I woke up, just like any other day. My whole body was killing me. My back really hurt like I had been frozen. It was apparent that I was in a hospital, because there was a TV hanging on the wall. There was a calendar with days marked off, and it was mid-December.
This was my son Bretts (not his real name) recollection, months after his accident, when I asked about his waking up from a coma.
This perplexing scenario made no sense to Brett, then 20 years old. He remembered nothing about falling asleep at the wheel after working long hours. He didnt recall slamming into the rear of a stopped semitrailer at the tollbooth.
Its December, and theres a tube going into my body, and Im in a hospital. I had no idea why! I was trying to piece everything together. I found my way to a bathroom and looked in a mirror. I saw scars and scabs across my head. I had a bandage on my neck and a cut on my chin … What happened to me?
Brett was forced and folded underneath the cars dashboard, his 6-foot frame stored neatly into a 2-foot-square space. The compact cars roof was peeled away. Brett partially restrained by a lapbelt had slipped forward after sustaining a blow to the forehead.
Brett continued: Nurses were coming in periodically. Anytime I saw one, I asked for information. I found out later, the reason they werent giving answers, other than You were in an accident, was because I had been asking that [same question] every day prior to that. Eventually I found out through hours of this happening that I was in a rehabilitation hospital because of a really bad accident, but [as far as I knew] I could have been in a plane, and it crashed, and I was the only one who lived. Then I started calling people. First, I had to figure out how the phone worked. I spent half an hour trying to call.
As Bretts mom, when I received that call, I knew he had turned a corner to recovery. He had spent weeks in an ICU, on a ventilator, and had just been moved to this rehabilitation facility the week before. The accident occurred Nov. 9, 2001. Bretts phone call came on Dec. 18.
That week, the nurses in the rehabilitation facility gave me a copy of Family Guide to the Rancho Levels of Cognitive Functioning from Rancho Los Amigos Medical Centers Adult Brain Injury Service. Although I had worked for a decade as an agency nurse, this was all new to me.
The guide explained eight levels of recovery through which a patient might progress rapidly or stay stuck at any particular stage. Helpful tips for family and friends provided ammunition to confront our own anxieties as well as to assist Brett in coping with each days challenges.
The Relearning Process
Brett remembered daily therapies with various allied health professionals. When asked to do jumping jacks, he remembered thinking of course he could do jumping jacks. My arms and legs were going everywhere. You dont know what your brain does until you dont have it [to use].
Theyd ask simple, stupid questions, but Id really have to think about them, he said.
Brett resented his dependence and the restrictions to his freedom. He quickly progressed from confusion, restlessness, and even some aggression to higher levels of healing.
Glimpses of his humor and personality began to emerge. When the staff asked him his sisters names for the umpteenth time, he made up the most outrageous monikers he could.
Brett was discharged in January 2002. There were some residual effects from his closed-head brain injury. Certain math skills lagged for a few weeks. His sense of smell was diminished for a few months after the accident. His sense of taste continued to be off for several years. Some things tasted like just a bunch of chemicals, he explained.
We were grateful for the army of nursing, medical, and allied health professionals who helped put Bretts mind back together. Last fall, we were asked to provide a photo montage of Bretts life for his wedding. I showed the brides family my favorite photo, taken seven years prior. It was our refrigerator door emblazoned with a simple alphabet prayer, God please restore my Brett. Thanks.
S. Gayle Franck, ADN, MS, is a former RN turned healthcare issues writer. She holds a bachelors degree in health leadership.