Survivors SPEAK OUT! Chelsea Rolph
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)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
3. On what date did you have your brain injury? At what age?
I have unfortunately had many traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). My first one happened when I was roughly 5. I have also had a concussion at 17 and two more at 18.
4. How did your brain injury occur?
My first TBI happened because I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt properly. Somebody hit my dad in a parking lot, and I flew out of my seat and hit my head on the seat in front of me. My later TBIs happened because of my favourite sport – basketball. You see, sometimes I get competitive. Sports were also my way of releasing any built-up anger I might have. I would let it all out on the court. One day, I was going for a ball, and I got an elbow in my temple. I blacked out for a minute, but I convinced my coach and the refs that I was okay. I kept playing until my coach noticed that something about me wasn’t right, and he took me off the court. After the game, I was taken to the hospital to get checked out. That was where they told me that I have a TBI and that I should relax – take time off from school and sports.
My later TBIs were the ones that really affected me. I remember being in a basketball game (the second of the season), and we were down by 1 point with 44 seconds on the clock. I had a lane. I drove to the net, went up for my layup, and then darkness. I was out. I woke up lying underneath the net and feeling so confused. My coach and the ref were standing by me. I was immediately taken to the hospital. I remember that my eyes were doing weird things, such that the doctor called other doctors to take a look. I actually took time off from school that time. However, I was banned from sports for the rest of my life. I was told that, even with a helmet, I would still suffer from concussions.
5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?
I knew the injury was serious when I started blacking out. I was also really sensitive to light. I remember that the day after I hit my head, I woke up and I was blind. I opened my eyes, but all I could see was darkness. It was a really scary feeling. I called for my mom, and she took me back to the hospital.
6. What kind of emergency treatment, if any, did you have?
I never had any emergency treatment. However, I was tested for anything and everything. I was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), a CT (computerized tomography) scan, ECGs (electrocardiograms), an EEG (electroencephalogram), and a stress test. I had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). I wore a heart monitor for a week. They did a sleep study on me, and I was given a neuropsychological test. Some of these tests gave me answers, and some did not.
7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?
I was never in a coma. I just had seizures and random blackouts.
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 was in outpatient rehab in Hamilton, Ontario. That hospital is the reason why I had answers. I went there for roughly one year. I was on a fast track because my goal was to discover if I was able to go to school. Basically I spent my summer in the hospital to do the tests and to get the results.
9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your brain injury (e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?
I had a lot of problems. The one that affected me the most was the fact that I would pass out if I got my heart rate up. I was no longer able to play sports with my athlete-friends. I also noticed a huge shift in my personality. I used to be a very happy-go-lucky person. I wanted to be a Social Worker and help others. After my TBI, I became a huge jerk! I was always moody, I stopped caring about things, and I altered my personality so I wouldn’t let things affect me. I kept myself from getting attached to things I care about. I loved basketball, and in one second all of that was taken away from me. I still suffer from this. I have made myself an emotionless robot. I also stopped wanting to be Social Worker because I realized that if I couldn’t help myself, then I couldn’t possibly help others. I had to get bifocals. (I was having a hard time adjusting from up-close visuals to things far away.) I also had a hard time with my memory. I used to be in acting, and I could memorize a script easily. However, I was not able to remember what I read. My short-term memory was severely affected. My doctor referred to me as “an old computer.” (I had the information needed, but it took a while to get to me. I kept buffering.) I lost my abilities to multitask, to focus, and to sit still. My fine-motor skills suffered. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding what has been said to me and how to answer. I also had difficulty sleeping because I was having mini-seizures in my sleep.
10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?
Has my life changed? Of course! Is it better or worse? Who knows? I have suffered, and I have dealt with things on my own that people shouldn’t. I remember coming home from school crying to my mom because all of a sudden I was unable to do the things I used to do. In contrast to the thoughts of many people, I was still able to complete University. I might have just gone to college (like I should have), but now I can proudly say I have my degree! That might not have happened without my TBIs because back then I wasn’t out to prove anything. Do I now have a bigger debt than what I should have? ABSOLUTELY! However, I will never regret it. My life isn’t “better” or “worse” than it originally was, but I feel I have been very fortunate.
11. What do you miss the most from your pre-brain-injury life?
I miss my friends. All of my friends are athletes. Taking away my ability to be active took me from my friends. I was no longer able to do the things that I normally did. My friends kept playing sports, and I kept sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t easy, but I found the ones who are able to understand that part and still be by my side. I really cherish that.
I also miss my ability to always be willing to go out and meet new people. I get exhausted a lot more easily than I used to. Before, I would never be home. I would always be working. If not, I would be playing a sport, and if I weren’t doing that, I would be with my friends doing fun, crazy things! My fiancé is a DJ, and a part of being the DJ’s significant other is going to his gigs and socializing with the other significant others. I still love doing that, but now I find it more exhausting than what it should be/used to be!
I would like to be able to go back and play sports the way I used to, but now I am a coward. I am scared of playing. I am scared of taking two steps backwards. I have moved on from what I wasn’t able to do, and I am now trying to find other things that I enjoy. I am slowly trying to get back into the shape I used to be in five years ago.
12. What do you enjoy most in your post-brain-injury life?
I enjoy the fact that I got to start over with a blank slate. I was able to take a step back and really see what and who made me happy. I love that my fiancé was in my life when I was first dealing with my issues. He has never left my side. I love that I was able to prove to doctors, friends, family, and the faculty at McMaster University that, despite what they thought, I could graduate without the accommodations I should have had. I am now out living my life. I am doing what every recent graduate does – looking for a full-time job, hopefully buying a car, and looking for an apartment. I am doing everything that most people do, except with an invisible problem.
13. What do you like least about your brain injury?
I don’t like the fact that I lost something that I loved, which, I previously mentioned, was my love for basketball. I faced loss, even though nobody had passed away. I felt as though something I had strongly cared about was taken away from me. I also don’t like the fact that I have an invisible illness. I don’t want to make excuses. When I am having a problem with something, I don’t like to say, “I have had a concussion.” I don’t promote that about myself. I hated that I was so close to potentially receiving the grade 12 Athlete of the Year award and that it was taken away from me without a fighting chance.
14. Has anything helped you to accept your brain injury?
A couple things have helped me on my journey to success. My rehab clinic helped me a lot! It helped me by giving me answers to the problems I was having. I don’t normally like talking about my feelings, but I do enjoy talking to one of my pets. My mom, my sister, and my fiancé have also helped me. The one thought that I always have is “My TBI happened. I can’t dwell in the past, and I can’t make excuses. What I can do is do what I love. If I have a challenge, problem solve. What can I do to make this work for me?” I realized that I shouldn’t have to give up on something because it is tough. I have to come up with my own solutions to deal with that problem.
15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?
Besides the fact that I am moody, my TBIs haven’t affected my relationships too much. It was tough dealing with my changed memory. If my parents asked me to do something for them, there is a good chance I would forget. When my boyfriend and I were originally dating, I hated that I had to ask him personal questions multiple times because I couldn’t remember. Other than that, not much has changed.
16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?
I have mentioned before about my social life. I felt like I had lost my friends because of my inability to play sports alongside them. I have become more of an introvert. I like coming home and relaxing. I get overwhelmed socializing for a long period of time. I need breaks from people – I need “me” time.
17. Who is your main caregiver? Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?
My mom was my main caregiver. It must have been really tough on her to have her baby daughter come home crying every day because of frustration. My mom has been my rock. She has been by my side every step of them way. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She was the one who supported me when I decided to go to University without any help, and she was there to see me walk across that stage.
18. What are your plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?
I am always wondering what I want to do with my future. I would love to inspire some people. I have always thought about working at a juvenile detention centre. I would love to talk to the kids and show them that they can prove others wrong – “Don’t let others tell you who you are or who you’re not, and don’t let them control your future.” I want to write about the power of “Yes” and “No.” Other than that, I would love to get married to the love of my life and maybe start our own family!
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 want others to know that something good can come out of this situation. I really had a hard time with this. I ran into one of my former high school gym teachers, and I was told that, because of me, the rules around brain trauma have been altered at the school level. The School Board has created guidelines with steps to follow if a student has a brain injury. I work at a recreation centre teaching sports to kids, and I walked out of the gym and saw the guidelines posted. A student must have time off, and when the student returns, he or she is to have a private room with no distractions. Even though I had to go through my TBIs with no support from my high school, except for some of my teachers, my journey helped create change for others.
20. What advice would you offer to other brain-injury survivors? Do you have any other comments that you would like to add?
Never lose hope! You are only as strong as you feel. Keep pushing forward, and make the best of every day. Seize the moment and life with no regrets. Things happen. If we dwell on the problems, we will never give ourselves room to grow and improve. If I decided not to go to University and just take the year off, I might not be in the state of mind that I am in today. I also might not have met the people who took me “across the ocean.” You are the main character in your life-story. You get to choose the paths you take. Don’t let barriers get in the way of your happiness. If something doesn’t work for you, make it!
(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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