July 2018 Gary Wolcott
July 27, 2018
In 1983, Gary’s father Bernard began to experience dizziness and poor balance. After three months of investigations into inner ear issues with no improvement, a CAT scan was done and he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor blocked his third ventricle, causing hydrocephalus, a major build up of fluid in the brain. Bernard underwent surgery to have a shunt placed and the family waited anxiously for hours. They watched the gap under the door to the ICU for shadows to show the approach of the doctor with news of the outcome.
The procedure did not go well. The surgeon had initially gone through the front of the skull, had damaged the hippocampus, and the one drain failed, so the surgeon had to go back in and place another shunt. The family was told Bernard might not make it and if he did, he would likely be a “vegetable.” Bernard survived the surgery and made great medical progress in the hospital. After three weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, the family was told to take him home and place him in a nursing facility. Gary’s mother Kathryn refused and, with little preparation and a lot of courage, she brought him home.
Gary’s father was a completely different person after surgery. He no longer had short-term memory and was often disconnected from time and place. Every once in a while, he would be oriented and ask, “What happened to me?” They would explain and he would simply cry and cry. Kathryn hired some help, but no one was prepared for the behavioral changes that Bernard developed. There were times he would escape and run through the neighborhood naked, and there was one incident where he departed the home in Kathryn’s pink bathrobe, armed with a hammer, preparing to kill the neighbors’ barking dog. The police were notified and by the time Kathryn got to the hospital, ER staff had already shipped Bernard to the state psychiatric facility where he was immediately sedated. It took three days for them to get Bernard out of the psychiatric facility. Gary began calling psychiatrists in the area to get help with his father’s behaviors. He stopped after 25. Every single one of them had said the same thing: “We don’t do organics,” referring to impaired mental function that had a physiological rather than psychological cause. There was a clear divide between the mental health and brain injury worlds, and no direct path to care or support for those falling on the brain injury side of things.
At this point, Gary and his mother started to recognize that this was going to be the new normal. They began working on accommodations (early door alarms, the gun collection was locked away, they hired more help, and Kathryn quit her job). Gary learned of the National Head Injury Foundation (NHIF, which eventually became the Brain Injury Association of America), which sent him a packet of information on brain injury. Kathryn learned about a local brain injury support group that had recently formed nearby, but was unable to attend consistently due to the challenges with Bernard’s care.
In 1985, Gary returned to Boston to do further graduate work and started volunteering for the NHIF in nearby Framingham. In January 1986, he began work for the NHIF as the Director of Education & Professional Development. It was an exciting time, and he learned an immense amount talking to families, reading articles, attending conferences, and meeting pioneers in the field. It was a turning point in terms of his perspective and understanding. During this incredible time of change, commitment to research, and development of new approaches to rehabilitation, the emergency medical system had also revolutionized the survivability of brain injury.
In 1987, Bernard passed away. At the time, Gary was 37-years-old and he and his wife Susan had two young children. Three months prior, Kathryn had placed Bernard in a nursing facility when she reached the point of no longer physically being able to care for him in their home. The loss of Gary’s father undeniably altered the course of Gary’s life and career and the change in trajectory helped him make some sense of that loss.
In 1990, the NHIF was making major changes and moving to D.C., so Gary left and set up a small consulting business. One of his early contracts was with the former Brain Injury Association of Maine, implementing a teacher training throughout the state. Maine was one of the first states to recognize the needs of brain injury survivors and to get the state legislature to also recognize those needs. Gary also assisted with the establishment of RiverRidge and eventually began working for Goodwill of Northern New England as Director of their Residential Brain Injury Services program and eventually as the Director of Education, Training, & Staff Development. In 1999, he and his family officially made the move north and settled in Gorham. His wife, the Reverend Susan Crane, began serving as the interim Pastor at the Gardiner First Baptist Church. In 2002, they moved to Chesterville and Susan began serving as the Pastor at the Henderson Memorial Baptist Church in Farmington.
After many years with Goodwill, Gary became the Program Manager for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Brain Injury Services in 2007. There, he managed the newly created single-state agency for brain injury services, provided ongoing support to the Acquired Brain Injury Advisory Council (ABIAC), and from 2008-2011, administered the federal TBI grant focused on system improvements. In 2012, Gary became the Associate Director of the newly established Office of Aging and Disability Services (OADS) within DHHS and in 2014, he became the Director of OADS, which provides direct service to more than 30,000 Maine citizens and provides program management of Maine’s six Home and Community Medicaid Waivers, including the Brain Injury Waiver. Over the years, Gary’s work was integral in bringing many Maine brain injury survivors home from out of state placements to get their rehabilitation and support close to home/family.
After over three decades of serving individuals with brain injuries and other disabilities, Gary retired from state government in April of 2017. He is so appreciative of all of the opportunities to learn that he has been given along the way, and especially the opportunities to use that education to make a difference in people’s lives. Since retiring, Gary has spent a lot of time renovating his old farmhouse in Chesterville and tending to his woodlot. He is also still active in the community, working as a consultant on projects for organizations serving individuals with disabilities in Maine, continuing to participate in the ABIAC, and serving on the BIAA-ME Advisory Board.