Traumatic Brain Injuries: Life as They Know It

On a Saturday morning, a ten-year-old boy walked into his living room where his dad was sitting in his favorite chair watching television while his mom and sister were in the kitchen preparing breakfast. He did not know it then, but this was the last time his father would be in that chair for years to come.

Billy (right) stands with his father outside of the assisted living community where his father now lives.

Without warning, all of their lives were changed in a matter of seconds.

Billy Ingle, a journalism major at Texas Tech University, said his father suffered a major brain aneurysm that morning and he can remember the terrifying scene as if it were yesterday.

“My dad just sinks into his chair and then his head falls back into the crevasse of the cushions.” Ingle said. “And then he just starts making this god-awful noise, I can hear it like it’s clear as day. My mom just starts screaming his name, ‘Mike! Mike! What’s going on? What’s going on?’ Unresponsive, unresponsive.”

He said his mom was in sheer panic as she asked him to dial 9-1-1.

While in the hospital, Ingle said his dad went through a six-month coma, but that was just the beginning of multiple year stay in the hospital and eventually lifelong care. He said even when his dad woke up, the joy of the news was met with the sadness of seeing him and realizing he did not know who any of them were.

“Whenever he recovered, he never fully recovered,” Ingle said. “His motor skills are slow, his speech is not all there, his long term memory is there, he still remembers a lot of stuff from when he was younger and healthy, but, you know, short term memory, he’ll forget what conversations he had and stuff like that.”

Billy (right) stands with his family during Christmas time. His father(center) is wheelchair bound because of the aneurysm.

He said he is not normal by any means, but he is still alive, and Ingle said he is thankful for that.

According to Brainline, a national multimedia project offering information and resources about preventing, treating, and living with traumatic brain injuries, there are two different classifications of TBIs: open head injuries and closed head injuries.

Ingle’s dad suffered an aneurysm, which would be constituted as a closed head injury. According to Brainline, these can include aneurysms, concussions, epidural hematoma and subdural hematoma.

Brainline reports that each year there are a reported 1.7 million brain injuries in the United States, and an estimated 5.3 million Americans, about two percent of the U.S. population, currently have a long-term or lifelong need for help with everyday activities due to TBIs.

Paige Johnson, a case manager at StarCare Specialty Health System, said she manages people who live in group homes and makes sure they are taken care of by the people who run these facilities. She said she advocates for people who cannot advocate for themselves or family who can advocate for them.

Paige Johnson – case manager for StarCare Specialty Health Systems

Currently, she said she is dealing with two cases where people are suffering from TBIs. In both cases, these people were not born with these injuries and sustained them through no fault of their own.

In one of these cases, Johnson said a young man from Lubbock graduated high school and was in the process of looking at colleges and preparing for his future, but it took one night to change the outcome of his life.

“One night, he was crossing the street here in Lubbock and he got hit by a car,” Johnson said. “It caused him to sever part of his spinal cord and he had a hard time, he had a hard time recovering.”

She said he was in a full body cast, he had an iron rode put in his back. As a result of the accident, he now suffers from a traumatic brain injury as well as Asperger’s syndrome.

“It’s hard for him because he knows that he should be in college with all of his friends and he should be able to drive a car and hold a job and he can’t,” Johnson said. “He lives in a group home with other people that function at kind of the same level, but because his happened later in life he actually functions higher than the average person.”

Johnson said her inspiration to get into this profession actually came from a personal experience with her own stepfather and the TBI he suffered. She said his case was so rare that it inspired her to help those who do not have a voice because that could have easily been him.

Tom Leezer, Johnson’s stepfather, said he suffered a subdural hematoma as well as a contusion and a fractured skull from a fall into a brick wall while disoriented from a hand surgery.

He said because of all that was going on, he does not remember much about this situation or even the fall itself, but the doctors told his family a shard of his skull had gone into the frontal lobe of his brain. He said the initial option was to operate, but with an 80 percent chance of losing his short-term memory for life, they opted to try an experimental drug treatment for three months instead.

After the three-month experimental drug period, he said he moved back home to Lubbock from the hospital in Philadelphia where the accident occurred, but he was sick all the time and he did not know why. He said after two months home, as a result of the experimental drugs, he suffered a massive seizure.

The cut on his brain kept scarring up and cutting off blood to the frontal lobe and he said the night of the seizure, part of his brain died. He said he lost his sense of smell and feeling below the knee in his left leg.

“There’s not really a thing I can tell you what it is except for I have to see a neurologist twice a year, I have to take medicine and I have short-term memory problems,” Leezer said. “I’m always going to have that.”

He said he has realized while the injury has impacted his short-term memory, that part of the brain also affects his personality. And while he may appear normal to others, he just is not the same person as he was before all of this happened.

“What hurt more than anything is that no one can tell you have a traumatic brain injury,” Leezer said. “So, you feel like you are getting judged or you get scared so that would make me want to retreat and be alone. That was probably the hardest thing for me, it’s gotten a little bit better.”

At work, Leezer said he has had experiences where employees who knew him before the injury have told him they like him better now because he is nicer or more compassionate as a boss. He said for most of his life, he was a tougher person because he worked hard to be where he is in his career and that showed in his day-to-day life at work.

He said it took a lot of support to get through this and that there were countless things he needed help with through the course of dealing with the situation.

“I was lucky enough through all this, through all my complaining, I had plenty of pity parties, was the fact that I had a stepdaughter that loved me and didn’t make me feel guilty about any of that,” Leezer said. “And a wife that understands and did all that.”

Cases like Leezer’s are very rare and he said in the majority of cases people cannot go on to live a fairly normal life like he has been able to do.

The Jenkins family before and after Jennifer’s accident.

Elizabeth Jenkins, a native of Diamondhead, Mississippi, said her sister, Jennifer, had a TBI as the result of a car accident the summer after her freshman year of high school. She said her sister’s course in life was completely altered that day.

Jenkins said her sister suffered a fractured skull and was left severely disabled by the accident. She said her sister has not be able to walk or talk since the accident and while they tried rehab programs, there just was not much progress.

“It took a while to really accept this is who she is now, because you had a different person for 15 years,” Jenkins said. “But, this is who she is now and it’s just something we have to live with.”

Elizabeth (right) stands with Jennifer (left) before the accident took place.

Jenkins said TBIs are such difficult injuries to deal with because it completely alters the person’s life and for a lot of them, they require around the clock care for the rest of their life.

Jenkins said she is studying to become a physical therapist’s assistant, and for her, the inspiration comes directly from what her sister went through. She said it has been really difficult on her family and it took a long time, but they have accepted the situation.

“I tell people now, it is what it is and it sucks, but we’ve definitely accepted what it is,” Jenkins said. “We are grateful to have her although she is not who she was. You know it is like we had a death that day, but she is still here just in a very different way.”

She said whenever life is hard or school is tough, she always tries to remember her sister. While she said she will never be over it, she does use it for motivation.

“Every time I just want to give up or be lazy or do this, I’m like ‘Man, I’m so lucky to have the opportunities that I have and be living the life that I’m living,’” Jenkins said. “Because, you know, it can be taken from me at any time.”

About Joseph Marcades

Joseph is the Graduate Managing Director for The Hub@TTU. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas Tech University and is currently pursuing his master's in mass communication. Has been with The Hub@TTU for one year. He loves his wife, football, golf, movies, Texas, and telling good stories.

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