June 3, 1989
Rebekah was dead on the scene when the Fire Department arrived and resuscitated her. She had pulled her CRX, a small car, onto a two-way busy street from a stop sign and into the path of a speeding car. Rebekah’s car was thrown one hundred and thirty feet. A light pole stopped the flight. The bolts sheared off under the seat, and she was thrown about the car, hitting her head on the metal door frame and the steering wheel. In a flash second Rebekah’s life was changed forever.
I never pass that Fire Department without a feeling of gratitude.
A couple of minutes one way or the other is the difference
between life and death. The city billed us for the light pole. We paid the bill but fifteen years later it still leans to remind me as I pass, this is the place where Rebekah had her accident. At the hospital in the emergency room, Rebekah was barely recognizable. Her hair was caked with dried blood. She was on a ventilator for breathing, and the nurse told me she was in a coma. Her head was so swollen I couldn’t see her eyes. She had broken clavicles and tubes everywhere. I felt like I had come to visit someone who wasn’t home. I sat by her bed all night telling her we would keep her body warm if she wanted to come back. Tucking her in, smoothing her
sheets looking for things to make her comfortable, and to keep myself busy. It was surreal. The ting ping taps and hum of machines in the emergency room made it all seem sort of inhuman. The human brain, suspended in fluid encased in the skull, has limited room to move side-to-side or up-and-down. It
seems to be magically levitating on top of the spinal column,
only connected by a thin cord, in this highly evolved mammaliansystem.
The night of my accident, a casual neglect to fasten my seat
belt sent my brain on a crash course only four blocks from the
site where I had entered my car. The impact as I was hurled
forcefully about the car threw my brain haphazardly in every
direction. The subsequent decision by a doctor, not to place a
cut in the back of my skull to allow swelling, left my brain with
little room to expand and relieve its building pressure. This,
coupled with a lack of oxygen at the scene, vast cerebral inflammation, seizures, and scarring caused damage to my brain that will take a lifetime to repair.
A person may have an open or a closed brain injury. An
open brain injury results from penetration or breaking of the
skull. In addition, the brain can be traumatized through a blast
injury. This occurs from being in close proximity to an explosion and may cause the brain to experience diffuse damage.
The brain injury experienced is dependent on location of the
explosion, protective gear worn (like in the military), and how
close the person is to the blast. Brain injuries may or may not
be followed with a period of unconsciousness. A closed brain
injury may be the result of a car accident or a blow to the head.
Mine was a closed brain injury. A brain injury, open or closed,
is labeled traumatic when extensive swelling results in a comatose
The damaged brain can be compared to a broken leg that
is put in a plaster cast to heal. Both heal slowly with pain and
discomfort. But unlike with a broken leg, others do not see
the signs of a broken brain. Minus recognizable signs such as
crutches, brain injury can even be mistaken for intoxication
and treated with scorn.
The brain also heals with a different kind of pain and discomfort than the leg. The pain may be confusion, frustration,
anger, or unexpected inappropriate behavior in public or in
private; these are all visible symptoms of the invisible trauma
but are not recognized by the untrained eye. As a result the
discomfort during the healing process is often not even caused
by the injury, but by the public’s reactions as the survivor is
forced to deal with rude comments and glares. It is much easier
to accept when the observer can recognize outward signs of the
Trained professionals, family members, or true friends who
are willing to slow down and listen to the slow processing of
speech and to allow the extra time for the injured person to express her thoughts are necessary components of recovery. The general public does not have the patience—if money is not being exchanged—to wait for a stranger moving in slow motion with a speech impediment to express her ideas or needs.
While engaged in conversation, the survivor may have difficulty
focusing, and may become fatigued from all the mental
activity. It takes concentration to tune out all the extraneous
noises, voices, and choices. It takes focus and time to find the
right words to express the ideas or needs. People do not realize
this broken social response is simply part of the healing, as
compared to a broken leg in a cast that is so easily recognized
and accepted. An inappropriate course of action coming from the broken brain is assumed to be a “problem behavior,” or “acting out,” both of which have negative connotations. There are few whorealize that the person behind all the confusion is struggling silently, in his own head to grasp for the word that could easily communicate his thought. There is no visible clue to supply a logical reason for the actions demonstrated by the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor.
The unspoken physical or mental reaction may not be overtly
expressed, but it’s obvious to the survivor who finds herself
traveling down this road. A new route has been directed, with
many unexpected twists and turns, and this route encompasses
her entire new existence. No one willingly decides to travel
down this road of transformation, change, and “different ability.”The destination is acceptance of their new existence. Not a popular vacation spot. Because this injury is not explainable from the outside, many avoid, deny, or distract themselves from having to confront their new reality.
This is why TBI is referred to by some as the silent epidemic,
the hidden injury, the unspoken or invisible wound. The brain
is never the same as before the injury, but it is elastic and in
time may reroute the information pathways, albeit processing
at a slower pace than before. It keeps perfecting itself through
repetition. The swollen brain within the skull has an incredible
capacity to heal through patience and hard work. As the signals
repeatedly run into the scarring and make new connections,
the information requested is retrieved and put into action to
form a thought. This is the story of my personal journey of recovery from TBI, a story of recovering from a near-death experience and of living life with a disabling closed-brain injury. I want to enlighten readers about the awesome power their brain has to heal. My hope is that people working with brain-injured individuals, or perhaps a person who has encountered his own tragedy, can learn from my experiences and mistakes. My previous existence was drastically altered when I was found dead at the scene of the accident. Emergency medical workers, with their quick response, gave my life back to me. My mistake, not clicking my seat belt, abruptly ended life as I knew it. I was forced to accept a different life and a different state of mind in an altered body with a declined socioeconomic status.
It wasn’t my choice to have an accident, but it is my choice what I do with the results of it. I have come to realize that this very unfortunate injury has become the most liberating event of my life—liberating me to grow and allowing my life to take a completely different direction.
It was as if I now was given the chance to choose the other
fork in the road. Damage to my brain, which will affect me for
the remainder of my life, has become a gift.
Had this event never happened, I would not have had the
opportunity to become so free—free to explore who Becky was,
and through my internal changes, to explore who Rebekah is
to become. I was set free from the chains of what other people
thought of me or expected from me. Free, to let go of what
Mary Pipher describes in her book, Reviving Ophelia, as “the
imaginary audience syndrome.”
I am able to give up my egocentric self that tried so hard to
impress everyone else, so I could “take a bow” for my imaginary audience.
Fifteen years post-injury, my mother and I decided to write
down our memories. We read our short essays to each other
each week at a local coffee shop. This book is my attempt to
explain my perspective on the long journey of learning to function in everyday life with the results of my injuries.
I didn’t even know what the words “brain injury” meant
when I was told my diagnosis in the hospital. Toward the end
of my “summer vacation,” I was finally able to understand what
had happened and where I had been for the entire summer.
My journey would be incomplete without including the reactions from loved ones, their first visits, and the discovery of
my sustained injuries. Finally, this is the story of the death of
a materialistic, superficial but fun-to-be-with Becky Dyer, and
the birth of a loving mother and fun-to-be-with educated wife,
Rebekah Vandergriff, LMSW