I Am A Survivor Journeying to Thriver
My name is Shireen Jeejeebhoy. And I am a survivor. That sounds a bit like an alcoholic introducing herself at an AA meeting. But my injury was wholly involuntary — I had no say in it. More importantly, alcoholism is known while brain injury and its life-changing aspects is invisible, except in hockey players when they miss games. Yet even then, how much does anyone know about the utter destruction brain injury wreaks on a person and the long, slow journey to a good life?
My journey began in a four-car crash in 2000. I was the front-seat passenger in car number two: three impacts, three back-and-forths of the head, on top of a severe whiplash sustained nine years earlier in another car crash, which may have made me vulnerable to a closed head injury in 2000.
It was eight months before my brain injury was recognized, diagnosed, treated because I had no broken skull, no loss of consciousness.
I entered the world of outpatient neurorehab. Therapists surrounded me with encouragement and advice, cheering on each new accomplishment, even if only for reading a whole page in five minutes. The things that had been trivial had become mighty mountains to climb. It gave a new perspective on the skills acquired in childhood, taken for granted in adulthood, and lost through injury.
But the medical model hit a wall. I need to be able to read and write, to think and synthesize, to concentrate and listen, to see the big picture and remember. My reading problems were not the well-understood ones of being unable to recognize letters and words, but of being unable to read long enough to understand, to remember long enough to add to my current knowledge, and to see the big picture — that is, all that I had read, as I progressed through an article, never mind a book.
The medical model cannot do much to fix higher cognitive functioning issues. But psychologists can. They use computers, brain biofeedback, at-home devices, psychological techniques, breathing, visualization, to name a few techniques, to accelerate brain healing. The brain can heal — we know that from the “miracle” stories of people waking up from decades-long comas — but it’s slow. The key is to stimulate that process. At a basic level, it’s to do what we did as kids: practice. Every day. Without fail. But at a treating level, it’s to see the brain as an electrical organ, not just chemical. Its inputs are eyes, ears, taste, touch, smell. It can be trained to heal itself fuller, faster.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to achieve that all on one’s own and so long as the survivor and their doctors cling to absolutes about brain injury healing. Yet brain injury let’s people explore new territory and to create stronger, caring bonds with new friends or old working towards a shared goal: reintegration into society and creating a new purpose. Full functioning is not a pipe dream. It’s hard, years-long, but doable.