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Woman struggles with hidden impact of brain injury

Associated Press Published: November 10, 2012

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — Forty-one-year-old Heather McGrath of New London says she has "serious road rage" as a result of a car accident she was in five years ago, when an elderly woman looking for her ringing cell phone ran a red light at 50 miles per hour and plowed her SUV into McGrath's Pontiac Grand Am.

The Pontiac's airbag inflated and compressed McGrath's pulmonary artery, depriving her of oxygen. She received a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, as a result.

"I'm always pointing out bad driving, yelling, 'Don't you know you could hurt somebody?'"

It took her four years, but she can drive now, as long as it's local. And provided she's the only one in the car, it isn't raining (she tends to watch the windshield wipers), and it's not the Christmas season (the decorative lights are a distraction).

Judging by her voice, the quickness of her words, and the sharpness of her sense of humor, most would never guess that she has a brain injury, that everything in her life has changed, and that it takes 10 medications — antidepressants, pain medication, headache medication, anti-seizure medication — to get her through the day.

Carrie Kramer, brain injury services director at the Brain Injury Alliance of Connecticut, calls brain injuries the silent, or hidden, disability and explains that those who recover from physical challenges, whose disability isn't immediately apparent to others, can have significant personality changes.

"Even people who get back to as close as they were before are never really the same," she says. "You'd be hard pressed to find someone who says they weren't changed in some way."

The Alliance works with many people with brain injuries whose changes are so significant that the spouses can't accept them. Divorce rates among the injured are high, Kramer says. But there are also many couples who stay together after a TBI.

"And even for them, it's a stressor," she says.

A stressor Heather's husband Jason was warned about shortly after her accident when he was told by a hospital worker that if the brain injury were something he thought he might not be able to handle, he could get out now guilt-free. Heather would never know the difference.

"I love her," Jason says. "We got married. We started a family together. For me, personally, I can't walk away just because of something that happened. I said 'for better or worse.'"

But that doesn't mean their marriage, which Jason says was "normal" before the accident, hasn't been without its challenges. Asked how he would describe their marriage now, he says, "I don't know. My wife isn't the same person. I don't know what to say."

The change in her isn't something easy for him to put a finger on. Many things about her are still the same, but she has mood swings (Heather calls them "blowups" and says she once yelled at a complete stranger in Wal-Mart), sometimes fails to grasp certain banter or joking that before the accident might have elicited a quick retort, needs one day a week in a quiet bedroom, and can no longer pick up and go the way she used to.

"She was the type of person that would jump in a car and take off, and now she can't," Jason says. "She'd take the kids to Pennsylvania to see a horse show just because it was there."

As a result of the accident, Heather also has short-term memory issues that require her to follow a series of pictures in the morning so she doesn't forget to complete a routine task. And she has injury-related obsessive compulsive disorder ("It's the running joke in our family," she says) that has her running through an extensive list before leaving the house. Bra: check. Keys: check. For a 10:30 a.m. ferry, Jason wakes her up at 6 a.m. and makes sure she stays on task.

"It's been a long five years for him," Heather says of the man with whom she wants to renew her marriage vows, the man who has accompanied her to support groups over the years.

But Jason, who just wants to move forward with their lives, won't marry Heather, who's been in his life since junior high, a second time.

"The people who get remarried or renew their vows are people who have trouble and need to prove something," he says. "Even though she had an injury, I feel very strongly about that. Whether it would help her or not, this might be one of those things she has to give me, to let me have my way of dealing with it, as well. It has to work both ways. Maybe because I don't give in, that's why it works."

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