Over ten years ago, our family suffered the affects of traumatic brain injury when the car my father was travelling in was hit by another car. My father happened to be in the back seat, and the force of the impact caused him to hit his head against the side rear door.
He went unconscious immediately and was later diagnosed with a mild, closed head injury, essentially a concussion. He was expected to have some symptoms but make a full recovery.
The reality of his injury and recovery, though, was much different.
While at the hospital, he slipped into a coma, and when he awoke a week later, he was suffering symptoms of someone with a much more severe brain injury – short term memory loss, impaired speech, disorientation, difficulty with basic cognitive functions – in short, completely unable to take care of himself, suffering symptoms that made him, in the immediate aftermath, a different person than before.
I wanted to share his story for several reasons, but one of the most important is the invisible, hidden impact of some traumatic brain injuries which do not immediately appear serious, even to experienced medical professionals. In my father’s case what appeared to be a minor injury to the brain, in fact contained microscopic “threads” of damage, not visible in those initial CAT scans which resulted in sustained damage and symptoms that were far more serious.
His prognosis, from the time he awoke from his coma, and for several months afterward, was that he would make a full recovery, return to work, and resume his former life after a short period of rehabilitation (about six months). As confident as my dad’s medical team was in their prognosis, our family slowly understood and accepted a different reality.
My father’s official recovery period took close to two years, and though he was not able to return to work (he was nearing retirement at the time of the accident), he did recover his ability to speak, take care of himself physically, stay alone unsupervised for a few hours at a time, take up new hobbies, express interest in former hobbies such as art, painting, drawing, as well as basic, daily, life-enriching activities such as conversing, writing, some household tasks, physical activity, etc. He was not able to regain his full independence as an adult – e.g., work, take care of basic financial needs, make life-impacting decisions, remember things consistently and accurately, drive, read for extended periods of time, etc.
This is a very important aspect of brain injury that people need to be aware of – the great stress and difficulty of dealing with an “invisible” injury – not only as the patient, who is often not “recognizable” as disabled and also for the medical profession – that does not often have the benefit of being able to clearly see or confirm the “hidden” damage residing within the brain – as in the case of my father. Although in our case, my father made a significant recovery over time and we feel so fortunate and grateful for that, it is critically important for people to understand the delicate and unpredictable nature of the human brain, and to support those who have suffered a brain injury with the understanding of how baffling this type of injury can be.
It’s also very important to stay hopeful, positive and open-minded as realistically as possible – with this type of injury, as we experienced, recovery and progress can be much slower than thought – or even go in unexpected directions – but there can be much good news, success and life after brain injury, too.
* We have changed the name and used a sample image for this story at the request of the writer.