As a 15-year traumatic brain injury survivor, I’ve followed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’story with much interest. The Arizona congresswoman, who was shot in the head while greeting constituents last year, recently resigned her position to focus on her recovery, vowing, “I will return.” As one who shares this journey, I hope she can.
I can’t imagine being in the public eye while learning to eat, speak, walk and use my hands again. During my rehabilitation, I spent many hours pronouncing endless lists of words until I could speak clearly. I’m a Presbyterian minister, and it was about a year after my injury before I read scripture again from the pulpit, at a church in Atlanta. Happily, clear speech is not a problem for me now.
This isn’t true for all survivors, however. In fact, the effects of a brain injury are different for everyone. I know survivors who must use a walker or wheelchair, who have challenges controlling their anger, or who have limited organizational skills. None of us are the same, and this makes it difficult for each individual survivor, as well as those around us.
I get overstimulated when I’m in large groups, so I often step out of the room for a few minutes, put in my earplugs to “rest my brain,” and return later. I did this recently during Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church’s annual meeting. Hearing the various reports overstimulated me, so I found a quiet room where I could use my earplugs before returning to the worship service.
In the early stages of recovery, people often aren’t aware of their limitations and may try to do things they’re not ready for. I feared this might lead Giffords to try to continue serving in Congress and even run again. However, I was moved by her courage in speaking out about traumatic brain injury and saying she needed more time to recover.
I remember how badly I wanted to be a pastor again. A job coach accompanied me to my church one day to help me develop compensatory strategies. I don’t remember much about this session, but it was clear that I wasn’t ready to return as a pastor. After trying several volunteer chaplain positions, I realized that I just couldn’t keep a lot of information in my brain at once or multitask — necessities for a pastor. So, like many survivors I know, I try to serve however I can, even though it’s often very different from my prior life.
According to the Brain Injury Association of America, some 5.3 million Americans are survivors, and 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year. Of those, 80,000 (that’s 219 per day) involve moderate to severe brain injuries resulting in lifelong disabling conditions.
My husband (who’s also a survivor) and I have started a support group in West Asheville called Brainstormers. During our meetings, we often share our struggles, day-to-day challenges and compensatory strategies, and we laugh about how we’re sometimes seen by the world around us. Together we feel like a community.
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. So take some time and learn about the 5.3 million of us who are living among you.
— Asheville resident Tamara Puffer blogs at http://tamara-nogginnotions.blogspot.com.