Woman struggles with hidden impact of brain injury

Associated Press Published: November 10, 2012
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And although he'll continue to encourage Heather to attend support groups, Jason won't be attending, anymore.

"I'm okay with it," Heather says. "If I do go, it's with my ILST (Independent Life Skills Trainer). She's used to it. It doesn't break her heart to see somebody new. It does to Jason."

Says Jason, "I just want to come home from a hard day's work, hang out with my family, and do something. I don't want it to be about brain injury this and brain injury that. I'm trying to put it behind me. Unfortunately, I do remember even though she doesn't, so every time it comes up, I'm reliving it. My saying I don't want to talk about it is also my way of keeping this marriage together."

Windham resident Patricia Hall, 32, says that in some respects, the brain injury can be more difficult for the spouse than for the injured.

"Not to downplay the brain injury, but I feel like they're going through their own thing and they don't know what's going on. I witnessed the accident, I witnessed the hospital stay, and I witnessed the recovery time."

Patricia's husband Eric, 34, sustained a traumatic brain injury Aug. 28, 2011, the day Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut. He was on a ladder cutting down limbs from a black walnut tree damaged by the storm when a branch fell on his head and knocked him off the ladder.

"I looked over and he was just falling," Patricia says. "He landed on the limb he'd just cut."

For two and a half weeks, he lay unconscious in the hospital, with Patricia visiting him daily after taking their two sons, 6 and 8 years old, to school. She didn't know whether he would wake up, whether he would be the same, or whether he would remember her or even still love her.

"When I woke up, I didn't think, 'Where is someone I know?' It wasn't a concern to me. The only problem I had was when I was coming off the pain medication," Eric says. "I think Trish and everyone else suffered more."

Eric, formerly a truck driver, has healed remarkably fast, Patricia says. About seven months after the accident, he began work at Asplundh Tree Expert Co., where he made foreman in just under his 90-day goal.

Like Heather, Eric sounds normal when he speaks. He shows no outward signs of being injured. Also like Heather, he has some short-term memory issues — which Patricia addresses by writing daily activities on a calendar — and mood swings, or what Patricia refers to at one point as "anger fits."

"It's stupid stuff, like going at the kids, saying 'Don't do this, don't do that,'" she says. "He doesn't realize he's doing it until I say, 'Hey, this is how you're acting.' I feel like I'm always parenting him, because I feel like he doesn't always make the right decisions. But he's learning."

The crankiness isn't constant, but it is one of the small changes that have entered their relationship. Another change is the way they talk. Conversations that were once engaging are now short and to the point.

But that doesn't mean they aren't communicating.

"I think that's a huge, huge way to survive this, is communicate, talk about your feelings. I have to ask him questions, because he's not going to come out and tell me."

Although she will have days, now and then, when she gets tired and frustrated and wonders why this had to happen to her husband, Patricia says she's always quickly reminded of how grateful she is for what she has: her husband, her family, a support system, and a situation that could have been a lot worse — even if it's still not entirely normal.

"There's no such thing as 'normal,'" Patricia says with a slight laugh. "I would always say in the hospital, 'Is he going to be back to normal?' And they would chuckle and say, 'There's no such thing as normal now. You have a traumatic brain injury spouse. Things are not ever going to be 'normal.' So, our life will never be normal again, and I'm okay with that. We're crazy and intense and we love each other. I'm still here. I can't see myself anywhere else."