Interview with Ann Boriskie – Teach Believe Inspire Award recipient
(presented by Donna O’Donnell Figurski)
A traumatic brain injury survivor, wife and mother of three, Ann Boriskie has redefined each of these roles as she progressed physically and spiritually since her car accident. Along the way she also founded the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association, which offers hope, support and education to brain injury survivors and their families.
Ann’s commitment to helping brain injury survivors has garnered her the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant in 2013 and again this year in 2015. The Brain Injury Law Center is honored to recognize such a champion for traumatic brain injury survivors.
Q: It wasn’t until a year after your auto accident that you found out you had sustained a traumatic brain injury. Had you suspected that your brain had been injured, or was it a shock to hear that was the case?
A: I had no idea that I had a brain injury. Not one doctor had said anything at all about my brain. I was told by one neurologist that I had “post-concussive syndrome.” That doctor acted like it would go away — go home and lead your life. He really never explained that my brain may be affected.
I truly thought that the wreck made me crazy. That’s why I had changed and could no longer do so many things that I could do previously.
Q: As you recovered from your accident, did you have physical and mental goals that motivated you through your rehabilitation?
A: I really did not think of my life after the car wreck in terms of goals, since I didn’t realize I had a problem. I knew I had multiple parts of my body that were injured and that hurt — and that I had to go see numerous doctors. I knew all of the “things” I could no longer do — but did not understand that these were linked to an injury to my brain.
I was a mother of three children (youngest fifth grade; oldest in the eleventh grade). I really had no choice but to try to continue my “normal” life. I was happily married. So my goals were to continue taking care of my husband and three children — cooking, cleaning, doing errands, grocery shopping, etc. (Of course, I had to modify how I now accomplished all of this.)
Physical: I have worked out since my early twenties. Thus I continued to do my weight lifting and treadmill walking as I had previously. I didn’t really know what I should or should not be doing. My current doctors tell me that had I not continued all of my workouts, I might be in a wheelchair today. I pushed through my pain and continued to keep my body’s core strong, even though my neck and back were both injured.
A: Doctors truly gave me my life back — both physically and mentally.
My psychiatrist (a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation) was the one to determine physically what problems that I had and how they all were interrelated (since I had 10 parts of my body injured in my car wreck). She tailored my medicine to help me live as normal of a life as possible.
I found several neuropsychiatrists who helped me better understand the different facets of brain injury, and helped teach me “compensatory strategies” to live my life somewhat normal.
The neuropsychiatrist and counselors explained that so many of my symptoms and changed behaviors were absolutely common with an injury to the brain.
It was so much better for me to realize that I had a brain injury — instead of labeling myself “crazy.”
I joined support groups where I could converse with others in my situation, again helping me understand that my symptoms were just like theirs — and normal for an injury to the brain.
Q: How did the accident change how you identify yourself as a person and as a mother and wife?
A: Previously I was extremely driven in my work and competitive. The job often came before my family. The person I was, was defined a lot by my work.
After my car wreck I couldn’t work — I tried numerous times. Thus I had to figure out who this “new me” was. I struggled with this for years. It took me wholly accepting the “new me” and my realization that I was still a very valuable person in life to become the helping person that I am today.
As a mother and wife, I became much more accessible to my family and their own problems and needs. I put them first. They taught me my value with each of them.
The master plan for my life was to give up a big chunk of who I was as a person to raise two doctors (a neonatologist and an internal medicine hospitalist) and one RN nurse. Because of my own struggles, my 3 children are devoting their own lives to help others.
What advice do you have for TBI survivors who become depressed about their new life?
- “Push the envelope” — remember I CAN — don’t ever let others tell you all you can’t or should not do.
- Identify all of the things that you now have and can do — do not focus on what you can’t do.
- Help others. By helping others you will help yourself, and see yourself having self worth.
A: My association does not just help TBI survivors. They also help all non-traumatic brain injury survivors (such as stroke, aneurysm, tumors, abscesses, bleeds, AVM, cancer, etc.). It’s so important for the world to understand that all of these causes make up a brain injury — and all are not TBIs.
I initially heard about the American Stroke Association’s Peer Visitor Program, which has been in existence for over 40 years. They only serve stroke patients in the inpatient rehab units of hospitals.
I thought that if the American Stroke Association was successfully helping stroke patients that I could help traumatic brain injury survivors as well as ALL of the non-traumatic brain injuries which exist, not just stroke.
I loved the idea of helping other people like myself. I had no one there to help me — I had no information on what a brain injury even means — I felt so very alone, isolated.
I also saw the need to talk to the patient and/or family from the very beginning of the brain injury event — to give them information immediately to help them understand.
Thus my program begins in the ICU unit and step-down units, the inpatient rehab units, then the day or outpatient program of the hospital. A person’s journey through their brain injury changes the questions they have and the type of information that they need.
Q: It’s easy to see that a person who has suffered a TBI needs help, therapy and education. How important is it to talk to the families and caregivers of the survivor?
A: Extremely important: “Knowledge is Power.” The more a survivor understands about their own brain injury, the easier time they will have of accepting the injury. When the family reads about and understands why their loved one has changed and why they are different, why they are exhibiting a large range of behaviors — then the family can better help and deal with their loved one.
With acceptance that they did indeed injure their brain, which changed their brain and changed the person they were, a survivor along with the family can move forward and actually work toward improvement.
Without this knowledge, the survivor often hates himself/herself. The survivor will become suicidal, more emotional, reclusive, and not wanting to get better. The family without an understanding and acceptance often shuns their own loved one, often leaving them or deserting them emotionally or physically.
That is why my Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association’s program hands out a variety of packets of information full of book lists, website lists, resources, CDC information, newspaper and magazine articles, survivor and caregiver stories, etc.
Q: If someone wants to volunteer with the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association, do they need to have first-hand experience with TBI?
A: To be a Brain Injury Peer Visitor they have to be a survivor of a stroke or some form of brain injury, or the caregiver of a brain injured survivor. (Otherwise a person cannot relate in a personal way — as a person “who has been there and done that.”)
A: It is a huge honor to receive the Quality of Life grants. I so respect all that Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana did to help others during their life-time. They represented the true selfless love and help that I so respect and hope to emulate.
Reading Christopher Reeve’s two books inspired me to get better and to actually do something with my life. I thought that if a man in a wheelchair who can do so little could help so many other disabled individuals, then I could get better and help brain injured survivors.
Reeve became the face of those that are disabled. He taught that a disability can be the beginning of your life — not the end.
The grants also assured the printing of the information then the continuation of providing a Packet of Information to every brain injured and often paralyzed survivor and their caregiver who are Peer Visited by the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association.
Q: What goals do you have for the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association going forward?
- To continue to serve all of the hospitals and their various units and all of the rehabilitation facilities where we currently have our Brain Injury Peer Visitor Program.
- To continue to grow the program by establishing our program at more new hospitals and facilities.
- To train more new volunteer survivors and/or caregivers in order to serve more individuals.
- To help educate as many brain injury survivors and their families and loved ones.
- To educate the public across the United States and throughout the world about all forms of brain injury through our website at braininjurypeervisitor.org.
- To create a true understanding of what the word “brain injury” means — to make it a household word that is understood and accepted.
- To help create a tolerance and loving understanding for a person with a brain injury.
- To help develop a least one Brain Injury Peer Visitor Program in every state.
(Disclaimer: The views or opinions in this post are solely that of the author.)
If you have a story to share and would like to be a part of the SPEAK OUT! project, please submit your TBI Tale to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will publish as many stories as I can.
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