After surviving a motorcycle wreck and 28 days in a coma, my mother-in-law, Marihelen continues to live with a traumatic brain injury over 50 years after the wreck that disabled her. We share her story because there is hope for those who are currently going through the struggles of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) after accidents.
The motorcycle accident that forever changed her life.
As a 19 year old she had no idea that getting on the back of a friend’s motorcycle one day would result in a terrible accident where she would almost die. Marihelen graduated in 1968 in the top 10% of her high school class.
During her freshman year of college her dad was dying from cancer so her grades suffered. After her freshman year in college, she transferred schools to begin a nursing program. However, nursing school didn’t happen as planned for her. Before the semester started, she had an accident.
The accident left her in the hospital in a coma for 28 days. Ultimately doctors doubted she would ever wake up. The doctors told her mom that if she did wake up, she would like be in a vegetable state.
The accident had broke her skull and jumbled her brain. Technology at the time of the accident was limited so to remove bone fragments the surgeons actually removed parts of the brain tissue including part of the frontal and temporal lobes.
When she did wake up it was a long road of recovery. Even 50 plus years later there are effects still present as is common with traumatic brain injuries.
Marihelen may forget some things or wish me happy birthday in March instead of May, but dates surrounding her accident and anniversaries of birthdays, anniversaries and deaths prior to the accident she especially remembers. The day she woke up from her coma, September 30, was the one year anniversary of her father’s passing after he fought a hard battle with cancer.
Each traumatic brain injury is unique. For those who experience traumatic brain injuries it can feel isolating and confusing. While there is some research in the area, it feels limited for those who are having to figure out life with a TBI and for the families of those providing care and support.
How common are traumatic brain injuries?
According to the CDC, in 2014, about 2.87 million TBI-related emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations, and deaths occurred in the United States, including over 837,000 of these health events among children.
What did initial recovery look like?
After waking up from a coma after 28 days and 3 brain surgeries, 19 year old Marihelen had to relearn everything. Amazingly, music hadn’t been affected so she still knew how to play the organ. This grace would get her through many hard days. Marihelen relearned how to talk, walk, feed herself, dress herself, write, etc. It was a long and hard road. She says her family and her faith helped carry her through the journey.
Lasting impacts of Marihelen’s traumatic brain injury
The frontal lobe of the brain is the area where reasoning occurs. The ability to reason cause and effect is something Marihelen is hampered in because that portion of her brain is literally not there. After the accident and the removal of the bone shards and some brain tissue, with the technology at the time the doctors basically did paper machete on her skull. Therefore her skull is bumpy to the touch. Moreover, she can shower, but is afraid to swim.
She also continues to slowly leak some spinal fluid from her ear especially if she lays flat. In a normal unaffected body, the spinal fluid should be a closed system. Somehow her body compensates for this so she doesn’t experience daily headaches or balance issues like you might expect if someone was losing spinal fluid. She does try to avoid laying in ways that will cause it to drain.
Amazing accomplishments with a traumatic brain injury
After her accident her mother worked with her to reteach her basic skills. In spite of having a traumatic brain injury, Marihelen went on to graduate from college. She has played the organ at countless funerals. Music was one part of her brain that didn’t seem affected. She was married. Then, she had a baby who she raised with the help of her mother. That baby grew up and he’s now my husband!
Living with a traumatic brain injury doesn’t have to mean life is over. Instead, it just looks different than those around you. Some days are harder than others. Through sharing her story, Marihelen hopes other families who are facing this new reality will be encouraged that they aren’t alone and there is hope.
Check out our other posts on this topic for specific tips and suggestions we’ve found useful in this journey. Marihelen shares more of her story, coping techniques and how her life has changed throughout the years. Marihelen is now over 70 years old, so now in addition to the traumatic brain injury effects, she has other medical issues that affect her life.
What does your journey look like?
We’d love to hear your coping techniques and tips for dealing with a traumatic brain injury and the recovery process. Comment below to join the community discussion.
More statistics on Traumatic Brain Injury are available from the CDC here:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Surveillance Report of Traumatic Brain Injury-related Emergency Department Visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths—United States, 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.