No one imagines their day ending in a traumatic brain injury. That day in 1987 started much like any other for Cheryl Miller, a busy young mother of three little boys – including a one-year-old. Between running the household and raising her children, Cheryl also worked as a full-time nurse at a local hospital. It’s easy to imagine the kind of hectic morning that Cheryl might have had with all the responsibilities on her plate. As Cheryl stepped out the door to go to work that day she slipped and wasn’t able to catch her grip on the railing. This moment would change everything. Cheryl fell forward on the front steps and hit her head on a whiskey barrel planter; the impact to the planter was so hard it propelled her head back, resulting in a second blow on the stairs. Cheryl was left unconscious, and when she awoke in the hospital days later, she would have no initial memory of what happened.
This was the beginning of Cheryl’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) story. A longtime family friend who I have known since childhood, when I first met Cheryl, I did not know what a profound impact and change this accident had on her. I had the privilege of interviewing Cheryl about her experience as a TBI survivor and her life in recovery over the last 33 years.
In your own words, please tell me a bit about your TBI experience.
Cheryl: After that initial accident, my memories are fuzzy and I only remember what other people tell me about that time. I didn’t know how I had fallen, but my sisters later in recovery told me the circumstances. Immediately following the accident, I went into respiratory arrest which deprived my brain of oxygen. I was vented to maintain the function of my heart and lungs, but the damage to my brain was already done.
How did this affect you?
Cheryl: I woke up a completely different person. At first in my hospital bed, I was paralyzed unable to roll or move, but over time I regained the ability to move my body. I had to relearn everything just as an infant learns the world. I had to start with learning who I was and recognizing the faces of family members. I had to learn how to understand speech, the concept of time, how to talk, how to feed myself, how to walk, how to read, etc. Absolutely everything I needed to learn from scratch, and I had no memories. It was like the slate had been wiped clean.
As a result of my accident, I did not work for 10 years, and I believe this was a contributing factor in my divorce. There are certain parts of who you used to be that you must let go in order to move forward in recovery and reclaim your life. I am grateful for the incredible support system I had, and I would not be where I am today without them. My family was always there for me, my sisters, and my dad who always took me to my appointments. My three sons are the main reason I pushed myself to keep going; they made me determined to regain everything I could so I could be a mom for them. I’ve learned that if you get the help you need, it helps your family.
What was the treatment and recovery procedure like for you?
Cheryl: The recovery process was long and arduous – we are talking about 5 years of in-house therapy. I was in the lockdown ward at New England Rehab for a long time. My days were filled with a variety of therapies, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, hearing therapy, and pool therapy. I had nerve stimulation as well as acupuncture. My daily schedule centered around therapy from the moment I woke up, often with only a 5 to 10-minute break between tasks. I was often braced and propped up for therapy; at the beginning I was wheelchair-bound. I had to relearn the meaning of everything. I practiced exercises on concentration and listened to books on tape to build my vocabulary.
Do you still experience symptoms?
Cheryl: I do. There are certain times when I slur my speech or talk too loudly without even realizing it. I also have an ongoing issue with sudden muscle weakness and exhaustion when I am overtired. I will have bouts of anxiety and find certain things, such as loud music and lights, to be overstimulating – so much that I need to leave the room. That isn’t all of my current symptoms, but they’re the ones that affect me the most.
Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share?
Cheryl: I’ve had many failures along the way. I failed my driver’s license 3 times before passing. I lost my way taking a wrong turn to a friend’s house and wound up miles off course crossing state lines to New Hampshire. I’ve learned to be patient with myself through everything and to keep moving forward. I had to have a level of trust in the recovery process to get better, and I’m grateful that it worked to give me the life I have now. Even the basics like grocery shopping and cooking a meal are a small miracle for me. I remember the days when my sisters had to map my local grocery store and give me a color-coded list with pictures so I could shop. I never imagined traveling to Mexico for my son’s wedding or trying to learn Spanish. These moments that I am able to be a part of now are a gift and beyond what I ever knew myself capable of. By sharing my story, I hope to give others a sense of determination and hope for their future after a brain injury.
Power of Patients would like to thank Cheryl for sharing her TBI story and journey with us. Stories are a powerful part of the work that we do/would like to achieve as it relates to TBI awareness and advocacy. Cheryl’s story embodies our belief that it Takes 2 people to navigate a traumatic brain injury, and that traumatic brain injury journeys represent a 2nd lease on life. Power of Patients endeavors to lift the burdens and limitations of TBI life by providing people just like Cheryl a free Dashboard, educational materials, and linkage to clinical trials to help them navigate their TBI journey. Let us be apart of your Take 2: register at patients.powerofpatients.com for your free triggers and symptoms Dashboard to get started today.
Author: Meaghan Murphy