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Why a C Feels More Like an A to My Daughter With a Traumatic Brain Injury

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“Mom! Mom!” My daughter’s voice startled me as she screamed and bounded up the stairs. “Mom!” she shouted again and again. Was she excited or was she terrified? Yelling is out of character for her, so I quickly set my computer aside and stood up as she hurled into my room.

She’s in her third year of college and was home for Christmas break. I’d felt the heaviness of her anxiety daily since she’d been home as she checked the internet in anticipation of her final semester grades. Inwardly, I was anxious, too.

“My grades came in!” As the words spilled off her lips, my heart accelerated to a pounding, and I steadied myself trying to read her, not knowing whether I would need to console or congratulate.

Semester’s end. No biggie. She’s in her third year at the university. She’s diligent, hard-working and conscientious. She attends class, tries hard, and completes all assignments.

Why would semester’s end produce anxiety in a student like that? Usually, I suppose, it wouldn’t. But we once feared that college, for my daughter, would be a pipe dream, a carrot beyond her reach. Something other people would do, but she would only dream about. She’s 5’8”, slim, beautiful. If you passed her on the street and exchanged pleasantries, you’d never know she’s different. But she has scars no one can see. They’re inside her head, seared onto her brain.

My daughter had a TBI — traumatic brain injury — which affects every fiber of her being, every aspect of her life — physically, emotionally and mentally — every single day.

TBI kills thousands each year. It’s called the “invisible injury” because there are often no visible changes on a person’s outside — no crutches, no wheelchair, no cast, no obvious physical differences — but underneath something is different. It can’t be cured, and many times it isn’t understood.

Traumatic brain injury occurs when a sudden trauma damages the brain. In my daughter’s case, it was a car accident. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year, and 50,000 people die from it annually.

People die from trauma similar to what my daughter sustained. They’re smacked on the head and never wake again. She lived, and for that I’m forever grateful. But 20 years after the injury, she still deals with its effects, and likely always will.

Our story begins when a driver fell asleep at the wheel, crossed into our lane and crashed into our car while traveling at a speed of 80 miles per hour. We had just pulled over onto the emergency shoulder and my husband had gotten out of the car and removed her from her car seat minutes before the devastating impact. We were clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time. My daughter was ejected from our vehicle and lay comatose in the hospital for more than three days.

Everyone feared a parent’s worst nightmare. But she lived. Her future and all of our lives would be dramatically different.

It’s more than 20 years later and she’s still struggling with organizing information, emotional instability, crowds, and social interaction. She is bothered by loud noises, experiences mood swings, fights depression, has choppy, halting speech, trouble with word retrieval, and a host of fears.

By society’s standards, she’s “abnormal.” I vowed never to apologize for who she is. While the accident altered the speed at which she processes information, it didn’t alter her intellectual capacity or her will. My daughter was a strong-willed, exceptionally bright and creative child. Before she reached the age of 2, she could recognize letters and numbers as well as write them. In addition, she could identify colors and solve puzzles. She was clearly artistic. We suspected she might even be “gifted.”

We felt crushed after the accident. It was difficult to accept in the beginning. Our heads reeled as we struggled to understand. But we accepted that our daughter was now different and encouraged her to embrace her strengths. In a society that rewards quick thinkers and academic excellence, often little value is placed on those who work on their own timetable.

Her value didn’t diminish in our eyes. We’ve never expected less from her even when others did: a reading specialist who asked her if she felt “stupid” because she couldn’t read; school systems that refused to give her services because she was home schooled, even though we were entitled to them; a college counselor who tried to convince her to stop at a 2-year Associate’s degree instead of completing all four years for a Bachelor’s degree.

She’s been left out, looked over, and left behind by peers. But she forges ahead.

Twenty years ago, we didn’t have all the information on brain trauma like we do today. Specialist after specialist droned “we don’t have much data on this sort of injury. Most people who sustain an injury like this die.” So early on, I became a fierce advocate for my daughter, reading everything I could get my hands on about TBI. Many times when consulting with educational “specialists,” I was the TBI “expert” in the room.

I designed my own IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and tailored her education to her needs. I had a vested interest in her success and in her happiness. I believed in her, I loved her. I refused to put her into a system I felt would batter her self-esteem and confidence and label her with “can’t’” instead of with “can.”

As I struggled to find effective methods and techniques to bring out the best in my daughter, I shed many tears and spent countless hours second-guessing my decisions. Was I pushing her too hard? Was I giving her what she needed to be successful? Was I holding her back by not not allowing her to work with the educational specialists in the school system? My doubts were compounded by specialists who openly challenged our decision to home school, questioning my credentials and suggesting that I was expecting too much under the circumstances. I believe when you love someone, you don’t expect too much. You evaluate their abilities and you expect exactly what they’re capable of, and you don’t stop until you get it.

She wanted to be a writer and an artist. If a child with verbal communication challenges wanted to be an author, we’d cheer her on. Each school year, I’d start with a careful assessment of her needs, strengths and areas of weakness. We constantly reminded her that just because she learned differently, it didn’t make her any less intelligent. We encouraged her to do her best and were careful not to compare her to anyone else. And in the end she thrived because of it.

“Mom, I got a 79.5 percent in Argumentation and Debate!” she beamed. Argumentation and Debate. A class necessary for a degree in Communication, but a tough row to hoe for a student who’s challenged by slowed processing speed and word recall. I know she probably worked harder for her 79.5 percent than kids in the class who got A’s. (And, I honestly wondered why the professor didn’t give her the half point. But I know that wouldn’t have made her happy if she hadn’t earned it.)

She was proud of her 79.5 percent. And so was I.

“Thanks for all your help, Mom!” she said, referring to the hours of coaching, counseling, encouraging I’d given her throughout the semester.

“I knew you could do it,” I responded with a smile, holding back tears.

Semester-end grades may always elevate my daughter’s anxiety level. As her mom, I am the anchor at the other end, grounding her, steadying her, keeping her on course, and cheering her to success. Her success.

Too bad effort isn’t measured with a letter grade. If it was, my daughter would get an A+ in my book.

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