Just a few months short of 50 years old, I was living a gifted life. I had been an accomplished student (3rd in my high school class), a talented athlete (set records in track), and a sax player that was selected to the city’s district band. I received full scholarship offers from colleges for each of these three skills, and I chose to go to West Point from which I graduated in 1978. After Army active duty service I joined the working public and eventually found myself moved up to VP of sales for a local Dallas company. Yes, everything was going very nicely for me. I mention all of the above, not to try to impress you with how wonderful I may think I am, but only to point out how quickly things can change if you were to lose it all.
In an instant, with a motor vehicle accident that very nearly killed me, I found out how dramatically things can be altered. I was on the way to a Rangers baseball game when I ran into stopped traffic for an accident that had happened in front of me on the freeway. While I was waiting to move past the stoppage a driver behind me fell asleep in his car that was moving at full speed. He damaged ten vehicles, but managed to hit me first. Fortunately for me, emergency personnel were already on hand for the accident in front of me and they were able to get to me quickly. They wrangled me out of my totaled vehicle, and after restarting my heart, sent me by helicopter to the emergency room. The initial prognosis was not good. I had broken every rib in my body in at least one place, punctured both lungs, damaged numerous organs, and in general was estimated at a very low chance to survive (2 out of 15). After two weeks in the emergency room attached to God-knows-what-all in order to save my life I was well enough to spend the next three months in a bed at the hospital. Then began the real hard part; therapy for the brain injury that I had sustained during my accident.
My losses were significant and numerous. I couldn’t walk and had a wheelchair with which to move around. My entire right side was initially paralyzed, and as I healed there was constant challenges to raising my right arm and moving my right leg. The worst however was the discovery that I had completely lost my communications skills. I couldn’t read and upon testing was found to be able to identify only two of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Needless to say, I couldn’t write anything because I couldn’t recognize and spell the words out. I couldn’t speak in a coherent fashion. Initially I had one noun with which I described everything: “noodle.” In my head I was saying everything that I was thinking, but I could tell from the reaction of those who were listening to me that something was desperately wrong. “Noodle” this and “noodle” that was not getting the job done. As is blatantly obvious, the new me is very different from the old me described earlier.
After nearly two and a half years of therapy, and a lot of hard work by the therapists, I came back to life. I am now able to read at a post-college level. I am able to write at nearly the same level. I am speaking beyond “noodle” now, and find many opportunities to speak to the general public at large about brain injury subjects. On the physical side I have completed several 5K road races, and although my right leg still wants to drag a bit, I am planning to achieve longer races.
In all I am very thankful that my accident happened while I was heading to meet customers for the game-night out. Considered a business accident, I was fully covered with insurance to maintain my recovery though the full two and a half years that I continued to progress. Not a fraction of the brain patients that I met along the way were as fortunate as I was. I was very lucky to have had such support.
The lesson learned is that recovery from a brain injury is most likely one of the hardest things that a person is ever going to experience. It takes hard work, persistence, a positive attitude, and help from people who know what you need to do to recover. The good news is that you can recover, and the better news is that the worst day of your brain injury was the first day. Everything gets better if you put in the effort. It is all up to you to continue working.
~Karl Heller, BIND Board of Directors and Member