My Traumatic Brain Injury
On a tranquil afternoon, during the summer of 1986, I went for a ride with “Mark” in his 1962 Plymouth Valiant, to play a game of pool and see the “neighborhood.”
My family, wife Jayne, and one year old daughter, Maxine, had moved to Georgia, near Atlanta, in January. In June, we purchased “Hilltop Farm,” a mile from the border of Forysth and Cherokee counties. Our house was located deeper in the woods, than any place I ever camped.
This may have been my first visit to Dawson County. Mark decided to take a different route home, on Georgia Route 400. There was hardly any traffic. I was surprised when we approached a traffic signal at the intersection of Route 369. Unfortunately, this traffic signal was not working, and there were tall weeds on the side of the road, which blocked our view of the passenger (right) side of Route 369.
We waited about a minute, but no cars passed in either direction, Mark said, “Well, I’m just going to step on it, OK?” I nodded. Two seconds later, we were hit in the passenger door, by a pickup truck, traveling over 50 miles per hour.
I had time to see the Ford logo, and start to say, “We’re gonna get hit.” Was the other light green?
I got lucky twice. I was lucky that my window was rolled down. I had a piece of metal stuck in my right forearm, but there was no broken glass. Mark’s antique car had no seat belts, so I was able to move laterally. I broke my left jaw against the steering wheel. However, I had been reclining with my right leg on the dashboard. My leg was bent backwards – imagine your toes touching your thigh.
Mark was also lucky. He was not seriously injured, because a “12–pack” cooler was on the seat between us. It broke some of my ribs, but somehow cushioned Mark. Mark was extremely lucky that he was not legally drunk. I think he had two beers during the three hours that we were together.
Accident was caused by broken traffic signal and poor road conditions. The only “person” to blame was State of Georgia, but they were protected by “sovereign immunity.”
Mark’s car, squashed in half, was later displayed on a hill in Dawsonville, Georgia.
None of the five people involved in the collision were wearing seat belts. The three people in the pickup truck, a popular preacher, and his two daughters, all died – two instantly, one a week later.
Mark was charged with vehicular manslaughter, because of the preacher’s popularity. He was acquitted after a brief, emotional trial. The courtroom was filled with the the preacher’s wife, and everyone she knew, sobbing and wailing and moaning. I did not testify.
It turned out that this faulty traffic signal had caused over 50 accidents at this remote intersection of Routes 369 and 400.
Crawling From The Wreckage
An ambulance brought me to the local 37 bed hospital. My late, ex–wife, Jayne, was the anesthesiologist. The ambulance was met by a pediatrician. I could see that he was horrified when he looked at me, so I said, “Don’t worry, I’m too mean to die.”
Pediatrician thought I was delirious. He shot me full of morphine, and almost killed me. Jayne was in the hospital when I arrived. She told me that I had overdosed. She used Narcan to save me.
Jayne arranged to have Bob, her favorite surgeon, meet us at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. Jayne also arranged for a helicopter to pick us up. However the helicopter got lost. Jayne said that her favorite ambulance driver had just returned to the hospital. He drove me to St. Joe’s, while she kept me breathing.
Jayne and Bob saved my life.
Bob fixed my ruptured diaphragm. I was sent to the ICU. Jayne bought a foam mattress and slept beside my bed.
Waking Up Is Hard To Do
I woke up three days later. I had a tube down my throat and a dozen staples in my chest. My right leg was in a plastic bag.
Jayne said, “I’m glad you lived, because I’m pregnant. Our baby needs a Dad.” She handed me a pad and pencil, but I shook my head. I spent a few minutes coughing out the tube down my throat, so I could speak. Three days in a coma makes you hungry. The first thing I did was point to the clock, which displayed “12:00.” I said “Lunch?” Jayne pointed to the window and said something to the effect that it was dark outside. It was midnight, not noon. It was very difficult for me to understand the darkness part. Jayne repeated it several times, until I understood her.
Jayne signed me out AMA a week later. The first thing I remember, after we got home, is that I had to urinate, but could not remember where a bathroom was located. It seems funny, but I remember it, because it was my first problem with memory. Later, I could not remember the contents of closets and drawers. When I turned on my computer, I had no idea what I had been working on.
I remembered Jayne and Maxine, but I felt like I entered someone else’s life.
Jayne ordered a hospital bed, because I needed to recline at a 45 degree angle. Whenever I moved, the dozen staples in my chest, seemed to pull in a dozen different directions. I also needed to keep my right leg elevated, because it was encased in a heavy cast.
The final touch was a wired jaw. I was on a liquid diet, trying not to yawn. My jaw is still tilted – only one side closes. I have TMJ, and it still hurts to yawn.
Young and Restless
When Jayne had to go back to work, she hired an LPN to stay with me. I forget her name, but she unwittingly helped me recover faster.
Nurse watched television all day, a few feet from the hospital bed, where I was trying not to move or yawn. I was able to ignore her and the TV, except around noon, when she watched The Young and the Restless for an hour.
Years later, I still cringe when I hear Nadia’s Theme.
Nurse cried throughout the entire show. After the show, she would apologize for crying, then apologize for ignoring me for an hour. She lasted two weeks.
In two weeks I felt stable enough on crutches to get to the kitchen and bathroom. In four weeks, I was driving to the next county. I drove to the nearest liquor store, with my left leg on the pedals. I placed my hip–to–ankle cast on the passenger seat.
My routine was to buy a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka. It was the most that I could carry. I recall being extremely proud of myself, the first time that I did this.
I sat in my downstairs office with my heavy and useless right leg elevated. I used an extra–long hospital straw to suck vodka out of the bottle, through my wires, while I played games.
One game was “You Guessed It!”, a multiplayer trivia game on Compuserve. I played YGI so much, that I had to raise my Compuserve credit limit to $500 / month. I did not care, because I was receiving a monthly check from a disability policy that Jayne had conveniently purchased, a few months before my accident.
I also played John Weaver, Jr.’s version of backgammon, “RSCARDS” on Genie. Jayne came downstairs once. She sat with me while I won a backgammon tournament. However, I do not recall spending much time with Jayne. Maxine was sent to live on her Uncle Joe’s dairy farm for a few weeks. I avoided the kitchen, because I was extremely annoyed that I could not eat solid food.
I also played Starflight. Starflight required a CD and a map. It was (or seemed like) the most complicated game I ever played. I used the map to find planets to visit, and typed in commands when I met aliens. I never figured out how to finish Starflight.
Jayne introduced me to Henry, after I had been playing games for about six months.
Henry, who lost an ear in a fight, was an “AA Evangelist”. Henry convinced me to check into a hospital in Marietta.
In retrospect, it was odd, but I checked in on a Friday afternoon, after the “main staff” had left for the weekend. I stayed in bed, listening to Henry and several like–minded fellows, telling me how wonderful my life could be without alcohol.
I was not drinking, and I did feel better, so Jayne checked me out on Sunday, and Maxine came home the following day.
I do not know if Jayne planned this, but it allowed me to spend three days, in a private room of a hospital. I only remember seeing one staff physician — once, when I checked in.
The following day began with a visit to the oral surgeon, who removed my wires early, so I could eat. Then Maxine’s Uncle Joe brought her home, and life resumed somewhat. I spent most of my time sitting on our large deck.
Our house was extremely secluded, 3/4 mile off a public road, down our own unpaved road. We had no neighbors for at least a half mile, in any direction. Over the next couple of months, I spent most of my days sitting on our large outdoor deck, shooting at an old water heater with a Colt .45. Jayne brought Maxine home after work, and we would sit on the deck together, mostly reading to Maxine. Maxine received a great deal of attention, and began reading on her own the following year. However, we were concerned about Maxine, because she seldom spoke.
My routine changed, after Jayne brought me to see an orthopedic surgeon, who said that my leg could not be fixed. I wanted to do something useful after that depressing news, so I wrote a shareware program in BASIC, which backed up recently edited files to a floppy disk. It was well received, and I actually received a few checks, but it was very limited. I decided to learn the “C” programming language, and use it to write something better.
Learning To Walk Again
I was depressed, but Jayne was angry, because she despised incompetent physicians. Jayne always said that 90% of all physicians are incompetent. Our personal experiences, confirmed her educated opinion.
Thankfully, Jayne conducted some research, and found Dr. Fred L. Allman, Jr. in Atlanta.
I started to feel better as soon as Jayne and I entered Dr. Allman’s office, which was the first office devoted to “Sports Medicine” in the world. The waiting area was full of people wearing all sorts of knee braces. When I looked down the hall, I saw that Dr. Allman had his own, huge, physical therapy department, which I later learned was staffed by three full–time physical therapists. When I limped down the hall to check it out, I counted six exam rooms, which was quite impressive for a solo practitioner, and I was further impressed when I reached PT and saw that it’s massive space was filled with more exercise machines than I had ever seen. Additionally, I counted about twenty original LeRoy Neiman paintings (there were actually about 40), which made the office seem more like an art gallery than a surgeon’s office.
During my initial exam, Dr. Allman said that my knee exhibited the widest range of motion he had ever seen. My damaged knee moved forwards, backwards, laterally, even circularly. I recall being anxious when I looked at Jayne, because she looked worried, and hardly anything ever worried her. Meanwhile, I had to remain on the examination table while Dr. Allman called in all three physical therapists to measure my knee’s ridiculous range of motion. Finally, when the parade of onlookers ended, Dr. Allman said one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me:
“Son, would you like me to fix that for you tomorrow?”
Dr. Allman replaced my torn PCL, with pieces of my hamstring, over a year after my injury occurred. Dr. Allman said that I also damaged my ACL, but I cannot remember if he replaced it, or it just healed on its own. My current brace includes an ACL support. What I remember most, was that the “stringy things” on the back of my knee, were back after surgery.
Jayne saved my life, but Dr. Allman restored it, by making it possible for me to walk normally. Before my first knee operation, my knee moved “all over the place” and I could not plant my leg on the ground. I was in Dr. Allman’s office almost every weekday for over a year, either in physical therapy, or working on his computer. I helped Dr. Allman with “RAMS” – his project for testing college athletes for predispositions to injuries. This kept me busy, and sane, while I was recovering.
In 1997, a plastic staple, that was supposed to have dissolved, came loose. It could be seen protruding under the skin. Whenever my right knee banged into something, I saw “white light” – I was literally blinded by pain.
Naturally, I called Dr. Allman.
Dr. Allman’s office phone was disconnected. I thought he had retired, but I reached him at home. Sadly, I learned that he was dying of prostate cancer. Dr. Allman referred me to his “best student”, Dr. Wayne B. Leadbetter. Dr. Leadbetter, who called me “the bad penny that won’t go away” because I kept returning to his office with new injuries, followed Dr. Allman’s scar, and removed that annoyance for me.
Where Did My Brain Go?
Jayne was the most intelligent person I ever met, and also board–eligible in surgery and anesthesiology. However, I cannot fault her for not thinking “brain injury,” because I had several physical injuries, and she was just glad to see me alive. I did not walk normally for about two years, and it is understandable, to me anyway, why she did not have me tested for a brain injury. It also might have been different if I was her patient, instead of her husband.
In any event, Jayne saved my life. Unfortunately, we got divorced in 1995, and Jayne passed away in 2004.
In 1997, my girlfriend became alarmed, because she said that I had been screaming in my sleep. Then she asked me the magic question:
“Have you ever hit your head?”
I told her about my coma, and she decided to investigate. She sent me to a “closed head injury specialist,” who put me through a whole bunch of tests, and discovered my TBI.
The specialist later told me that the tests were unnecessary. He knew I had a traumatic brain injury because I smiled when he mentioned it as a possibility. He said that any “normal” person would have run away screaming.
The discovery of my traumatic brain injury calmed me down. Between 1986 and 1997, I knew that I had somehow changed, but I had no idea what happened to me. I used to ask old friends if they thought I had changed, and they always thought I was joking.
My tastes in food have also changed. For example, I used to like spicy foods, and used to drink loads of coffee. Now I rarely eat anything, even remotely spicy, and hardly ever drink coffee.
I also stopped playing computer games.
Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury
In 2005, nineteen years after my injury, I finally met other folks with traumatic brain injuries. Although I don’t function anywhere near the way I used to function, I am lucky to have been born with a great native intelligence, and I am able to function at a higher level than most of the folks in my support group.
My TBI affected me differently than most folks. I still scored in the 99.9th percentile for logic and problem solving in 1997. The two areas which were most affected, were my short–term memory and impulse control. I recall getting 49 out 50 “wrong” on my impulse control test, mostly because I could not stop my hand from pressing the button, when the instructions were (mostly) not to press the button!
What is it like to have a traumatic brain injury?
On March 17, 2006, Newsweek Magazine printed a poignant article about TBI: A Marine’s Experience with Brain Injury. Newsweek said, “Damaged brains are emerging as the singular injury of the Iraq conflict.” It was the first time that I had ever read anything which described TBI symptoms, so vividly, and so accurately. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone who has a family member or friend with a traumatic brain injury.
In April 2007, The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research conducted a TBI survey. Their findings were similar to my own feelings. People with a TBI said:
|The three things they think OTHER PEOPLE in their lives should know more about were:|
|81%||Problems with thinking abilities after TBI|
|78%||Problems with mood after TBI|
|75%||Changes in social skills after TBI|