Courtney on her bike.

5 Tips for Pursuing Sports After a Traumatic Brain Injury

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I sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2014 at 21 years old. I was always an athlete, but after my injury I couldn’t participate in sports like I used to. Now I’m proud to call myself an adaptive athlete, participating in adaptive sports ranging from snowboarding to biking to kayaking. I enjoy reaching out to others with brain injuries and letting them know they aren’t “stuck,” as I used to think.

When you have a brain injury, whether it’s mild or severe, you may not be as coordinated as you used to be. You may have forgotten how to move or use your muscles in a different way. For me, the basics were a big struggle. From walking to talking to holding a fork, I was back at square one. So, I understand if you feel like you just can’t figure out what to do. I totally feel your pain. Here is a list of things to remember when you are giving your favorite sport a go again.

1. Your brain may not be ready — and that’s OK. Let me repeat — it is OK. You know why? Because when you keep on practicing, your brain will slowly remember what to do. You’re training your brain again. In your mind, you’re like “OK, I’m going to kick this soccer ball,” but you try and it just isn’t happening. Your brain is like “Woah, slow down. Let me figure this out.” Take things one step at a time. Literally. And keep on doing that until it becomes easier and easier.

Courtney snowboarding.
Courtney snowboarding.

2. Take a lesson. If someone told me this two years ago, I would have laughed in their face. I snowboard. I also have a lot of pride. I know I’m not the only one who hates the whole “asking for help” thing. But I would have never been able to snowboard again without the help of my coaches. Please look into adaptive sports. I go to a fantastic program called New England Disabled Sports in Lincoln, New Hampshire. I would recommend this program for anyone, even a person without a disability. My coaches there have gotten me standing up on my board and actually snowboarding. Although I don’t ride like I used to and I fall, my coaches don’t let me sit there and be mad at myself very long.

Adaptive sports has come such a long way. There are programs all over the world, and they will get you set up and going. I could go on and on about how much adaptive sports has done for me.

3. Have a support team. Having a group that will support you in your goals is very important. When you feel down on yourself or too lazy that day, they’ll be there to keep on pushing and motivating you. Heck, I’ll be part of your team! There is no better feeling than having a bunch of people supporting you through this new journey!

4. Wear a damn helmet. If you are pursuing a sport that requires a helmet… just put the damn thing on. Your brain is already damaged; it’s even more fragile. Another small whack to your noggin could be ten times worse than it is for an average person without a brain injury. I know being younger, not wearing a helmet can be the “cool” thing to do, but it’s not a smart thing to do. You can even clutter your helmet with cool stickers and decals. You should see mine!

5. Remember you have a brain injury. When your brain is damaged, it may never be the same again. You may not recover all the way. Don’t push yourself to do difficult things right away. Make small goals for yourself.

I used to be a college soccer player, so you could say that I was pretty good at running. I decided to go to the track and walk 2 miles. I started getting really pumped. I was convinced I could jog the rest of the way. I start kind of running, but my legs got tangled and forgot what to do, so I ended up falling. That was a big ego crusher! Moral of the story — take it slow! Make a plan and go over it with someone, such as your physical therapist, and see if you are at that point in your recovery. You can even ask your physical or occupational therapist to implement your sport of choice into your session.

Disabilities should have no boundaries. Don’t let people tell you that you are unable to do the things you love. There are always other ways to do them. Adapt and overcome.

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How My Trike Makes Me Feel 'Free and Alive' After a Brain Injury

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​I am Gary Nagel, and I am one of The Mighty, a brain injury survivor. I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin and enjoyed farming, but what I really wanted to do from a young age was own a small business. I decided to study business and accounting, and paid for my first year of college by selling the eggs from 100 hens I owned. That was a lot of eggs! My passion for many years was running businesses and doing outdoor activities like camping with my son, cross-country skiing, playing basketball, chopping wood, plowing snow with my tractor, and playing with my dogs.

In September of 2013, I had a severe brain injury, and it felt like everything was taken away from me. My body no longer cooperated, and I couldn’t do most of the things I used to be able to do. So many days at the rehabilitation center and at home, I wanted to just give up; everything was so hard! But I am an overcomer, so I decided to keep on truckin’! I have always felt I had something to give and share with others; now I would just have to figure out how to do it in a different way.

A year after my brain injury, my wife helped me find my new passion: riding a TerraTrike, which I named The Scorpion. The first time I rode my recumbent trike, I felt so free and alive! I did a test ride in a big, empty parking lot, and I zipped around shouting and singing. My wife and I were crying because we were both so happy. When I ride my trike, people are intrigued by my cool “ride,” and I am just a cyclist like everyone else, not “a guy with disabilities.”

Gary on his trike, racing in the Special Olympics
Gary racing in the Special Olympics.

I set goals for riding my trike, so I joined Special Olympics in Wyoming and won a silver medal in the 1,000 meters at our state competition. Last summer my goal was to ride to our local general store for a latte (good motivation!); it was 2.5 miles of dirt road, hills, and some pavement and traffic. I made it, no problem, and enjoyed drinking my latte on the patio of the Etna Trading Company, my brother-in-law’s small business. As of today, I have ridden over 200 miles on my trike in rain, snow, wind, and sunshine!

Whenever I would ride The Scorpion, I longed for others in my situation to experience how great it feels to ride a trike. I decided to start a charity and do projects to raise money to buy trikes for people who can’t afford one. I want to raise enough money to donate 5 trikes to others with brain injury. I am happy to say that this summer, I will donate my first trike to someone who had a stroke and has mobility challenges like mine. Doing these projects fills me with a sense of purpose, and it gives me a reason to get out of bed each day, even when my body hurts so much and my brain feels foggy. I know my life can still make a difference for others, and I feel God has a purpose and a future for me.

Gary riding his trike on a trail through the prairie.
Gary riding his trike on a trail through the prairie.

Being physically active is extremely important after a brain injury, and it helps me develop my coordination, strength, and attention skills. But most importantly, it’s fun and helps me feel healthy and positive. I get to be outdoors in the fresh air, and share time with the people I love, my family and friends who walk or ride alongside me. Someday, I hope to have a therapy dog named Turbo, and she can come on my rides, too.

Every day, I remember that even though everything changed after my brain injury, I still have lots of abilities, and I am still me! I love to help people overcome obstacles and have hope, so I am going to use all my abilities to do just that. Be The Mighty!

Gary enjoying a view of the mountains on his trike.
Gary enjoying a view of the mountains on his trike.

The Mighty is asking the following: What was one moment you received help in an unexpected or unorthodox way related to disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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7 Ways to Support a Loved One With Traumatic Brain Injury

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If someone you love is dealing with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), you may want to offer support, but not know how. As a survivor of TBI, these are my thoughts on how to support a friend or family member going through this difficult experience.

Understanding traumatic brain injury begins by thinking about basic things we take for granted each day. You probably take for granted that when you wake up, you will go to sleep that night as the same person you were when you began your day. You thought the same thoughts, had the same feelings, dreams, goals and abilities as you did the day before. You expect that the next day you will still look at yourself in the mirror and recognize your face, body and voice as yours. You know yourself. Whether or not you like yourself, you have full recognition of your body, mind and spirit. You may not be content or satisfied with who you’ve become, but you understand how you got that way, and you think about what you need to do to change, grow and progress.

Now, imagine waking up one day and within the course of your normal activities, a blow to the head removes all that. Imagine your sense of self disappearing like a document in your computer that you forgot to save. You remember it, mostly, kinda. You search for it; you know it’s there, somewhere, but no matter how hard you search, you just can’t find it. So you try to make a new one, as close to the old one as possible, but all the subtle nuances and specific details are gone. All you can do is try to make copy of the “you” that used to be.

You may feel like an impostor. You may feel like you’re living someone else’s life, but it’s your life. You’re lonely for yourself. You feel lost.

Things that were so important before may have no meaning. Relationships that you once treasured can be difficult to connect with. You understand the meaning of the lyrics in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “If You Could Read My Mind” because you walk around like a ghost in your own life “with chains around your feet,” agonizing because “the feeling’s gone and you just can’t get it back.”

Picture yourself getting into your car that only you drive, and suddenly, the seat is in the wrong position. You try the adjust it back to where you’ve always had it, but your most comfortable setting is gone. The steering wheel won’t tilt into place, and the HVAC system no longer has your temperature of choice. The radio has been reprogrammed without any station you recognize. The wipers stick and squeak. The defrost only works on one side of the window. The gas tank is on the other side. You try to drive it anyway, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get the speed up. You can’t see, your back hurts, it’s too cold/hot, the music is too loud, the wipers are driving you crazy, and you are so frustrated by everyone honking at you that you just pull over, put your head in your hands and cry.

Now imagine that car is your brain. That’s TBI.

7 Ways to Support a Loved One With Traumatic Brain Injury

1. Believe them. The pain is real. The fatigue is real. The confusion and mood changes aren’t their fault. It’s an injury. Treat it that way. Talk about depression and suicidal thoughts and feelings. I started a Facebook page that contains articles about TBI depression and other mental health issues.

2. Rehabilitation is vital. And it’s not all the same. Get your loved one into the best program you can find as soon as possible. If you’re in the USA, the Brain Injury Association of America has many resources on their website. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Have your friends and family look for resources and do research for you. My friend Trina Chambers-Bradlee and I started a page to help others find financial help because I had a difficult time finding resources.

3. Not all concussion doctors are equal. Regardless of their status in the medical community, if you feel that the care is unsatisfactory for your situation, find another doctor.

4. An anti-inflammatory diet may be crucial. Fish oil shows evidence of being extremely helpful after brain injury. J.J. Virgin wrote a an e-book about her son’s recovery called “Walking Hope” in which she outlines how they used fish oil in his care. There are many functional medicine doctors and books online with more information about diet.

5. Join support groups. Whether they are in your rehabilitation center, online or at the hospital, support groups are vital to understanding TBI. Don’t try to get through this alone. Support groups will help you deal with all the things that the doctor doesn’t know or doesn’t have time to tell you.

6. Don’t give up. The more tools you put in your toolbox, the better you’ll be able to handle what’s happened. The more help you get for yourself, the more you’ll be able to help your loved one.

7. This is a life-changing event. However, there is life after TBI. The more you understand that you now have to put in extra effort for your loved one, the more enrichment you’ll both receive. Learning about TBI and experiencing it is like learning a new language for both of you. Think of yourselves as if you have suddenly been thrust into a new, strange country. The more you learn and adapt, the more opportunities you’ll have to rebuild a successful life together.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why My Brain Injury Has Nothing and Everything to Do With My Life Now

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I was in a serious car accident 11 days after my 18th birthday in 2006. I had a brain injury, and spent six weeks in rehabilitation. I’m fine now.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a while, so I figured I would start with the facts.

On the one hand, my accident has absolutely nothing to do with my life now. It almost feels like it happened to another person. On the other hand, it has everything to do with my life now.

Because of my accident, a few things happened:

1) I got a brief taste of what it was like to live as somebody else.

2) It helped me be myself more fully, or it turned me into myself.

3) I decided there was no way I could continue to live in the town where I had grown up.

After my accident, I was unconscious in the hospital for 10 days. The doctors told my family that in addition to a broken collarbone, tailbone and pelvis, I had a moderate brain injury. When I woke up, the injury was downgraded to mild, but I still had to spend the next month in rehab to relearn some physical and mental skills.

In rehab in Atlanta, I met people with stories of trauma that had a major impact on me. There was my roommate in the inpatient facility who had been a college freshman until she was thrown from a car that her friend was driving. She lost the ability to walk, eat on her own, or communicate verbally. There was another girl who had escaped Hurricane Katrina only to have a serious brain injury a few months later.

This was my first encounter with people whose injuries were more serious than mine, and most of them had a long road ahead of them. I felt like we didn’t really belong in the same facility — as in, I didn’t belong. It was here that I understood the true meaning of empathy for the first time.

The accident also affected my personality in subtle ways. When I came back home after the accident, I acted older. More serious. Probably less fun. Less tolerant of large, loud crowds of people. Are these characteristics, most of which I have today, a result of the effects of the accident on my brain, a result of experiencing a trauma, a natural consequence of growing up, or a little of all three? I’m not sure, but I know that when I came back from the accident I was different.

Finally, my accident made me 100 percent certain that as soon as I could get out of my hometown, I was gone.

Jackson, Tenn. is the kind of place where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. My father was a professor at a local college and a columnist at the local newspaper. My siblings and I had gone to multiple schools and participated in different activities. We were well-known in town.

After my accident, news spread quickly in the way that it only does in a small town. All of our family friends showed up at the hospital, prayed, sent flowers and gifts, gave money, and were generally amazing.

But the result of so many people knowing about the accident is that my life came to be defined by it. Not by people who knew me personally, but by friends of friends and old classmates and acquaintances and random people in the grocery store. Because of my accident, I didn’t go away to college like I had planned. Instead I went to the local college, and this of course meant that it was even harder to get away from what had happened.

The first couple of years after my accident, people I didn’t know would routinely try to talk to me about it, against my will. A memorable example: In the college dining hall, an acquaintance asked me if I had any “effects” (as in mentally) from the accident. What do you say to that?

People’s responses to my accident show some of the best things about living in a town where everyone knows everyone else. In a small town, you are known. You are cared for. But because of the accident, I decided I needed to live someplace where I could choose to be anonymous.

I was back in Jackson last year for two weddings. One stranger at each of these weddings brought up the accident to me. “Weren’t you the girl..?” Remember this is 10 years after it happened. “Yes,” I said, and smiled.

So this is my story. I don’t talk about it much. I doubt most people who know me now have ever heard me mention it, and you probably won’t. It’s not that important, but in a way, it is.

I have a scar from the accident on my left temple, where broken glass had to be removed. Though I always cover the scar with makeup, I’m proud of it, too. It shows where I’ve been. I earned it.

Follow this journey on Lovely Introspection.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Why a Joke Made at the Drive-Thru Wasn't Funny to Me as a Brain Injury Survivor

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“First time drive-thru user?” he yelled. He burst into laughter, and I saw the rest of the crew laughing behind him.

I had just pulled away from the drive-thru after paying, and noticed I had only one of the two items I had ordered. When I realized my mistake, I backed up to retrieve the rest of my order. That was the response I got.

No big deal, right?

No, it wouldn’t be a big deal if I wasn’t a brain injury survivor who doesn’t venture out to get a latte and breakfast treat more than once a month. It’s actually a very big deal for me to drive up and use an intercom to order. But it’s better than the alternative of going into the store and trying to withstand all the noise.

As a consequence of my brain injury, I have the typical reduced cognitive function. I also have hyperacusis, which is an abnormal sensitivity to everyday sound. The injury also exacerbated the auditory processing disorder I have lived with all my life. Together these things leave me with an oppositional relationship with sound. I have great difficulty understanding speech in environments with background noise. Even the effort it takes to extract meaning from speech in quiet environments leaves me fatigued and confused. I only use the phone for emergencies, as gathering meaning without the benefit of visual context clues is almost impossible for me. I can’t enter a business that plays music without wearing noise canceling headphones, and even then sound seeps through and I can become overwhelmed and have to leave before I have completed my shopping. Get-togethers with more than a couple of people are a thing of the past. I can’t sort out multiple voices speaking.

Like lots of people with invisible disabilities, I am sometimes regarded as a source of humor. At other times, I’m a source of pity. Most often I’m a source of disdain for people who label me a faker or scammer, especially in doctor’s offices when they see a young-looking, able-bodied woman pull out a Medicare card.

All of this hurts.

I am trying the best I can to move forward with my life. I have a husband whom I love very much. I have friends I love, who love me in return, even if I can’t talk to them on the phone. I am not an unhappy person. I have rescue animals that mean the world to me. I have my writing and my quilt making. I have worked very hard to salvage a life after this setback. Why on earth would a thoughtless person try to take away the joy I have done so much to cultivate?

Because people think thoughtless equals harmless. But it doesn’t.

I smiled at the man at in the drive-through who had shouted the insult. He didn’t mean any harm, I knew that. He was just having fun at work. But my smile had a hint of shame, and it turned to small tears as I drove on to my doctor’s appointment. To that young man and all of the others who have caused hurt without thinking: I forgive you. And I implore you to please give more thought to the impact your words may have.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When a Man Went to Great Lengths to Help Ease My Migraine Pain

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The utility company. We’ve all had our bad experiences with rudeness, long holding times, waiting for them to show up to turn the service on or off. Perhaps there was a dispute over a bill. We take our utility services for granted, and we fall completely apart and start complaining when we lose them. We are the public consumer, ungrateful, impatient and irate. Based upon the news, at least, this is how I think we must look to the utility company.

But I have a different story to tell. It is about the water company and a man named Tony. This summer, the water company decided it was time the neighborhood had its water lines replaced. This meant ripping up the street with huge, extremely loud machines. It was going to take the spring and all summer. For most of my neighbors, this was an annoyance. For me, it was agony.

Your see, I have a brain injury and I suffer from constant migraine pain. I have a sensitivity to sound. No, let me correct that. Sound, like that from construction equipment, is nothing short of torture. I go into spasms, and my head feels like it is going to explode. I have had to endure noise in my neighborhood that actually made me feel I was going to die from the pain-inducing sound of motors.

I’ve hidden in closets, cowered in the basement, and huddled in the bathtub. I’ve used all manner of earplugs and headphones and taped pillows around my head. When I knew it was coming, I left and went to my mother’s house. But once there, it offered no guarantee I would escape the professional lawnmower service.

So, when the water company showed up, my husband and I become greatly concerned. “What were we going to do?” My husband decided to call the water company to find out what their schedule was, and more importantly, how to deal with the noise.

We were prepared to get little concern or help. But that was not the response we received.

My husband talked to a man named Tony, who immediately got on board with our situation. Not only did he have sympathy, he was empathic. He made arrangements to call my husband every step of the way to keep him informed as to where they would be and when and for how long. He also called all the contractor’s involved in the project and told them they were to keep us informed. They did.

When he went on vacation, he had his replacement call. Whenever they pulled off the job to go work somewhere else, Tony called. When they had problems, Tony called. Whenever there was any news of any kind, Tony called. We have a water treatment system in our house, so when they flushed the lines, we had to put in all new filters. He knew this, so when the time came, Tony called.

They started work at 7 a.m., so this required us to get up at 5 a.m., get me packed and ready with everything I need for the long, 14-hour day until my husband could pick me up and take me home, where I would collapse into bed, to do it all over again the next day. Every day, my husband would call from his job site and say, “Tony called,” and give me the update.

I spent most of the time lying on my mother’s couch with ice bags on my head. Sometimes, I would sit in the chair. And since I am also sensitive to light, she had the curtains closed and blankets over them. She had to awaken at 7 a.m., so this required much adjustment on her part as well. We have great love between us, so she was happy to help.

It took a long time, and tomorrow it comes to an end. And Tony will stop calling.

How do you thank a man for going to such great lengths? Had he not called, we never would have known when or if they were coming and our life would have been well beyond the threshold of how much I could endure. Even with all the calls, I had many trips to the headache doctor. It was no easy task for any of us. And yet, I ask myself, “How many Tonys are there in the world who would take so much of their time and go out of their way just to ease the suffering of one individual?”

He was always professional, he never complained, and was always ready to go above and beyond the call of duty. Just one brain-injured woman, no one important to warrant such celebrity-status treatment. And yet, even so, Tony called.

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