Survivors SPEAK OUT! Brandy Hunter
Donna O’Donnell Figurski
Brandy (Denise) Hunter
2. Where do you live? (city and/or state and/or country)
Blountsville, Alabama, USA (about an hour north of Birmingham and an hour south of Huntsville)
3. On what date did you have your brain injury?
January 13, 2004
At what age?
I had just turned 24 years old. (My 24th birthday was November 20, 2003.)
4. How did your brain injury occur?
I was driving to work to a local restaurant (Ruby Tuesday). The highway on which I was driving is a four-lane. I was in the left (“fast”) lane. (I was driving a four-door Plymouth Neon.) The driver of a full-size pickup truck moved in front of me. He then slammed on his brakes, stopping his truck abruptly in front of my car. I swerved into the right (slow) lane so I could avoid hitting his pickup truck. I assume that I panicked – I either did not see the 18-wheeler driving in the lane I was “escaping” into or I thought I would be able to “beat” the truck. The pickup-truck driver did not stop or even look behind at the devastation he had caused. Witnesses say that that he sped up and went through the next 4-way stop.
5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?
The driver of the 18-wheeler truck climbed out of his rig to check on me. I was unresponsive, so he climbed into the car with me. (I “remember” seeing him cradling me – but I’m not sure that is possible because he THANKFULLY did not move me.) He began praying audibly. I recall this happening. I remember seeing it from above. I refer to it as an “out of body experience.” (DISCLAIMER: I believe in God, but I am not religious.)
Paramedics and fire fighters were quickly on the scene. (The accident happened close to where a volunteer firefighter lived – thankfully.) I had a chest tube inserted for a collapsed lung. A “Life-Saver” helicopter transported me to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama (at the University of Alabama). The accident occurred around an hour (driving time) away from the hospital. When I was admitted into the hospital, it was determined that I had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). (The first responders had thought I had a TBI, as we were told months later, because I had what is referred to as “doll’s eyes” at the scene.) In the Emergency Room and in the hospital, a breathing tube was inserted, and two tubes were inserted into my right frontal lobe to drain fluid. I had a C2 fracture of the spine. Therefore, I had a brace placed around my neck to keep me from breaking the vertebrae. I wore the neck-brace for about six months.
7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?
I was medically induced into a coma, and, of course, I fell into one soon after. I remained comatose for approximately five weeks. My score on the Glasgow Coma Scale was 7 or 8, if I am recalling correctly. I know it was a dangerous score.
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?
As a patient, I had occupational, physical, and speech rehab for about two months. After I was released from the hospital, the therapies then continued at an outpatient facility for around two years. I also had a couple of months of voluntary speech therapy about three years after my outpatient therapies ended.
9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your brain injury (e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?
My memory was impaired for several years after the injury occurred. I would forget the things that happened two minutes prior. Then it was five minutes prior – then fifteen minutes – then hours – and then days. Slowly, I began to recall things more easily. I still get days mixed up. I might believe something occurred several weeks ago, when in reality it happened one or two days ago. I wasn’t able to remember much of the 3-6 years prior to the accident because my brain injury was so severe. It’s now hazy, but I can remember those incidents when my memory is triggered by a smell, a sound, or something else that is considered minor. (The brain is an amazingly complex, yet simple thing.)
Although it has been eleven years since I sustained brain damage, I still have trouble with my balance. I almost always have to hold onto a handrail when climbing and, especially, descending a set of stairs. My balance isn’t nearly as troublesome for me as it was, though. When I am shaky, when I run into things (due to a problem in spatial reasoning), when my speech is slurred, or when dysplasia occurs (saying one thing, but meaning another – usually substituting for the correct word another word that has absolutely nothing to do with what is being said), it is because I am tired. Mom says my brain is overworked and needs to rest. Dad compares my brain to a computer and says that it needs to “reboot.”
My perception is altered a bit (but not enough to hinder my ability to drive a vehicle legally).
My personality is sometimes dramatically changed. I express anger differently. I no longer find certain things humorous like I did before. However, when I do find something funny, it is difficult for me stop giggling. Before the TBI, I would cry “at the drop of a hat.” I rarely cry now. I believe it is because I unintentionally “taught” myself to hold back emotions like that because my speech is very difficult to understand if I am crying when I talk. My always-short patience seems to have been negatively affected. I would once say, “I don’t want (it) yesterday; I want (it) the day before yesterday!” Since the accident, I want (it) three days before yesterday!
10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?
My life has changed for the better in some ways. (Maybe the reason is also due to maturing.) I have done things I never would have done before. I moved to Long Island for three years. I’ve learned who my TRUE friends are. I’ve accepted and admitted (to myself and others) romantic feelings for “old” friends. I’ve given one man “a chance” that I never did before (and now we are planning to marry one another).
My life is also worse in some ways because I have a hard time controlling my emotions. (For example, I succumb to anger much more easily.) I hate that I am able to control my once-considered “soft heart” where other people are concerned. Also, I am now much more sensitive. I take things personally more often than I once did – I no longer let things “roll off of my back.”
I miss my voice.
I miss being able to multitask.
I miss being able to work as a “deejay” and have a radio show (sort of the same as my previous answers).
I miss being able to accomplish more than one thing per day. It is tiring for me if I try to go to the store AND go see my grandparent. Add another task in there, and I am spent!
I miss the way I didn’t have such a “wild-eyed” look in photos.
12. What do you enjoy most in your post-brain-injury life?
I enjoy that I am more willing to accept that I am wrong. Honestly, I like the feeling I get when I admit that I’m wrong. I like that I’m more apt to say, “I’m sorry,” as opposed to allowing my pride to win.
I am grateful that I no longer take little things for granted.
I am grateful that I now enjoy the company of dogs. I was once a “cat person.” I still love cats, but I truly do not know how I would have gotten through the past several years (finishing my college degree, etc.) without the love of my “babies,” Coco and Whiskey. I am not as keen on having children as I once was. I used to say that I wanted a house FULL of kids. Now I am happy with my “chi-weenies” as my only children.
13. What do you like least about your brain injury?
As previously mentioned, I dislike how much my voice has changed. I do not like that, due to dexterity issues, my handwriting is sloppy. I don’t really enjoy having to wear glasses for more than reading. But, it is what it is. At least I’m here and able to complain (and understand why I am complaining).
14. Has anything helped you to accept your brain injury?
I now accept the differences in my life since the TBI. I have learned to accept the difficulties I have now (and will always experience). I finally (and regrettably) accepted that my life will never again become the life I had before the TBI. Knowing that other people (some of them, anyway) understand how my personality is NEVER going to be the same allowed me to learn to accept my new personality too. I was always a proud, strong girl and having my plans (or really “lack of plans” – remember, I expected things to just “fall into my lap”) altered so severely fueled my desire to become a prouder, stronger WOMAN.
15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?
My home life is different, since I no longer live with my parents (partly due to an angry outburst I had). My relationship with my mom has been forever changed. My inability to have a strong hold over my reactions/words when I’m angry enabled Mom to see a side of me that I always kept to myself. I regret the reasons things have changed, but I think the ways in which they did are for the better – in BOTH our lives. I am unable to “think before I speak.” Therefore, I often say words I do not mean to people I love, so that I can be “heard.”
16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?
Yes, my social life was altered greatly. I was once a very popular person with multiple invites to different places, often happening at the same time. I would have to turn off the ringer on my phone in order to take a nap, or even to get a little sleep. People would show up at my house unannounced at any hour.
When I got out of the hospital, people only wanted to visit me out of curiosity. They were curious as to how a brain-injured person looked. I don’t have any scars from the accident. I look exactly the same – luckily. I only have scars from the people who worked so diligently to save my life. Those scars are minor, too. My visitors assumed that, because I was home and looked the same, I was completely “normal” again or that I was the same person they so fondly remembered.
My mom was my primary caregiver, with help from my (step)dad when he wasn’t at work. I have lived with a roommate since September 2006, including my current boyfriend since August 2011. The two of us traveled to England, where we lived together for three months.
Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?
Yes. I understand that my parents had to halt their own lives so I could have a semi-“normal” one myself. I will never be able to aptly express my gratitude to either of them for their unwavering love.
18. What are your plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?
I would like to begin writing on a regular basis.
I do not wish to work outside the home; I am no longer able to prioritize my time. [I have tried to disprove doctors and family and actually work with the public. At one job, I was a cashier at the busiest grocery store on Long Island. The store worked with me and allowed me to have four-hour shifts because my brain would tire out. I worked for almost one year before I was fired for my cash-register drawer coming up short a few times. I had a caseworker come in and fight for me to at least still have a job with the company. I tried working in the floral department (no cash was handled), but I had to quit after about one month. Also, while on Long Island, I worked at Macy’s. I ran a register for three days. I informed the woman who hired me that the job was far too “fast-paced” for me, and regrettably I would have to quit. (I sincerely thanked her for her giving me a chance. She understood because her husband was a TBI survivor.) She gave me a job as a “recovery specialist.” I moved items from the storage rooms to the sales floor. I would put products that were moved by customers back into the correct places. I did that for four hours a day. In both aforementioned jobs, I would work Mondays and Tuesdays for four hours a day. I would have Wednesdays off and then work four hours a day on the following Thursday and Friday. I moved back home to Alabama after I finished my degree online. (I began it while living in New York.) I got a job working as a “pizza maker” at Papa John’s. (I had that job years before the accident.) Apparently, I was not working quickly enough, so I was fired from that job. I had never been fired from a job until the grocery store in New York and later Papa John’s in Alabama. A few months later, I began to look after a 3-year-old boy while his parents worked. That little boy was rambunctious! But for some reason, I was very patient with him. For example, he would tell me he needed to go to the bathroom. So, I would get him situated and walk outside the room to give him privacy. He normally would go without a problem. One particular day, he refused to go after telling me that he needed to. I would not allow him to leave the bathroom until he used the toilet. He got so tired that I made him sit down until he decided to go. My tenacity proved to be a positive thing with this child. We also went through the same thing after he got up and I told him to wash his hands. It wasn’t nearly as difficult because he KNEW I was not giving up. I mostly despise how my brain gets focused on something, but with this child, my focus was a good thing. I also worked at Babies-R-Us for five months. Again, I worked in BOH (back of house). I would run a register occasionally. I quit that job after five months because my now-fiancé took me to Bristol, England, for three months. That was an opportunity that I could not pass up.] When we returned to the States after living in England, my boyfriend said I could be a housewife if I did not wish to work outside of our home. I once never would have imagined that sort of thing bringing me happiness. Now, I am so uberly happy and oh-so-lucky to have his love and understanding.
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 survivors with your specific kind of brain injury.
Accept the challenges you now face daily. Don’t think you will become who you were pre TBI. (As one of my doctors in the hospital would constantly say, “THIS IS NOT TV.”) Difficult as it is, strive to acknowledge that you are no longer exactly like the person you were. You have differences. Learn how it is best for you to handle them and share what you’ve learned with those who are in your everyday life. Acceptance of the “new you” is crucial to being happy in your future. Also, allow the help that people offer. At the same time, do as much independently as you are able.
20. What advice would you offer to other brain-injury survivors?
Don’t dwell on the way life WAS; make the best of the life you still have. Create what is “normal” for you – a survivor. Never accept the “normal” for other survivors. Admit it when you realize that you are wrong. “I’m sorry” is a phrase that will help you with your relationships (be they familial, romantic, or even friendly).
Pre TBI, I took life for granted. Even though I was grateful for the life I was given/chosen, I did not actively pursue the things that I wanted. Rather, I expected everything to just “fall into my lap.” Post TBI, it’s taken me almost ten years to realize that there’s no shame in having to work harder at something that WAS simple pre TBI. [I have since attended a traditional university – thanks to my mom and dad, who drove me to classes taught at a university that is 25 minutes from our home. I made As and Bs studying Broadcast Communication. (Before the injury severely affected my speech, I was an on-air personality for a large-market FM radio station. I was also a producer for a popular morning-show team. My on-air name for that show was “1/2 Pint.”) I finished my degree online through Ashford University, and I obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies when I finished my education online at Ashford. (I lacked one semester and an internship in order to graduate from the original university.) I made the Dean’s List each semester I was enrolled at Ashford, and I graduated college with a 3.79 GPA.]
Read Brandy’s Guest Blog post on my blog at, “I Am Blessed.”
Click here to learn more about Brandy Hunter.
Click here to read Brandy’s blog, Brandy’s Brain.
For the sweetest video about Brandy and her Mom, click here. Because She Loved Me . . .
(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.
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(Photos compliments of contributor.)
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