He ended up driving us here, convinced that I could not possibly handle that huge truck and the U-Haul pulled behind it. The big truck was a twenty five foot and the U-Haul was about an eleven foot trailer. My sister flew out and drove my truck that pulled two of my three horses. One horse was in Big Bear that she had taken in May of 2000.

I was able to purchase a home here in the High Desert, continue with my education though my memory was very fragmented and I was not me. I went through several different personality changes over a six year period. About five years or so after the accident I saw a story about a man who was in a wreck very much like mine. In fact he was in hospitals in Utah as well. His crash was in Utah but he is from the High Desert where I now live. Arthur Moss is the man, and his wife Lisa started a support recovery group out here. I saw the story on the front page of the newspaper and contacted her. I do believe I was the first member of brainstorming4us. There are many wonderful families that belong to this group and we help each other get through TBI one day at a time. I want to share some of the recovery process that I have been blessed to achieve.

The Long and Winding Road

There are many different phases of recovery with brain injury. Though an injury can be the same type in two people the outcomes may be very different. I do not believe it is possible for me to judge anyone else’ outcome from their injury, I want to state that just because I recovered that it means another’s recovery will mirror mine. I don’t think a physician can do that either. The brain is a very complex organ and though it can be very delicate and at the same time very resilient and strong. Though the brainstorming4us support group I was given much literature and information on brain injury and I will use one of these sources to somewhat outline and show some of my recovery.

The sheet I will be describing recovery phases from is from the Inland Resource Center in Colton California.

Fact Sheet
Coping with Behavior Problems After Brain Injury.

“Even a person who makes a “good” recovery may go through some personality changes. Family members must be careful to avoid always comparing the impaired person with the way he/she “used to be.” Personality changes are often an exaggeration of the person's pre-injury personality in which personality traits become intensified.”

I went through several years of personality changes. Though at the time, I had no idea that I was or had undergone such a thing. When I was in my twenties and early thirties I was quite wild, I worked in a rough area in Wyoming. The oil boom was big when I worked for the second largest oil company in the world. I was loud, abrasive, sarcastic, unapologetically rude, determined and just not afraid to tell you what I thought. My language was beyond colorful as well. When I went down on that bike my sons had never heard me swear. However when I awoke from a comma I was swearing at everyone that I came into contact with. I did not know the kids; apparently I called them by my siblings names. I have no memory of this, the children have been my memory. It has taken almost eight years to stop swearing. I am prone to use colorful language when I am stressed out. In a nutshell as the article mentions above there were traits that were exaggerated, though in this case they were traits I had laid to rest a good number of years before.

 Memory Problems

“Head injury survivors may experience short-term problems and/or amnesia related to certain periods of time. Generally, new learning presents the greatest challenge to memory or remembering. In contrast, pre-injury knowledge is more easily retained.”

Indeed I had memory problems for almost seven years. Initially I had amnesia for almost the entire two month hospital stay. I had extremely fragmented memory for the next four years. I struggled with academics terribly due to this. I could not recall what I studied over a two day period in anticipation for testing purposes though I studied intensly. I am approaching my eighth year anniversary on March 4th and though most of my memory works well I have forgotten things in the past. I cannot recall any of my hospital stay with my youngest son, though I do recall his birth. I could not recall the church I got married in nor the vows at all. New learning was very difficult and I am not entirely certain that I am over that yet because I still struggle with coursework and retention.

Lack of Emotion

 “After a head injury a person may lack emotional responses such as smiling, laughing, crying, anger, or enthusiasm or their responses may be inappropriate. This may be especially present during the earlier stages of recovery.”

I experienced a lack of emotion for two years or more. Again I was not aware of this at the time, I am able to look back and see it very clearly now. I just did not feel empathy, sympathy or any other normal emotion that might accompany something sad in life. For example, I ran over several cats in a few years backing out of the carport or if the kittens were just playing near the car and I did not see them. I was very matter of fact about it. I had my sons scoop them up with a shovel and dispose of them without even thinking about it. I had injured a kitten very bad and he needed to be shot as it was suffering. I had Joseph get the 22 and shoot him. I reasoned they were boys and needed to learn how to do this stuff anyway. What needs to be realized is that I did not know any better as my reasoning skills were gone. What I did not realize was they were too young! I recall the time Joseph was bitten by one of our dogs and I took care of him. But I felt nothing; I did not scold him or say mean things to him. I just doctored him and went on. I had a love affair with my horses and recall thinking if one got hurt well…I just shrugged my shoulders and walked on. I was flat lined, not much bothered me. I am fine now and I cannot explain to you how or why.

I had poor concentration, lack of reasoning, inappropriate sexual comments/behavior at times. I had terrible anxiety and did not recognize that. I was afraid to drive at night for years, though my accident was in the day time. I almost abandoned my faith and I am very glad I did not do that as my faith defines who I am. I just did not know it then. When skills I had lost started to return to me was when I realized that I was going to be OK. I did not know I had lost these skills though, not until they came back. I am talking about skills such as: my organizational skills, parenting skills, my sense of discipline and in fact I had not realized that I had been unable to write for two years. That is until one evening I had written a two page English paper and I was so excited by this. When I realized that my faith was not what it used to be I actually reasoned with myself that it too would return. It has returned and from the first realization of that to the time it was restored was about 18 months. I was absolutely unaware of these deficits.

I never had any physical therapy though I limped for two years. I can no longer run or even jog. My body strength has been reduced by about 60%. I used to be a very fit, strong woman. As soon as I was able to, and with a cane I started to walk. I have walked the desert now for almost seven years and it has helped me rebuild my body. I would say that education has defiantly restored some of my brain healing. I was dismissed from the hospital without any instructions on how to care for myself, where to go for follow up treatments and so on. I moved 1005 miles with two 11 year olds and a 7 year old to a place where I knew no one. I bought a home. I did not think these things through I just put one foot in front of the other and functioned. I recall telling myself that in the early days of recovery in Laramie, “just function, function.” I collapsed on the street at the University of Wyoming directly in front of a car and to this day I have no idea why. I was and had been feeling fine.

The reality of my story is I am essentially recovered. I have been in school for almost my entire recovery. Though the progress has been slower than I would have liked I have children and my twins are just about grown. I have seven classes left to complete my Bachelor of Science. I have sold my home in so California and though I will miss some dear friends and the members of my support group I am looking forward to starting over in eastern Washington. My hope an my prayer for those that have been affected by this type of tragedy is: to do the best they can. My heart goes out to caregivers, moms, dads, and spouses. I am happy to have witnessed so many caregivers who stood by their loved ones during this time of tragedy.

Upon closing I would like to say that my faith allowed me to weather this. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a God in heaven who answers prayers. I cannot tell anyone else why their prayers were not answered. I am no one special but I just have to trust that God knows what he is doing and it is up to me to follow silently. This has not been an easy recovery by any stretch of the imagination. It has forever affected my children in ways I cannot measure. I do hope to put this behind me and move on with life, I have too.

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Author: Lisa Moss
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