October 2021 Gail Waitkun
October 19, 2021
On February 25, 2015, I experienced my 12th head injury. It was a seemingly innocuous jolt to my head that occurred during a car accident. My previous head injuries had occurred during athletic activities. None of the 11 injuries seemed to affect me. The 12th injury was what I now refer to as my tipping point. Like the Jenga game, the effects of head injuries can peacefully stack. They lie dormant until the final seemingly silent blow causes one’s world to come crashing down. This is what happened to me.
Within three days following the seemingly uneventful event, I lost complete control of my world. My speech was slurred, and I stuttered. My balance was significantly off, causing a fall that resulted in a broken rib. My peripheral vision was not serving me. I could not think or plan ahead. I was confused and frightened. I was also so tired that I had no desire to actually think about it. I just wanted to continue on my life’s path as before, but because of the effects of my injury, I had only the energy to sleep. I lived alone and there was no one to help or actually observe the changes that had occurred. I was in deep trouble. I was politely and kindly excused from my educational pursuit to become a nurse.
Prior to my injury, I was having a wonderful time creating a new life’s path. I had made a bold move and extricated myself from a very difficult marriage and was on my way to completing my nursing degree at Southern Maine Community College. I was excited to see the pieces of my plan coming together. I was going to be able to travel and ride my bicycle through the back roads of Europe as part of a bike touring company. I would carry the EpiPen and the emergency cell phone. I would document the customers’ experiences using my camera skills. It was a plan that would afford me great satisfaction by ticking off many of my bucket list boxes: meeting new people, discovering new places, being athletic every day, helping people when in need, and getting paid for it!
That did not happen. What did happen was that I learned that life had a better plan and more opportunities to offer than those I had imagined. I was going to discover more about myself than I had ever planned. I was going to do something entirely unlike anything I could ever have imagined. My traumatic brain injury was a gift of many realizations, periods of growth and opportunities. A new direction was forged in that instant of injury.
Upon being diagnosed at the hospital with a grade 3 concussion, I was handed two cool sheets of white paper which explained what the different types of concussions were, and what I was to do if I felt nauseous or vomited. Honestly, I was very confused and tired. I was released from the care of the hospital staff to drive myself home. I did not drive for weeks after this as my abilities deteriorated as the days progressed. Now, I would like you to think about this. When we are treated at the hospital for many different procedures, we are usually wheeled out to an awaiting vehicle and someone to drive us. We are provided discharge papers, and nurses meet with those who will be caring for us, similar to post-surgery or the post delivery of a beautiful healthy baby. This is standard procedure. When someone who lives alone is diagnosed with a head injury, and released to drive themselves home, there is something inherently wrong with this. A brain injury means a brain is not processing normally. To expect an individual to care for oneself post- diagnosis is illogical. When someone has been sidelined by a brain injury, it is difficult for them to advocate for themselves. Actually, to expect someone in this condition to do so, is unethical.
It has been six and a half years now, and my abilities have improved immensely. I am still not back where I left off, but I am so much more improved in many other ways. My life has been enhanced by the presence of people and opportunities that would never have become were it not for my traumatic brain injury. My stutter has vanished. My refusal to abandon myself and my needs has been unwavering.
As the time has passed, using my drive and former competitive spirit to propel myself beyond the cognitive and physical entrapment paid off. It has not been an easy journey, but it has been enlightening. I made discoveries that now are helping others. I have written two books and I am working on a third that will be an instrument to help others in their brain recovery journey. Because I did this by myself, I discovered things that many do not realize can be helpful in traumatic brain recovery. I now tell people that I speak the language: traumatic brain injury. I help those who are experiencing difficulty understanding and helping those who have had a traumatic brain injury understand and move effectively and efficiently through the recovery process.
Every brain injury is different, but there are things that they all have in common and therefore can be helped by. A systematic approach for identifying and addressing challenges must be implemented. There are many solutions. That is why I am here. To help illustrate that there are better ways than sending one home alone to heal alone. There are answers. The brain’s marvelous neuroplasticity is something that should be recognized in order to provide all who struggle with this hope and an avenue to better brain health.
To learn more about Gail’s books and brain injury advocacy, you can visit her website here.