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Warren A. Beatty: My Traumatic Brain Injury

Posted On - Friday, February 24, 2012

I am a United Methodist minister, but in October of 1998, I had a terrible bicycle accident near a vacation home that we then owned in the mountains of North Carolina, at Lake Junaluska. That accident placed me in a coma for over three weeks and resulted in five weeks of critical care at the Mission Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville. I remember nothing about the accident itself, the injury, my time in the Asheville hospital, or even most of the year 1998 preceding the accident. I have been told that it was a miracle that I survived. My medical caregivers soon determined in Asheville that I had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Naturally, I remember nothing about any of this. I do not even remember the Asheville hospital, where I obviously received excellent care. That is the way life sometimes is for us traumatic brain injury survivors; we miss so much of life near the time of the brain injury. (Please note that I said "survivor" rather than "victim.") I am told that I emerged from the coma in Asheville and began interacting with people around me on a limited basis. I remember nothing about this time either, and I am told that my interactions with people were on a fragmentary basis, where I obviously did not understand what I was saying or what had happened.

My father died in the distant town of Statesville after I had been in the coma for three weeks in Asheville! Obviously I was unaware of any of this at the time. My father was 91 years old when he died, and his death had been expected for some time even before my accident, due to his age and some serious health problems. I had been very much involved with his care during the weeks and months prior to my accident. Dad’s death was sad, yes, but on the day of his death he had a wonderful heavenly vision, which involved me! He knew about my injury, he knew that I was in a coma, and he knew about the difficulties that I was facing. On the day of his death, however, and wonderfully so, his heavenly vision was … that I would emerge from my coma and that I would recover from my injury! He told my mother and my brother about this “conversation” with me, which he told them he had experienced earlier that day, and that I would recover! My understanding is that I was at a stage in the Asheville hospital when no one else was predicting my recovery, at least not very quickly. Dad died later that day, I am told, in the presence of my brother and my parent’s minister. I am also told that he died with a smile on his face, because he knew that I would recover!

Amazingly, and in my mind wonderfully, I began to recover the day after Dad’s death! I don’t remember this time at all, and the recovery that I began experiencing during the next two weeks was very fragmentary and imperfect, but it was an amazing beginning. My starting to recover astonished the medical caregivers at first, I am told. I do believe that Dad’s vision and my beginning to recover were both signs of God’s wonderful presence and healing touch in my life! Both of us, Dad as well as me, received a fantastic gift of the healing touch of God at this time, Dad consciously and me unconsciously.

When five weeks had passed in the Asheville hospital, I was moved to the Institute for Rehabilitation in Charlotte, where I stayed for two additional weeks of full-time care, and most of the following year working through my therapy program on a part-time basis. The Institute was and is a specialty hospital for persons suffering injuries like mine. Charlotte was also convenient at that time because that was the city where I was then assigned as Senior Pastor of a fast-growing church. I became aware of myself only during my time at the Institute. I remember when first awakening that I saw a white “wall” or set of sheets surrounding my entire bed. Nothing else was visible. I interacted with other people through the curtains surrounding my bed at first, and mostly this was with nurses and doctors but I did visit with my wife and my brother soon after my awareness returned, and I was very glad about that. I was told that I had experienced a terrible accident and that I needed the hospital care that I was having. In one sense my condition and surroundings were surprising to me, but in another sense this was not so unexpected because I remembered “dreaming” during some recent times before my awareness of surroundings and people returned. Even when I had still been in the coma, I had experienced some thoughts, or a dream, that I had experienced a bicycle accident and that everything would be okay. I didn't understand much more than this before my caregivers told me what had happened, but I did have those thoughts, and that dream—which turned out to be accurate!

I was told eventually that I had experienced a lengthy coma and suffered a traumatic brain injury, but that news took some additional time before it was fully conveyed to me, because my caregivers thought that learning the full extent of what had happened was something that needed to be handled carefully and gradually. I am very glad that my family and caregivers proceeded this way with me, and that I learned all of this gradually, so that the impact of all this upon me was not so immediate or tough to take. Had this news come to me too quickly, the experience could have been very rough.

I remember thinking, during the early weeks of my recovery and after I became aware of my surroundings that I might simply be dreaming, and that what I needed to do in my dream was to react appropriately to whatever occurred and whatever other people said to me. In a mysterious way, I also remember thinking that God was present in my life and would take care of me; I had a strong sense of God’s loving presence and guardian care during this challenging time. This was and is amazing, when I think back on it today, because I am sure that this feeling helped my healing process tremendously, even though I did not understand everything that was happening. It also made so much of a positive difference that I learned all this in a caring and non-threatening environment, with my family and caring friends around me, and this was wonderful!

I did receive excellent care from the medical personnel at the Institute.  Moreover, as I became aware of myself and as time went on I felt the love and care for me by members of my family and by many friends and caregivers. My feelings of being in a dream changed, therefore, as I became more aware of myself and of what had happened to me. I began feeling more of the pain and depressing impact of what had occurred. I am very fortunate that I felt surrounded during that tough time by God and by my family, friends, and caregivers. After all, surviving a traumatic brain injury is tough, and it makes so much difference to have loving people surrounding the person. The caring and healing that I experienced during the months and years of my recovery have been “just right.” I thank God and so many loving people around me for all this.

As a United Methodist minister I had experienced many years of service as a pastor in several churches in the western part of North Carolina before my accident. Now I am on Incapacity Leave status with the denomination. This has been true during most of the time since my traumatic brain injury, but I have healed enough now to begin missing my ministerial roles more than was the case during the earlier stages of my recovery. My primary disabilities from the TBI now, those which remain, are some vision limitations and some balance problems. Those disabilities are serious problems for serving as an active minister, however, so I have not returned to the active ministerial role. I am doing well in most of the other ways of ordinary life now, however, but this has taken a very long time, as it does with most traumatic brain injuries.

During the most recent five-year period of my ten-year recovery, I have written a book. The book is entitled Healing, Hope, and Joy. The book is theological, because it is reflective of my Christian faith and of how God is working in and through real human lives and through genuine faith experiences. It also includes some reflections on my recovery from the traumatic brain injury, but I like to think that my book is not primarily about this, and that my book discusses our faith and God’s healing touch in the midst of all kinds of recoveries from difficult events in life. I haven’t found a publisher yet, but I am hopeful of finding one, because I believe that I have done a good job in writing the book. In any case, writing this book has been a healing and an enriching activity for me to do, and I am more confident now than was the case a few years ago that I am able to handle life’s normal events and activities.

My brain injury and recovery have become vital parts of who I am now, not just in the negative aspect of experiencing and surviving a devastating injury, but also in the positive and faith based way of healing, recovering, and reflecting on all this, sometimes joyfully. I believe that experiencing God’s remarkable healing and recovering power from this tough event has benefited me greatly. If we ministers, or any deeply active Christian believer, are to do effective Christian ministry and theology, we should reflect seriously on the tough events of life as well as on the pleasant ones. To some extent, life in general requires all of us to do some of this if we are to live effective lives. We do not need to experience only excellent health, continued career success, and significant worldly prosperity in order to reflect theologically and effectively on our lives and on our Christian faith and that of other persons. God moves wonderfully and deeply in the real world of pain and disability and not just in the world of prosperity and recognition!

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