Survivors SPEAK OUT! Sandra Williams
Donna O’Donnell Figurski
1. What is your name? (last name optional)
2. Where do you live? (city and/or state and/or country) Email (optional)
Athol, Idaho, USA
3. On what date did you have your brain injury? At what age?
My injury was on May 28th, 2012, at 10:00 am. I was 38.
4. How did your brain injury occur?
A drunk driver crossed the center lane as we were turning a corner in our Ford F250 Power Stroke. We were pulling a 26-foot travel trailer. There was a cliff on the other side of us. We should have gone over the cliff, but instead we crossed all lanes of traffic and ended up in a ditch. We should have jackknifed, but we didn’t. The truck that hit us also went through the length of our travel trailer. He ended up in the lane opposite to the one he was traveling in and facing in the opposite direction. We all should have died. The details of the accident are many. It sounds like a made-for-TV movie. We are all alive, but we’re not OK.
5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?
I first learned of my son’s brain injury when I took him to a neurologist. His primary care physician wanted a follow-up because my son was sleeping so much and his balance was off a bit. We made him rest all summer. When he went back to school, he went from an A-B student to one who got Ds and Fs. I was really focused on my son, but the neurologist diagnosed me too. The diagnosis shocked my primary care provider and me. I didn’t really believe her until I lost my job as a Special Education teacher.
6. What kind of emergency treatment, if any, did you have?
I lost consciousness. I was taken to the Emergency Room. I don’t remember babbling to the sky, but that is what my kids said. They told me this several weeks after the accident. They didn’t know I didn’t know. That’s when my husband knew something wasn’t right. But he thought I would get over it. We all rested that summer. I seemed to be doing well – no headaches, etc. – until I went back to work.
7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?
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 have been to two ten-day sessions of speech therapy, vestibular therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy. I also attended Carrick Brain Injury Center, a multidisciplinary brain rehab center.
9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your brain injury (e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?
I am still struggling to work. My memory is still affected to the point of frustration for my family members. I struggle with headaches, dizziness, and confusion when people speak to me. I have given up being a youth group-leader. I tried to go back to work, but, due to the fact that educational systems do not accommodate, I cannot work as a teacher – not even online. I really want to run and work out like I used to, but I don’t. That is the biggest change. I never used to drink coffee or alcohol. I don’t abuse either, but now I drink both. I never used to eat chips or anything unhealthy, but I eat those things now. I used to garden, but now I don’t. I do want to return to the way it was with those things, but it is hard while I’m keeping up with my kids and their needs since the accident.
10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?
I think my life is worse, but can get better. It is worse because I can’t work in a job where I can get full-time benefits. My health care needs have increased, and my income has decreased. I am trying to help my husband start a new business in construction. He is being patient with me, but it is not easy. Our kids are different, and we really struggled with their behavior until we went to Carrick Brain Injury Center. We still struggle with one kiddo, but I think it is a grief process that he is going through.
11. What do you miss the most from your pre-brain-injury life?
I miss running. (I ran a half marathon and was training for a full marathon when we were hit.) I miss having the energy to do anything I wanted. I miss remembering everything. I miss being able to find a job whenever I wanted. (I have been working since I was eight. I started working for my dad and got my first out-of-family job at the age of fourteen. I paid for the first four years of college by working, and I sent myself to Europe – some people in my church helped me to play basketball internationally.)
12. What do you enjoy most in your post-brain-injury life?
Nothing really. I wish I could say something different. But, my life is so limited from what it once was, and I look so normal. People expect me “to do better,” “to not give up,” or “to stop making excuses.”
13. What do you like least about your brain injury?
I dislike that I cannot be independent and that people expect more from me than I can do. If a person had a broken leg, that person would receive accommodations until it healed. Accommodations are not given when one has an invisible traumatic brain injury (TBI). It doesn’t work that way. But I will not give up.
14. Has anything helped you to accept your brain injury?
I was actually helped by the fact that I can’t work no matter how hard I try. Working came easily to me, just like sports. Now, working and sports are the hardest things for me to do. I will keep trying though. I can’t do them now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to do them forever. I won’t give up. I will do them someday.
15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?
Yes, immensely. My kids get really frustrated with me, and so does my husband. I used to be unorganized and forget things, but now it is ten times worse. I really have to rely on notebooks and repeat myself several times. That is what is so frustrating for my family. They also don’t understand my need for rest or my light-sensitivity to the TV. There are many things to list, but I will keep it short!
16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?
I don’t visit with anyone anymore. I used to go to bible studies, but they scare me now. (I am afraid I will say the wrong thing.) I can’t go see my mom because I can’t drive that long at one time (it takes two days for me to get there), and it’s just too long to be gone. Plus, I have a huge family, which is hard to be around. My sisters don’t understand my brain injury. I just stay away. It’s better for all of us.
17. Who is your main caregiver? Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?
Me. I am my own caregiver. My husband tries, but he is focused on the business. I submit insurance claims and speak to the doctors. I am even filing claims with Disability Rights of Idaho, so I know I can be organized and I can do something!
18. What are your plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?
I plan to be working in construction until I put myself through college again to finish my counseling degree and/or get a certification in TBI so I can educate teachers about it. There is the need for special education to have a different evaluation process. I also plan to use online settings to sell lessons that target students with TBI in the secondary school classroom.
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.
I wish I knew more about Disability Rights of Idaho and more about the complaint process for educators. (Parents are at such a loss!) The biggest tip I can give other survivors is not to listen to negative comments or to employers who tell you that you can’t do the job. Listen to your heart and your soul. Fight for yourself and others. It will keep you going.
20. What advice would you offer to other brain-injury survivors? Do you have any other comments that you would like to add?
Never, ever give up! If you can’t realize your dream one way, find another way to do it. It may take you longer, but do it. Henry Winkler (the Fonz) applied to sixty-eight different colleges before one accepted him. He was not diagnosed with dyslexia until his son was. He never gave up. We can’t either!
(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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