The details of my wife’s accident are horrible to recount, but here they are in a nutshell. On a beautiful December day, Joanie got tangled in her shoelaces while jogging and was pitched forward onto the roadway, face first. As a result, her brain was knocked hard against her skull and blood pooled there. She had sustained a subdural hematoma, a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Three emergency room visits, two hospitalizations, one brain surgery, and months of rehabilitation over the next year resulted in her regaining most of the capabilities she lost, but it wasn’t an easy slog by any means.
That injury to my wife of almost forty years caused all kinds of problems—some temporary, some permanent—due to not only broken blood vessels around her brain but also damage to her brain’s neurons. Among these problems were head pain, confusion, lethargy, nausea, sleep disturbances, impaired attention, memory loss, speech and hearing deficits, and emotional upset. Because the hematoma was on the left side of her brain, it impaired her understanding of language, speaking, verbal memory, logic, sequencing of activities and thought, and control over right-sided body movements.
In addition to these physical and cognitive losses, the psychological toll on her was heavy. Here was a woman who had earned a doctorate in social psychology, mothered our two remarkable children into remarkable, independent adulthood, and took good care of herself. Yet, this freak injury sapped her self-confidence and caused her to be chary of new situations.
As devastating as it was, her condition was not as bad as that of many others who sustain a TBI. Joanie’s brain injury was beneath the outermost lining of her brain, not within her brain itself. With a worse injury, she might have needed longer hospitalizations, more radical neurosurgery, and a longer rehabilitation period. She could have suffered permanent and pervasive brain damage. She could have died.
Joanie’s experience showed me that those who have to deal with TBI, both the sufferers and their families, face a tough battle. But it also showed me that it can be survived and that many who have sustained TBIs can fight their way back to health. We were so fortunate in this to have the concern and support of family and friends during her recovery and, most of all, the love and caring of our two grown children.
Joanie’s contributions to her own recovery during that horrible year were instrumental in it going as well as it did. Once she had come out of her fog enough to realize what the accident had done to her, she showed courage, determination, and immense strength and stamina in getting back on her feet—literally and figuratively—as soon as she could. She didn’t just do the ten reps of each exercise the physical therapist instructed her to do—she did fifteen. She didn’t just practice her reading exercises the day before her cognitive therapy appointments, she threw herself into them as soon as the therapist assigned them to her. Now, even several years after the accident, she has kept up her strength and balance exercises to ensure that she will be in better shape than she was before it.
During the annus horribilis of Joanie’s injury and recovery, people would often ask me how I was coping. I cannot really answer that I coped well or didn’t cope well—maybe I did both. I was worried and harried facing my wife’s pain, her hospitalizations, the many medical and rehabilitation visits, and her neurosurgery. But I benefited from that circle of support among family and friends, good health, time to do all that needed doing, good health insurance coverage for Joanie, a basic (if rusty) understanding to start with of traumatic brain injury (which I expanded once her injury happened), and the example of Joanie’s determination and grit in recovering her lost capabilities to inspire me.
I had learned from one of my closest supervisors during my working career the value of putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what came before or during, adopting his policy of “deal with it, but don’t dwell on it—just keep on stepping” through adversity and obstacles. It wasn’t easy for me to keep on stepping the year of Joanie’s recovery, but it wasn’t hard, either, when, as I often did, I compared my travails with the pain and suffering Joanie was experiencing.
How did all this impact our relationship? Like most long-married couples, we had grown, over our four decades together, “old shoe” comfortable with one another and therefore a little complacent expressing how we felt about one another. This accident changed that. It made us feel in our hearts the things we knew in our heads: about how fragile life is and how priceless our relationship with each other is. This accident taught me in a way nothing else could how bereft and empty I would be if I were to lose her, and it demonstrated concretely to her that our children and I would be there for her no matter what, to help her through whatever adversities she might face. Now, we value our time together with an intensity we had not felt for a long time.
Although she has recovered about ninety-five percent of the physical and cognitive capabilities her accident caused her to lose (and only I and our children notice the five percent she has not recovered), she still has not recovered all the self-confidence she had before, and she still hates even to think about that terrible year. Although she read a draft of the book I wrote about her accident, treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery, even now that the book has been published she has found herself unable to pick it up. Our annus horribilis is well behind us now, but it still leaves a small residue that will probably never go away.