My 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. Our house was located deeper in the woods, than any place I ever camped.

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. Mark decided to take a different route home, on Georgia Route 400. There was hardly any traffic. One lone traffic light stopped us at Route 369.

However, this traffic signal was not working. Additionally, tall weeds on the side of the road 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, a pickup truck, traveling over 50 miles per hour, hit the passenger door.

I had time to see the Ford logo, and start to say, “We’re gonna get hit.” Was the other light green?

Luck

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 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 bent backwards – my toes touched my thigh.

Mark was also lucky. 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 sober. I think he drank two light beers in three hours.

Blame

A broken traffic signal and poor road conditions caused this accident. I could not blame the State of Georgia, because “sovereign immunity” protected them.

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.

This faulty traffic signal caused over 50 accidents at the remote intersection of Routes 369 and 400.

Crawling From The Wreckage

Jayne An ambulance brought me to the local 37 bed hospital. My late, ex–wife, Jayne, was the anesthesiologist. A pediatrician met the ambulance. 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. Incredibly, the helicopter got lost.

Jayne said 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, and sent me to the ICU. Jayne bought a foam mattress and slept beside my bed.

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 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. 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 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 and my plaster hip–to–ankle cast on the passenger seat.

Drunken Games

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.

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. However, I do not recall spending much time with Jayne. Maxine lived on her Uncle Joe’s dairy farm for a few weeks. I avoided the kitchen, because 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.

Henry

Jayne introduced me to Henry, after I had been playing games for about six months.

Henry looked tough, because he lost an ear in a knife fight. He 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” 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.

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 — once, when I checked in.

Maxine

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 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. 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 enjoyed reading, but she rarely spoke.

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 to a floppy disk. Jayne used it at work, to create a daily backup.

Backup Companion received excellent reviews, including “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 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.

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, but the majority of his time, frequently until late at night, was spent treating the hundreds of Atlanta public school athletes who filled his waiting room each week. Most came without an appointment, and all were treated without regard for race or economics.

As the orthopedic consultant for the Atlanta Public School System, 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.

Sports Medicine

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 time ever 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.

Recovery

I started to feel better as soon as Jayne and I entered Dr. Allman’s 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. When I limped down the hall to check it out, I counted six exam rooms for this solo practitioner.

There were about 20 exercise machines in PT.

Additionally, I counted about 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, 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?”

Surgery

wearing brace Dr. Allman replaced my torn PCL, with pieces of my hamstring, over a year after my injury occurred. Dr. Allman said 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 detached and moved. I could see it protruding under the skin, next to my kneecap. I saw “white light” – blinding pain – when anything touched this staple.

Naturally, I called Dr. Allman, my beloved surgeon.

But nobody answered Dr. Allman’s office phone. I thought he 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 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 annoyance for me.

I wear a brace, because my knee cap moves laterally when I walk. My current brace is my favorite. A UK grad student designed this knee brace. It weighs less than two pounds.

Where Did My Brain Go?

Jayne was brilliant, and trained in surgery and anesthesiology. However, I cannot fault her for not thinking “brain injury.” 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. Sadly, Jayne died in 2003.

Magic 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?”

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 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 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. But 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 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

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. I function at a higher level than most of the folks in my former 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. However, my short–term memory and basic impulse control are gone.

I recall getting 48 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 I read accurate and vivid descriptions of TBI symptoms. 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 there are three things that OTHER PEOPLE in their lives should know more about:

TBI survey results
AgreeIssue
81% Problems with thinking abilities after TBI
78% Problems with mood after TBI
75% Changes in social skills after TBI

2020 Update

Mitchell D. Miller. Tampa, Florida. Oct 13, 2020 I published this article in 2008. I am a different person today. Several people helped me along the way.

Four years as a WoodSongs volunteer introduced me to many intelligent, motivated people. I also created a computerized ticket reservation system for WoodSongs. It was my biggest computer project in years.

A WoodSongs volunteer encouraged me to study for Sun’s Java Programmer Certification exam, in late 2008. Only half of the applicants pass the test on their first try. However, I scored 88%. This boosted my confidence.

Acceptance

The programmer certification qualified me for the Java Web Component certification exam. I thought it would lead to a good job. For practice, I wanted to convert the ER Companion program I wrote for Jayne’s employers — but I could not understand the code 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, and used by 30% of the Web.

Quick Mail

If you want to learn something, you need a project. I accidentally 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 just about anything you can do with email from WordPress. Additionally, I can send any Web page — it will be formatted nicely for someone’s phone.

Although Quick Mail is less complicated than “old stuff” like Audit Companion, it taught me dozens of WordPress and Javascript features.

WordPress users rated Quick Mail 5/5 (100%) before I removed it from the WordPress repository.

Larry Steur

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 usually held two or three kinds of fake 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 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.

The Future

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 nearly 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.