Loving My 'New Mom' After a Brain Injury Changed Her Life
July 17, 2012 is a date that is forever etched into my permanent memory. I will never be able to forget my dad driving out to the week long summer camp I was attending to tell me my mom’s routine kidney stone surgery had ended in sudden cardiac arrest. She had been fine the night before when she talked to him, and fine only 10 minutes before when she sent me a text message saying she would come pick me up from camp on Sunday. My dad told me a short few minutes later, she had to be resuscitated, put on life support, and the doctors were saying she would not survive. I was 12 years old. I couldn’t even begin to imagine my life without my mom. I was terrified and had no idea what was about to come.
Two weeks later she came out of her medically-induced coma and woke up. Four months later she came home from the hospital. Despite this incredibly happy news, we were left completely unprepared for the fact that my mom had sustained a moderate-severe anoxic brain injury from the lack of oxygen during her three cardiac arrests. The woman who came home from the hospital wasn’t the mama who had raised me for 12 years. I didn’t know her nor recognize her. Although my mom was alive, she was still gone. As a kid, I didn’t understand why she wasn’t “my mom,” why she wasn’t the same as she was before.
In the early days, I helped my mom relearn to read, write, walk, talk and eat. She couldn’t do any of these things well when she came home from the hospital. She didn’t know what pizza was or what to do with it. She didn’t understand not to eat the fuzzy part of a kiwi. It took her minutes to come up with a response when we would talk and she would interchange words like pink and fork. She would ask us for a pink with her supper.
Her brain injury caused her to lose three entire years of memory (2009-2012) and to have difficulty with both short term memory and moving experiences from her short term memory to her long term memory. For instance, we may have a conversation and a few minutes later she will have no idea we even spoke. She repeats the same questions multiple times a day, often forgetting she even asked them, let alone the answer. I answer her as many times as she asks, and don’t acknowledge the fact she has already asked the same question multiple times. When she wants to tell me a story for the fourth time, I listen and engage with her even if I’ve already heard it. Her brain injury caused her to lose her math skills, which were very advanced as she was a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) prior to her cardiac arrests. Now she struggles with third grade multiplication tables. Due to this, she cannot work.
As a 19-year-old adult, I have grown up with my “new mom” for seven years. This is what I have learned.
1. Empathy. I learned to be incredibly empathetic and the importance of empathy for those with varying struggles. It can be frustrating for me to have to answer the same questions repeatedly or to show her how to do something again and again, yet at the same time I understand how frustrating it must be for her to need that from me. Anything that is difficult for me is incredibly challenging for her. I also know she is never being malicious or doing something to be deliberately difficult. She is legitimately struggling.
2. Love. When my mom came home a completely different person with a new personality and completely new opinions, views, likes and dislikes, I had to learn to love her all over again. I learned to get to know her without the expectation that she would be the same as she was before. Now I love her unconditionally. My mom is my best friend. We are closer than ever before.
3. Understanding. After mom came home, she burst into tears looking through her closet talking about how ugly all of her clothes were. Her style had completely changed. She has no concept of time. When five minutes passes on the timer she asked me to set, she often tells me it felt like two seconds. She never knows what day it is (either the number or the day of the week). I always answer her and tell her it is OK. I track time when we need to make it to appointments and I get her up in time to make sure she gets to her own appointments. When she sees my close friend who lives a few hours away in person a few times a year, she never recognizes her. She lost all facial recognition with her cardiac arrests. Even when I am with her, she introduces herself to my friend and asks who she is with, “and you are?” My friend is also incredibly understanding and makes the most of it, saying she gets to make a good first impression every time. All of this has taught me to be understanding.
4. Patience. Patience was difficult to learn, but invaluable for mom’s recovery. As she learns new tasks and relearns to do things, her pace is often very slow. Her attention span is incredibly short as well because of her brain injury. Inside her mind, her brain plays “ping pong” with thoughts, as she describes it. This can lead to going off on many tangents and never quite knowing what her original intention was. It is difficult for her to focus. This has taught me patience. Her progress may be slow or stall altogether. I reassure her it is OK and I take the time to help her as many times as she needs.
5. Adaptability. I have also learned how to be adaptable. Mom has many struggles with sensory things, social situations, overstimulation, mood swings, anger, easy irritability and paranoia. She also does not know directions anymore or left from right, so she wears a bracelet on her left to let her know which side is which. She is adaptable, which has shown me how to adapt as well. When we are in a grocery store and she is too overwhelmed by the bright lights and people, she can leave and I can finish the errand. When she has mood swings, plans may be suddenly cancelled. I have learned to stay flexible even though my own personality makes me love routine and organization.
Although my mom is not the same person she was prior to her cardiac arrests and resulting brain injury, I have learned to love her unconditionally and stop comparing her to who she used to be or was expected to be. She is my mom and that is enough.
Getty image by Mangostar Studio.