SPEAK OUT! – Ali Stretmater
Donna O’Donnell Figurski
2. Where do you live? (city and/or state and/or country) Email (optional)
Rockville, Maryland, USA firstname.lastname@example.org
3. When did you have your TBI? At what age?
I’ve had four TBIs: the first was at age 3; the second, at age 4; the third, at age 30; and the fourth, at age 37.
4. How did your TBI occur?
All four of my TBIs were due to blunt-force trauma. TBI #1 occurred when a friend went to hug me. I fell back against the hard wooden arm of a recliner and cracked my skull open. TBI #2 occurred when I fell from the monkey bars while playing on them. The details of TBI #3 are still sketchy to this day. Just before surgery, I fainted in the hospital from debilitating pain due to a spinal cord issue. I struck my head on the corner of a filing cabinet and then again on the floor. TBI #4 was due to an assault. I was unknowingly drugged in my own home. It’s believed that I passed out and struck my head on the bathroom sink. The details surrounding TBI #4 are still unclear. The only witness isn’t an especially reliable source, as that witness is also the assailant.
5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?
I was 32 years old and had sustained three TBIs by the time I was finally told I had a TBI!! My neurosurgeon and neuropsychologist were the ones who finally explained to me that I wasn’t crazy and that my behavior(s) was perfectly normal for a TBI survivor. Until then, I had no clue that I had a TBI. When I was growing up, it was common for doctors to “spare” the parents of a TBI-child by not telling them anything at all about it. I wish I knew I had a TBI when I was growing up. It could’ve saved me a lot of difficulties with school, work, life, etc.
6. What kind of emergency treatment, if any, did you have?
For the first two TBIs, I was taken to the hospital. For TBI #3, I was already in the hospital. For TBI #4, I had no treatment for at least a week. I wasn’t able to schedule a visit with my neurologist until then. That appointment was at the insistence of another doctor whom I ran into a few days after I had TBI #4. That doctor was alarmed by my behavior. (I was in a complete blackout from TBI #4 and unaware that I’d had yet another TBI.) The doctor called my neurologist and made an appointment for me.
7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?
Thankfully I never went into a coma from my TBIs. After TBI #3, I was in a medically induced coma for a few days. That was due to a spinal cord surgery. Because of the risk of paralysis, I had to stay completely immobilized. (The paralysis thankfully didn’t happen.)
8. Did you do rehab? What kind of rehab (i.e., inpatient or outpatient and occupational and/or physical and/or speech and/or other)? How long were you in rehab?
I had physical, occupational, and speech therapies after TBI #3. I had rehab as an inpatient for a month and as an outpatient for the next 3–6 months. (It’s hard to remember exactly how long I was an outpatient.)
9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your TBI (e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?
I have vertigo, depth-perception issues, impulse control issues, moodiness, word-searching issues, insomnia, severe short-term-memory issues, overstimulation, etc. TBI #4 made all the symptoms worse, and it wiped out my short-term memory as well. It’s even hard to remember all the symptoms and issues I have from the TBIs.
10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?
Being a 4-time survivor is my greatest blessing and also my biggest curse – all at the same time! I almost died twice. That and knowing that TBI is about “forever” really changes your perspective. Forever is a very long time!
11. What do you miss the most from your pre-TBI life?
That’s hard to answer. I can only vaguely recall a time when I didn’t have a TBI. I guess I miss my career. I loved my job and my colleagues. It was devastating for me when I was told that I would have to retire and that I wasn’t ever going to be medically cleared to return.
12. What do you enjoy most in your post-TBI life?
I appreciate being given a second chance at life and love. By rights, I’m not supposed to be alive to begin with.
13. What do you like least about your TBI?
I dislike being exhausted all the time, the insomnia, not being able to return to work, and the stigma that comes with having a TBI. I often tell people, “I have a TBI; I’m not simple. There’s a HUGE difference!!”
14. Has anything helped you to accept your TBI?
I have been helped by talking to other TBI survivors and by knowing that what we go through is normal – that I’m not alone in this.
15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?
Yes!! I can’t begin to explain how it’s changed everything!! Family members treat me very differently. They don’t understand, since they haven’t lived it.
16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?
Yes!! You name it. For a long time, I was very isolated. Old friends didn’t understand how much my world had changed. It was (still is) hard to get out sometimes because I’m always so tired. I’ve had romantic relationships break up. My current boyfriend is always harping on how it was before I had TBI #4.
17. Who is your main caregiver? Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?
As an adult, I’m my own caretaker. When I was a child, my main caregiver was my mother. But, she didn’t realize the lifelong impact that the first TBI had (and still has) on me.
18, What are your future plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?
Good question. I just want to live a peaceful life and help other TBI survivors when I can, especially new people. I’m in the process of realizing a lifelong dream of moving to Miami Beach, and I’m working (slowly, but that’s okay) on a new career path of fitness- and nutrition-coaching. I’d love to work with other TBI survivors, since we have a statistically higher risk of getting diseases like Alzheimer’s, etc. as a result of having a TBI. Studies seem to show that being healthy can lower this risk. I’d love to re-marry again too, but any future husband would have to understand (as best he can) that I have a TBI and that he is aware of what that entails.
19. Are you able to provide a helpful hint that may have taken you a long time to learn, but which you wished you had known earlier? If so, please state what it is to potentially help other TBI survivors with your specific kind of TBI.
I’ve had both front and back TBIs, as well as open-head and closed-head injuries. One thing I’ve learned is that, when it comes to remembering things, develop strategies to make it easier (like reminder apps on your phone or putting things like keys in the same place each time, so they’re readily visible and you’ll have a starting point to look for them when you need them).
20. What advice would you offer to other TBI survivors? Do you have any other comments that you would like to add?
YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! The biggest key – and the best therapy – is talking to other TBI survivors. Just knowing that someone else understands what it’s like without a lengthy explanation is priceless. Reach out to others, and remember that, by sharing your story, you’re also helping someone else who’s struggling.
Thank you, Ali, for taking part in this interview. I hope that your experience will offer some hope, comfort, and inspiration to my readers.
(Disclaimer: The views or opinions in this post are solely that of the interviewee.)
If you would like to be a part of the SPEAK OUT! project, please go to TBI Survivor Interview Questionnaire for a copy of the questions and the release form.
(Photos compliments of Ali.)