The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 10, 2013

Anytime, anywhere, anyone

Traumatic brain injury group helps survivors cope with altered lives

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— As the most recent slogan for the Brain Injury Association of America reminds, traumatic brain injury doesn’t discriminate against “anyone”:

The young anyone, unaware of a tree limb on her instinctively traveled bike path that lay obscured at the fastest point of her journey.

The anyone who fought valiantly for freedom and country, brought down by an explosion he can’t recall, who now describes himself as damaged goods.

Or anyone who survived a car wreck with no apparent injuries, but now experiences bouts of confusion and spontaneous anger, enough to sabotage relationships and career.

The memory loss … intractable headaches … frustration and depression — it takes a tremendous amount of courage to face a different person in the mirror where the “you” you knew once stood.

If anyone understands the impact of traumatic brain injury or TBI, Debbie Voloski does. Voloski, the public relations director for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Beckley, is her organization’s representative for the Brain Injury Group of Southern West Virginia. She is also the mother of a traumatic brain injury survivor.

“Recognizing your child or loved one is never going to be the same is the hardest part. You can help them be the very best they can be from that point on,” Voloski said.

March is Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness month, and part of that awareness is to explain how no two patients suffering from TBI are alike. Brain injuries can happen with strokes, aneurysms or myriad external traumatic causes.

When people sustain blows, jolts, bumps to the head or penetrating head injuries, the normal functioning of the brain is disrupted, resulting in symptoms ranging from a brief change in cognition or consciousness to severe cases of comas, memory loss and a lifetime of physical and behavioral changes.

Strong support systems, as Voloski understands, are the most crucial components to recovery, and with public forums like that offered by the Brain Injury Group of Southern West Virginia, there’s no reason to try to cope uninformed or alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading TBI causes are: falls (35 percent), motor-vehicle crashes (17 percent), workplace accidents (16 percent) and assaults (10 percent). There are an estimated 20 percent of troops from current conflicts diagnosed with TBI.

Voloski has taken what she learned as a mom of a TBI patient to bring awareness to the condition and to offer support in coping, especially for the veterans near and dear to her profession.

“To explain in layman’s terms, there are now more cases of TBI recognized because the veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan had advanced body armor and were treated with modern battlefield medicine. The wounds they suffered would have killed them in past wars.”

Since 2005, Veterans Affairs has amped up research and the development of regional polytrauma centers to respond to the increase in TBI cases.

Reaching veterans with traumatic brain injury has been a challenge, explains Voloski. Teresa Harvey, founder of the local Brain Injury Group, agrees.

Her group has existed since 2010 and sees mostly civilians with TBI, but she, too is hoping for a greater showing of affected local veterans.

“They do not seem to come to meetings. Some don’t realize the symptoms they have are from traumatic brain injuries. Others have a macho image of ‘I’m OK. I don’t need help.’”

The group took the term “support” out of its original name because they discovered service people didn’t like the negative and emasculating connotations of the word.

Harvey’s own son, Brad Anderson, was a victim of an assault in 2008 in West Palm Beach, Fla. Anderson had risen to a position as a top executive in e-commerce, with a home on the beach and an enviable income, until he was grabbed, mugged, shoved into a car, then thrown out at a high rate of speed.

Harvey watched him struggle to regain what he’d lost, including his career. He is still battling through short-term memory issues and judgment problems.

There are little things the unaffected take for granted that prove to be a tremendous challenge for TBI survivors.

“(Brad) can’t iron his own shirts. He tells me he can’t get the steps right in his mind, that it may as well be a Rubik’s cube.”

TBI survivors grow frustrated in public because while their mental capacity is intact, explains Harvey, they may find their thinking processes to be delayed and that it takes them longer to respond to questions or make decisions. Sometimes, speech is labored or slurred.

Once-trifling details, like hearing her son’s voice as it used to be, are losses to be grieved. Like Voloski, Harvey had to learn to let go of many maternal expectations. She finds the group she created to help her son is now a gathering place where caregivers also find common ground and comfort in knowing they are not alone.

Guest speakers regularly bring topics to light for survivors and their families at the Brain Injury Group meetings: pertinent medical information, financial resource contacts and ways to cope with daily difficulties.

This month’s meeting on March 19 will address the sleep disorders that frequently affect those with TBI. A speech pathologist will lead another upcoming meeting. The group is branching into social activities, like bowling leagues, picnics and other programs just for fun.

“It’s a very emotional path they’re on,” explained Harvey. “But when you get a group together and they start talking, it’s amazing how many similarities they have. It helps to have them together just for a little while to say ‘I understand’.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com