Every month there is a new focus that strives to bring awareness to a condition. We know all about October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, but so many other months focus on extremely important conditions and they don’t get the same attention.
March was Brain Injury Awareness Month. So why am I writing about it in April? Because the point of awareness is that we need to continue to bring up these topics throughout the rest of the year.
But what is a traumatic brain injury? How does it happen and why should we focus on it?
In America alone, 5.3 million people have a permanent disability because of a traumatic brain injury, with 2.8 million people reporting a traumatic brain injury each year, and roughly 56,000 people die each year due to a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The brain is the most important part of the human body, and each part of it has specific functions. We understand the concept of being right brained or left brained, as the right side of the brain is responsible for creativity, spacial ability, artistic and musical abilities, while the left side of the brain controls speech, comprehension, writing, and arithmetic.
There are also 4 main lobes of the brain (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital) that can be further divided. Overall the brain functions as a whole, but various portions of the brain are responsible for various abilities and damage to one portion can dramatically change how our brains function. The following visual helps break down how each portion of the brain connects to our daily functions and abilities.
The frontal lobe makes up the vast portion of the brain. Although the two sides of the frontal lobe work together, the left side is responsible for language related movement, while the right is responsible for non-verbal activities.
Traumatic Brain Injury survivor Alyssa Brown injured her right frontal lobe, and I had the honor of hearing her story and sharing it with you to help further spread awareness on the subject.
Alyssa graduated in June of 2015. The summer after high school is meant to be one of the most exciting times of our life. We enjoy the last few months of freedom spending time with friends who will most likely be off to college or work by the time summer comes to a close.
A few short weeks after graduation, Alyssa was out by Evans Creek with friends. On the way back, they were enjoying the car ride on a gravel road, dancing to music, simply being crazy, happy teenagers who were full of life. Alyssa was standing up while the driver began to swerve the car in what she believes was an attempt to get her to sit down. Except the swerving caused Alyssa to fall out of the vehicle and she immediately went unconscious.
Bleeding from the head, still unconscious, and road rash from her right arm all the way down to her knee, her friends rushed to get her back into the car and to safety. They put a band-aid on her head, got her home and put her in bed and left her there. It wasn’t until 5 hours later that Alyssa got any real help. One of her friends had mentioned the incident to his mom, who immediately went to the fire station to get her help. Once the ambulance got to her house, they rushed her to Tacoma General Hospital where she spent the next 18 days in a coma. Alyssa was on the verge of death, she had a dislocated jaw, suffered from a stroke, and the right side of her body was paralyzed. After regaining consciousness and some functionality, Alyssa was transferred from Tacoma General to Good Samaritan Rehabilitation Center.
Over the next few months, Alyssa had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, go to the bathroom and shower on her own. Every little thing had to be relearned. On August 14th, she was able to leave the hospital and remained an outpatient until December of 2015. However, this was only the beginning of Alyssa’s journey to recovery. By January of 2016, she was able to drive again. Summer of 2016 she had her jaw wired shut. Summer of 2017, Alyssa suffered her first seizure. It was brought on by a variety of factors including having not eaten all day, not being hydrated, and being under a great deal of stress. Just before being cleared to drive again, taking too much Tramadol for her chronic migraines caused another seizure. On January 14th and again on February 27th, Alyssa suffered two more seizures.
Alyssa’s story is one of perseverance and strength, but it is also one that sheds light onto how her story could be any one of our stories.
How many of us were those foolish high school kids who were drunk on Friday nights and could have gotten into all sorts of trouble? How many of us spent our summers out on the lake or down by the river? We’ve certainly all sat in the back of a pick-up truck while driving down a dirt road. But not one of us can truly imagine what would happen in a situation like this. A broken bone is one thing – we understand the urgency to get to a hospital and get it corrected, but we aren’t educated on how to deal with concussions so we certainly wouldn’t know how to react when it comes to a much more severe brain injury. We can’t see it, so we don’t know it is there and we don’t know how serious it is.
Kids panic. I would have panicked. We make judgement calls and at 18 years old, we don’t have the experience to make the right choice.
Alyssa’s story could have ended on that summer day back in 2015, but it didn’t. Currently, Alyssa also suffers from chronic migraines and receives Botox every 3 months. The complexity of her TBI and migraines, along with being unable to drive because of the seizures has lead to depression. She’s a good drive from many of her friends, so only a few make the drive to come visit her, but she is thankful for those that take the time to keep her company and uplift her.
In addition to her support from friends and family, Alyssa described how the emotional comfort of animals is extremely beneficial. She explained how she feels as if “animals can understand you so well and they feel for you and provide so much comfort, love, and support.” She currently has 5 barn kitties and is hoping to have a support kitten in the future who can be inside with her.
For TBI Survivors there’s a lengthy list of symptoms they are left to deal with including: short-term memory loss, trouble focusing, running out of energy (neuro-fatigue), dizziness and balance issues, cognitive deficits, aphasia, difficulty with over-stimulation and an inability to handle it, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
For Alyssa, she deals with constant head pain, specifically in the area that was injured, the right side of her body is much more sensitive – for example during a simple reflex test at the doctor’s office, her right side is overly responsive – and the right side of her body is weaker than it used to be. Often times tasks are repeated and it takes a couple tries to get things done. She is also more ambidextrous – when doing her makeup she does her eyeliner with her right hand and her mascara with her left as she’ll risk poking her eye is she tries to use her right hand.
Although the accident has left Alyssa with life-long effects, she had some positive affirmations to share when it comes to her support, what keeps her going and her overall outlook on life, along with advice for others who find themselves in a similar situation:
“What keeps me going every day is my family and friends and weed helps me a lot. I have a lot to live for and I know a ton of people care about me, so that motivates me to push on with my life. And the accident has changed my [out]look on life almost completely. I’m a lot more open minded and very understanding… I look at my body as more of a temple now and take very good care of my health. I’ve realized and [am] still realizing how sensitive the human body is to every little single thing.”
“Some advice I would give is that patience and time will be your best friends. It’s a very long road to recovery and we will never be fully “normal” again. You just have to accept that and look at yourself as much, much, MUCH more unique than a person without an injury.”
Alyssa strives to share her story and help bring awareness to the topic, and I am honored to be able to help spread her story. The visuals in this post are all from Alyssa’s twitter where she helped to bring awareness to the topic throughout the month of March and continues to be a light within the community.
To learn more about Traumatic Brain Injuries, I’ve included a few resources below:
Traumatic Brain Injury Basics – Brainline
Anatomy of The Brain – Mayfield Brain and Spine
Brain Injury Association of America
The effects of a brain injury can last a lifetime, and for many the impacts aren’t visible. This topic touches home for me, as I am no stranger to living with an invisible disease. Pain doesn’t have to be visible for it to be life changing, and regardless of the cause once an accident occurs or a condition presents itself, we are in it for the long run. I’m thankful for people like Alyssa who are willing to share their story to help bring a voice to the thousands of people without one.