My Traumatic Brain Injury
Nobody expects a traumatic brain injury.
My family, wife Jayne, and one year old daughter, Maxine, moved to Georgia, near Atlanta, in January 1986. In June, we purchased “Hilltop Farm,” a mile from the border of Forysth and Cherokee counties. We lived deeper in the woods, than most campgrounds.
I went for a ride with “Mark” in his 1962 Plymouth Valiant on a tranquil afternoon. Mark wanted to play a game of pool and show me the “neighborhood.”
We played pool at an illegal bar in dry Dawson County. Afterwards, Mark took a different route home, on Georgia Route 400. There was hardly any traffic. But one traffic light stopped us at Route 369.
Alas, this traffic signal was broken. Tall weeds on the side of the road, also blocked our view of the passenger (right) side of Route 369.
So 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, a pickup truck, traveling over 50 miles per hour, hit the passenger door.
I had time to see the Ford logo and say, “We’re gonna get hit.”
First of all, my open window helped me. I had a piece of metal stuck in my right forearm, but there was no broken glass. Mark’s antique car also had no seat belts, so I was able to move laterally.
When the truck hit us, I was reclining with my right leg on the dashboard. My leg bent backwards – my toes touched my thigh. I also broke my left jaw against the steering wheel.
Mark was also lucky. A “12–pack” cooler was on the seat between us. The cooler broke some of my ribs, but it protected Mark. And Mark was sober. He drank two light beers in three hours.
Perfect Road Conditions for a Traumatic Brain Injury
A broken traffic signal and poor road conditions caused this accident. Nobody can blame the State of Georgia, because they are 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 wore seat belts. The three people in the pickup truck died: a popular preacher, and his two daughters. Daddy and one daughter died at the scene. One daughter died a week later.
Police charged Mark with vehicular manslaughter, because of the preacher’s popularity. A judge acquitted Mark after a brief trial. The preacher’s wife, and everyone she knew, filled the courtroom. Most spectators were sobbing and wailing. I did not testify.
This faulty traffic signal caused over 50 accidents at the 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.
A pediatrician met the ambulance. He moved me to an exam table and stared at my bloody clothes. I said, “Don’t worry, I’m too mean to die.”
The pediatrician thought I was delirious. He shot me full of morphine, and almost killed me. Jayne was in the hospital when I arrived. She said I overdosed.
Jayne saved my life with Narcan.
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. Incredibly, the helicopter got lost.
Jayne said her favorite ambulance driver had just returned to the hospital. He drove me to St. Joe’s. Jayne said she used a rubber bag in the ambulance, to keep me breathing.
Bob fixed my ruptured diaphragm, and sent me to the ICU. Jayne bought a foam mattress and slept beside my bed.
Jayne and Bob saved my life.
Waking Up Is Hard To Do
I woke up five days later, with a tube down my throat and a dozen staples in my chest. My right leg was in a plastic bag.
Jayne said, “I’m happy to speak to you. 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. Five days in a coma makes you hungry.
I waved at Jayne, then pointed to the clock. It was “12:00.” I said “Lunch?” Jayne pointed to the window. She said it was dark outside, and it was midnight, not noon. It was difficult for me to understand the darkness part. Jayne repeated it several times, until I understood her.
Jayne signed me out a week later, ”AMA“ – against medical advice. My first memory after we got home, is that I had to urinate. But I could not remember where a bathroom was located.
I remember this, because it was my first memory problem. Later, I could not remember the contents of closets and drawers. When I turned on my computer, I had no idea what I was 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. My right leg had to be elevated, in its heavy plaster cast.
The final touch was a wired jaw. I was on a liquid diet, trying not to yawn. I have TMJ, and it still hurts to yawn.
Young and Restless
When Jayne had to go back to work, she hired a licensed practical nurse to stay with me. I forget her name, but she unwittingly helped me recover faster.
Nurse watched television 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 and my plaster 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 was so proud of myself, the first time I carried the heavy bottle, and hobbled along with one crutch.
I sat in my downstairs office with my heavy and useless right leg elevated, while I played online games. Jayne brought me extra–long hospital straws to suck vodka out of the bottle, through my wired jaws, while I played games.
Maxine lived on her Uncle Joe’s dairy farm for a few weeks. I avoided the kitchen, because I could not eat solid food.
Compuserve, Genie, Starflight
“You Guessed It!”, was a multiplayer trivia game on Compuserve. I played YGI so much, that I had to raise my Compuserve credit limit to $500 a month.
I did not care, because Jayne bought us disability policies, a few months before my accident.
John Weaver, Jr.’s version of backgammon, “RSCARDS” on Genie, also kept me busy. Jayne came downstairs once. She sat with me while I won a backgammon tournament. But I do not recall spending much time with Jayne.
I also played Starflight. Starflight required a CD and a map. Starflight is the most complicated game I ever played. I needed the map to find planets to visit, and I typed in commands when I met aliens. I never figured out how to finish Starflight.
Jayne introduced me to Henry, after I played games for six months.
Henry looked tough, because he lost an ear in a knife fight. He was an Alcoholics Anonymous 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” left for the weekend. I stayed in bed. Henry and his friends visited me, to remind me to stop drinking alcohol.
Jayne checked me out on Sunday. 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 — after I checked in.
The following day began with a visit to the oral surgeon. He removed my wires early, so I could eat. Then Maxine’s Uncle Joe brought her home, and life resumed.
We lived in a spacious house 3/4 mile off a public road, down our own unpaved road. We shared a 70 acre lot with a retired chicken farmer. There were no neighbors for a quarter mile, in any direction.
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. We enjoyed evenings on our spacious deck together, reading books to Maxine.
Maxine received a great deal of attention. She began reading to us, a few months after my accident. But we worried about Maxine, because she enjoyed reading, but she rarely spoke.
Programming Cures Depression
My routine changed, after Jayne brought me to see an orthopedic surgeon. He told us that he could not fix my leg. He advised me to perform lots of leg raises, to increase stability.
I wanted to do something useful after that depressing news, so I wrote a shareware program in BASIC.
My “Backup Companion” program backed up recently edited files from a hard disk to a floppy disk. Jayne used it at work, to create a daily backup.
Backup Companion received excellent reviews. It was “Program of the Month” on a popular shareware BBS.
Happy users sent checks. Jayne taped the first $50 check to our refrigerator door.
But Backup Companion needed more features.
I decided to learn the “C” programming language, and use it to write something better.
Learning To Walk Again
Walking with a wobbly leg depressed me.
Jayne was angry, because she despised incompetent physicians. Jayne always said 90% of physicians are incompetent.
Thankfully, Jayne conducted some research, and found Dr. Fred L. Allman, Jr. in Atlanta.
Fred L. Allman, Jr. (1927–1997)
Fred L. Allman was a man of exceptional strength, stamina, and dedication, a tireless worker and innovator.
In the early 60’s in his new sports medicine practice, he traveled back to and from Atlanta to his alma mater, the University of Georgia in Athens, to attend to the football team. Later on, he shifted to the athletes of Georgia Tech.
Dr. Allman was also the orthopedic consultant for the Atlanta Public School System.
He devoted most of his time, to treat Atlanta public school athletes. They filled his waiting room each week. Most came without an appointment. Dr. Allman treated everyone without regard for race or economics.
Dr. Allman was instrumental in providing coverage – most of it personally – to what eventually grew to be 26 high schools. He dedicated himself to seeing any athlete with an injury, usually within hours, but always within a day.
His concept of a sports medicine practice was truly innovative. He had the wisdom to integrate the traditional training room environment with the physician’s office – the genesis of what is now sports physical therapy. His Sports Medicine Clinic in Atlanta became a model not only for diagnosis and treatment, but also for the rehabilitation of injuries.
He attained many achievements and honors through the years: President of the American College of Sports Medicine; a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness; an honorary lifetime member of the National Athletic Trainers Association; as well as being a Founding Member and President of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
Dr. Allman also received the “Mr. Sports Medicine” award from AOSSM in 1991, and the first AOSSM Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
From his colleagues in orthopedic sports medicine, many of whom were pioneers with him, to the subsequent generations of physicians and surgeons who have benefited from his innovations and leadership, to countless athletes in Georgia and elsewhere who were his patients, Dr. Allman has left a rich and full legacy – a life of dedication, determination, and service.
Thanks to: Camille Petrick, Managing Director, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, for helping me with this bio. Photo by AOSSM.
I felt better after Jayne and I entered Dr. Allman’s huge office. He had the first office devoted to “Sports Medicine” in the world.
The waiting area was full of people wearing all sorts of knee braces.
Dr. Allman also had his own physical therapy department. He employed three full–time physical therapists. I limped down the hall to check it out, and I counted six exam rooms for this solo practitioner.
There were about 20 exercise machines in physical therapy.
I also counted twenty original LeRoy Neiman paintings (there were about 40). The sports paintings made the office seem more like an art gallery than a surgeon’s office.
During my initial exam, Dr. Allman said 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.
I stayed on the examination table for an hour. Dr. Allman called in all three physical therapists to measure my knee’s range of motion.
After the parade of gawkers ended, Dr. Allman said one of the nicest things that anyone ever said to me:
“Son, would you like me to fix that for you tomorrow?”
Dr. Allman replaced my torn posterior cruciate ligament with pieces of my hamstring, over a year after my injury occurred. Dr. Allman said I also damaged my anterior cruciate ligament. But I cannot remember if he replaced it, or it healed on its own. My current brace includes an ACL support.
What I remember most, is 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. I worked on his computer, before or after physical therapy.
Dr. Allman wanted help with “RAMS.” He developed a plan to test college athletes for predispositions to injuries, and needed dozens of data entry forms. RAMS kept me busy while I recovered.
Second Knee Surgery
In 1997, a plastic staple detached and moved. Its shape was visible, next to my kneecap. I saw “white light” – blinding pain – when anything touched this staple.
I called Dr. Allman, my beloved surgeon. But nobody answered Dr. Allman’s office phone.
I thought he retired, until I reached him at home. Dr. Allman was dying from prostate cancer. Dr. Allman referred me to his “best student”, Dr. Wayne B. Leadbetter.
Dr. Leadbetter called me “the bad penny that won’t go away” because I kept returning to his office with new injuries. He followed Dr. Allman’s scar, and removed the staple for me.
I wear a brace, because my knee swells and my kneecap moves when I walk or ride a bicycle. My current brace is my favorite. A UK graduate student designed this knee brace for her school project. It weighs less than two pounds.
I cannot remember her name, but I still wear her contribution. Many dedicated physical therapists helped me recover.
Where Did My Brain Go?
Jayne was brilliant, and trained in surgery and anesthesiology. But I cannot fault her for not thinking “brain injury.” I had several physical injuries, and she was glad to see me alive.
It also would have been different if I was her patient, instead of her husband.
Jayne saved my life and found Dr. Allman. Sadly, Jayne died in 2003.
Magic Traumatic Brain Injury Question
In 1997, my friend became alarmed, because I screamed in my sleep. Then she asked me the magic question:
“Have you ever hit your head?”
After I told her about my coma, she sent me to a “closed head injury specialist.” He sent me for many tests and scans before he diagnosed my traumatic brain injury.
After the tests, this neuropsychiatrist said tests were not needed. He knew I had a traumatic brain injury because I smiled when he mentioned it as a possibility. He said 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, but they always thought I was joking.
My tastes in food have also changed. For example, I used to like spicy foods, and drink lots of tea. Now, I rarely drink tea or eat anything spicy.
I also stopped playing computer games.
How Do You Fix a Traumatic Brain Injury?
Several psychiatrists wanted to “fix” me.
“Don’t worry, Mitchell. I’m going to fix you. You need to be a little up in the morning, and a little down at night.”
I believed him. But his fix was a five year drug habit.
“Don’t worry, Mitchell. I’m going to fix you. You need an anti-depressant in the morning, and something to help you sleep at night.”
I believed him. However, I needed extra morning pills to clear up from the powerful night pill. Then, the extra morning pills made me grind my teeth. I stopped taking both pills after I started treatment for chronic jaw pain.
“Don’t worry, Mitchell. I’m going to fix you. You’re too nervous. You just need one pill in the morning, to stay calm all day.”
I believed him. But his fix was a stupefying pill. For the first time in years, I stopped working and lost interest in programming. I bought a dozen Robert Ludlum paperbacks at a used book store, and read them in bed.
After my weeklong reading marathon, it was time to get dressed and exchange my books. But I was too calm. I looked around for something else to read, that I could reach without getting up.
I finally read the paper inside my prescription box. This drug was for “people who hear voices.”
You Cannot Fix a Traumatic Brain Injury
I never visited another psychiatrist or neurologist.
Caffeine helps me concentrate. Exercise helps me sleep. Medical marijuana puts me in a good mood.
Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury
I finally met other folks with traumatic brain injuries in 2005. I don’t function like I did before the accident. But I was born with a great native intelligence. I also have great drive and determination. I function at a higher level than most of the folks in my former support group.
Each traumatic brain injury is different. I still scored in the 99.9th percentile for logic and problem solving in 1997. But lots of my short–term memory and impulse control are gone.
I recall getting 48 out 50 “wrong” on my impulse control test. 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 16, 2006, Newsweek Magazine printed a poignant article about TBI: Iraq: A Marine’s Experience of Brain Injury. Newsweek said, “Damaged brains are emerging as the singular injury of the Iraq conflict.”
It was the first time I read accurate and vivid descriptions of traumatic brain injury symptoms. Highly recommended reading for anyone who has a family member or friend with a traumatic brain injury.
2020 Traumatic Brain Injury Update
I published this article in 2008. I am a different person today. Several people helped me along the way. Nobody ever asked me if I had a traumatic brain injury.
Four years as a WoodSongs volunteer introduced me to many intelligent, motivated people.
But when I joined WoodSongs, I was foggy from alcohol and residual medication.
I even spelled Michael Johnathon’s name wrong, when I added him to Wikipedia. I threw out my prescription and stopped drinking, a couple of days later.
After I cleared up, I created a computerized ticket reservation system for WoodSongs. It was my biggest computer project in years, although nobody used it.
In 2008, a WoodSongs volunteer encouraged me to study for Sun’s Java Programmer Certification exam. Only half of the applicants pass the test on their first try. However, I scored 88%. This boosted my confidence.
The programmer certification qualified me for the Java Web Component certification exam. I thought it would lead to a good job. I wanted to convert the ER Companion system I wrote for Jayne’s employers, for practice. But I could not understand the programs I wrote in 1990.
A childhood friend cheered me up, by teaching me “Acceptance.”
Instead of Web components, I learned WordPress. This was my best decision. WordPress is much easier than Java Web Components. Additionally, WordPress is used on about 40% of all Web sites.
If you want to learn something, you need a project. I created a public project that taught me loads of WordPress stuff.
My daughter Audrey used to proofread my blog articles. In 2014, I wanted to send Audrey a “draft“ — of an unpublished article – formatted for email. But I wanted to send it from WordPress, without opening Mail or a browser.
This led to thousands of hours developing the Quick Mail WordPress plugin. Quick Mail does everything you can do with email in WordPress. I can also use Quick Mail to send any Web page — formatted for someone’s phone.
WordPress users rated Quick Mail 5/5 (100%) before I removed it from the WordPress repository.
I met my late buddy Larry at WoodSongs. Larry got me into a daily exercise routine. We walked for an hour every weekday morning, in all sorts of weather. Sometimes we also rode bicycles, during the afternoon.
Larry also helped me improve my diet. He stocked his refrigerator with juice and tofu. His freezer contained two or three kinds of fake meat and ice cream.
I lived on oatmeal, coffee, powdered milk and canned salmon for over a year. Every visitor complained, and I loosened up. But I still weigh about 140 pounds.
Larry died on March 1, 2011, during one of our walks. But before he died, I got a job as Lead Developer for a Web startup. We were bigger than Facebook for one week.
Afterwards, I worked for several Web startups. However, they all failed.
My daughter Maxine starts grad school soon. Tampa is my home, until she gets her MFA.
Meanwhile, I ride a bicycle, write about Bad Marriages and maintain a few Web sites.
I know there is more to life. But I am almost content.
My brain injury taught me that anything can happen after you get out bed in the morning. You can either stay in bed, or take your chances.
Thank you for reading my TBI story. It was hard to write. I do not like thinking about it, but I cannot ignore it.