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Brain Injury Changes Lives in an Instant

Brain injury plunges survivors and family caregivers into a tailspin

What if you awoke from a coma into a chaotic world where nothing made sense? What if the anxious people circling your bed and imploring you to speak couldn't understand your desperate gibberish? What if the memories and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime had been erased like chalk on a blackboard?

That's what it's like to have your life changed in an instant by a severe brain injury. A midnight car accident, a blast from an explosive device, or a sudden cardiac arrest can send life careening out of control.

What is a brain injury?

When most people think of brain injury, they think of traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA), a TBI is defined as an alteration in brain function, or other evidence of brain pathology, caused by an external force. At least 1.7 million adults and children in the US sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from accidents, falls, motor vehicles, violence, and accidents annually. Over 212,000 military service members have been diagnosed with TBI since 2000.

Another major category is acquired brain injury (ABI). Acquired brain injuries are typically considered any injury that is not caused by trauma. Causes include lack of oxygen, infections, aneurysms, and strokes. The BIAA estimates that 795,000 individuals sustain an acquired brain injury every year. At least 3 million people live with a lifelong disability caused by brain injury.

Brain Injury Comes Home

When your loved one suffers a brain injury, none of the statistics matter right away. All you want to know is if he/she will live. Will he ever be the same whole and healthy person again?

In 1998, my husband Alan and I boarded a flight from Chicago to our home in Boston after a family reunion weekend. We were relaxed and in high spirits. Suddenly, Alan said, "I'm so dizzy; I feel sick to my stomach." A minute later a massive heart attack slammed his heart beat to a halt. Alan had a cardiac arrest right on the airplane.

We started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately, but an airplane aisle is no substitute for a hospital emergency department. EMT's raced us to a major medical center with sirens screaming. In the ED, physicians and nurses continued the high stakes choreography of CPR while I sat in the waiting room frantically praying that Alan would live. After almost an hour of CPR, Alan did come back to life.

We've all heard that brain cells start to die after 3-4 minutes. Alan's brain and other vital organs had been without oxygen for much, much longer. The physicians warned me that he "might not have brain function." I knew they were avoiding the dreaded phrase " a vegetable."

When Alan awoke from a coma, he was a completely changed man. Alan, a physics professor and prolific author, could not read, write, or say a sentence. The athletic jogger and kayaker could not walk or figure out how to put his clothes on. My loving husband didn't know his name or mine. He couldn't remember anything about his life, loves, or accomplishments. All of the neuropsychology reports depicted his cognitive deficits in grim terms.

Essentially, all Alan had left was an urgent determination to communicate, a heart-felt sense that I was his wife, and a fierce motivation to comprehend and participate in life again. He had ample strengths to start rebuilding a life with meaning and purpose. We joined with Alan's superb rehabilitation team to learn how to do everything all over again. And all at the same time.

Over the next several years, Alan and I reinvented his identity and our marriage. He did regain his essential skills to varying degrees. But the most important changes we made involved learning to mourn, adjust, and thrive in this new life after brain injury. The psychological building blocks.

About This Blog

This blog is primarily for family caregivers. I'll share stress resilience skills to help you no matter how long you've been a caregiver, or what type of brain injury your family member sustained. I'll introduce you to mind-body health practices that can help you stay whole and healthier.

Don't worry; I'm not going to drone on about how you "have to take care of yourself." I bet you hear that all the time. I was not a perfect caregiver. No one person can be. The challenges and demands can be extreme. I did devise some guiding values, sustaining attitudes, and practical strategies that you might like to try.

Please send me your questions, and topics you'd find interesting.

More from Janet M. Cromer R.N., L.M.H.C.
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More from Janet M. Cromer R.N., L.M.H.C.
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