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How a Traumatic Brain Injury Saved My Life

A simple concussion was anything but simple. Recovering from a complex TBI brought me to wellness on a level I'd never known before. 

The Injury

Like so many of us have experienced - a moment has the power to change everything.

On July 15, 2020, the first of a series life-altering events happened. I could have never predicted that life would change so dramatically in a split second. 

My work partner and I were getting a head start on a closet clean-out project. Picture a typical school hallway, stacked nearly to the ceiling with boxes, books, decorations, and an assortment of random middle school materials. 

As I leaned down to pick up a box, an object slipped from being propped against the wall and bludgeoned me on the right side of my head. That object was a circa 1970s metal projector screen, like what hangs in classrooms and teachers pull down as they start a video presentation. Heavy - blunt - painful. 

In an instant, my life changed and has never been the same.

Work as my Top Priority

I'd only started my dream job a few months earlier: finally, after all those years of hard work as a teacher and vice principal, I was middle school principal. I'd been a science teacher for many years - a career that I still love and a profession for which I have profound respect. After working up the ranks in my school district, I'd jumped into this exciting, challenging role during "a year like none other:" the first full school year of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID made my first year as a principal especially hard - and played an integral role in my TBI story.

You see, work has always been important to me. I was raised by hard-working, blue collar parents who were always active, often serving others in our small community. They instilled in me a sense of responsibility to give back to others and stay busy. Professionally, that's what I did and why I think it was easy for me to climb through the ranks into this leadership position.

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Post-Concussion: The first hours

"Good thing that didn't hit you in the head," my vice principal said to me. He was startled by the loud CLANG of the solid metal projector screen crashing to the floor. 

"It did," I said, as I quickly found a box to sit on. I was confused, embarrassed, and in shock. I don't remember any pain. Just awe and frustration as the haze started to settle in.

 

I knew what happened.

I knew I got a concussion again.

You see, ten years earlier I'd experienced my first concussion when I was rear-ended by a close-following driver as I waited to merge onto a highway. When I arrived at work minutes later and told my sympathetic boss what happened, she said simply, "Go home. You need to rest. You may have a concussion." 

The workaholic that I am fought her advice but quickly found that she was right. Though that injury was minor as far as TBIs go, I remember being very foggy for several weeks following that car accident. 

Fast forward to the morning of July 15th, 2020 - as far as days go, it was typical and not remarkably different. Working hard is my natural state. My mind told me that, as the new principal of my town's middle school, there was a lot that I had to get done. 700 families and 65 colleagues were counting on me to steer the ship during this year of distance learning and unprecedented times in public education.

However, within 2 hours of that hit to the head, I was unable to access "education 101" phases that I'd used my whole career. Here I am, the principal of a middle school, and I was at a loss for words. My brain was foggy and my head began to pound. I knew, then, that I had to leave work to rest.

Within 6 hours, an excruciating headache propelled me to visit the emergency room. The medical team was gracious as my emotions ran rampant and I struggled to find words. They launched into a series of scans and tests. Fortunately, there was no sign of internal bleeding or a scull fracture. I had "a good old concussion" one nurse said, and I was given the standard prescription from the ER team: go home, rest your brain, and take some time to heal.

How to Not Heal from a Concussion

Pressure mounted from all sides of my brain:

I had a new superintendent who was watching my every move, because, he reminded me at our first meeting that "the principal's job in the most important job in the district."

I had a new talented team of teachers and professionals who were counting on me to lead our school in unprecedented times.

I had a husband and two little girls who valued the "super mom" I had been prior to the injury. 

I had a mountain of pressure and guilt in my own mind: "I can't have a concussion. I just don't have time for it."

I know I'm not alone in this type of thinking. Since experiencing my TBI, I have met countless others who refuse to take the time to heal from injuries due to their thinking patterns. Students who get off crutches too soon because they're annoying; teachers who come to work sick because it's easier than making sub plans; people who ignore their body's stress signals and push on through.

However, this unwillingness to heal had a devastating effect on my life. I almost lost everything.

The fall of 2020 is an absolute blur in my mind. Public school principals like me invented countless schedules, teachers rapidly adapted to Learning Management Systems like Canvas, schools navigated ever-changing state and health department rules, and families toiled with the challenges of supporting their learners from home. It was a very difficult time for everyone. 

Fortunately, by Thanksgiving Break, I had my first glimmer of hope. It came in the form of wanting to do one of my favorite things: travel. I began to think, "Maybe we should plan a weekend getaway as a family." It was the first moment where I started to feel like my brain was healing and the fog was lifting. Our family began making travel plans for Winter Break and the summer.

Unfortunately, I was not out of the woods yet. In fact, it was about to get much darker in my life.

My Brain Breaks Again: Getting New Glasses

I wear glasses for driving at night. At a routine annual eye exam in October, my doctor wrote me a new eyewear prescription and - poof - I was out the door, just like all the times before. I made no mention of the concussion. In fact, it didn't even cross my mind to mention it. (I will never make this mistake again, and hope other TBI suffers will include it on their medical history, too!) When I received my glasses in the mail, they immediately felt very, very wrong. I felt like I was in a fishbowl, looking from the inside out. For someone who requires a minor correction (so that I don't see halos on the nighttime headlights), this was odd. I got a prescription recheck and the doctor made an adjustment.

January 20th, 2021 - two days into wearing my new new lenses...something was very, very wrong. I called the eye doctor and was met with a statement many of us have heard: "Keep wearing them. It can take up to two weeks for your eyes to adjust." I insisted that something was very wrong and was scheduled to see the doctor within the week.

My new symptoms were absolutely terrifying: constant dizziness, a feeling of falling that made me jerk my head, immense brain fog, and (most scary) spinning vision. My eyes felt as though they were constantly circling inside my vision. This was not visible to others, but was visible and obvious to me. My vision constantly spun in a clockwise motion, at a rate of one circle per 1 1/2 seconds. 

Scared, confused, and still working... In the immediate days following this additional TBI (as I now know it to be), I visited: my primary care physician, an ophthalmologist, the emergency room, a vestibular therapist, a physiatrist, a vision therapist, and a neurologist. I was told all kinds of things including that I was just stressed out and needed to relax, that my eyes were fine, that I may have an autoimmune disorder, that I needed to cocoon, and (worst of all) that "glasses wouldn't do this to a person."

Leaving Work: Navigating the TBI Void

From January 20th to March 18th, I continued working as middle school principal while grasping for answers to my cognitive challenges. I know that doing internet searches for answers is a slippery slope. However, I found both peace and frustration in my nighttime quest to find answers to my symptoms. 

An interesting world opened up to me, thanks to the series of tests that my neurologist performed on my immediately. We spoke at length about autoimmune disorders (read more about my experience with them here). 

Then, something incredible happened. I absolutely believe that my Higher Power, who I call God, speaks to me through countless channels. I've come to rely on this quiet, personal communication and have for many years. 

I finally heard my vestibular therapist when she told me calmly, "I have three clients just like you. Type A, hard working, and dealing with a TBI. I need you to know - the other two didn't stop working, even though everyone was telling them to slow down and heal. They are both now on permanent disability."  

 

My children were 2 and 4. My career was new and I was still young.

She finally got my attention.

That was March 17th, 2021 - one of the hardest days of my life.

 

On March 18th, 2021, I met with my Director of Human Resources - a genuine, kind soul who has always put people first. Through tears of fear and despair, I made the decision to temporarily leave my role as principal, only nine months into the job. The next day, I informed my team - many of whom had no idea I had been battling this. 

In the days, weeks, and months following my departure, I wish I could say things got better. Unfortunately, those days were extremely dark. Fortunately, I was able to sleep whenever I needed it. That meant I was waking at 6AM, napping from 8-10AM, and again from 1-3PM, and from 5-7PM daily. I would spend time with my family from 7-8PM, then sleep the night through and repeat the schedule the next day. 

My brain was exhausted. 

In addition to simply trying to get better, I was met with countless slammed doors and dead ends. Workers Comp is not for workers - it's for employers. To all of you who have ever had to navigate the Workers Comp labyrinth, I'm so sorry - I understand.

 

You see, there are no approved Workers Comp neurologists within a 3 hour drive from my home. And my primary care physician didn't handle Workers Comp cases. I was left without any care, and had to start from scratch with a broken brain.

 

My lawyer was a box checker; I'm not sure who he worked for, but it wasn't me. I payed more out of pocket for my injury than they paid me to settle the case. I could literally write an entire novel about navigating the shameful dumpster fire that is Workers Compensation.

If you are navigating Workers Comp, I'm so sorry. I'm only one person, but I completely understand. You are not alone. 

Hope At Last

On Friday, March 19th, 2021, I e-mailed a letter to all of my students and their families letting them know that I was out on medical leave, and that plans for my temporary replacement were in the works. Surely, theories and speculations surged in the community! I assumed many would think that I was in rehab (which is ironic, as I've been a sober member of a 12 Step Group for over 20 years). One mom (whom I knew personally before becoming her child's principal) sent me a kind text message of support.

Her text was nothing less than a miracle in my story.

You see, I told her that I'd suffered a TBI and she asked me, "Do you know Dr. Plasker?" That was the first time I heard of him. She told me how her son had suffered an athletics-related brain injury and that this doctor brought him back to 100%.

I contacted him quickly though didn't actually meet him until much later - after several failed other treatments with other baffled doctors.

Fast forward to May 1st. A colleague of called me. She had heard through the grapevine that I was out on medical leave from a TBI. She asked those fateful words that I had already heard once before, "Have you heard of Dr. Plasker?"

God is gentleman. He never barges in the door, but simply knocks until I decide to open and let Him in. 

When this second person contacted me without prompting to offer this same doctor's name and their experience with him, I had to listen. 

Dr. Plasker became my healer. At our intake assessment on Sunday, May 2nd, 2021, I finally knew there was hope for me - in my city, within my reach. There was hope that I could be healthy and symptom-free again. He was not from the traditional medical field that had failed me repeatedly over the last few months. 

He was innovative, insightful, and brilliant. He was a functional medicine neurologist.

Dr. Plasker propelled me into a 5-day intensive series of treatments, as guided by a thorough diagnostic exam. His assessments revealed a significant disconnect between my vision and brain, and we launched into exercises to restore this partnership. Dr. Plasker assured me that my brain could heal - that it had the capability to restore itself fully, but needed a little help. 

Every day of my treatment and after, I had new chapters of healing and growth. Through frustration, tears, joy, and exhaustion, my brain slowly began to heal. 

I'm proud to say that today, two years post-injury, I'm nearly 95% restored to my health. I still struggle with dizziness and brain fog at times. Those symptoms are directly related to the food I eat.

When I eat high inflammation foods, my symptoms are awful. When I eat healthy foods, I feel "back to normal." 

Introducing Autoimmune Disorders

During my visits to traditional medicine doctors, one neurologist wrestled with the following issue: "Your symptoms may be caused by a TBI, but it's strange. You were on the path to healing, then had a setback months later. That is not consistent with the typical TBI trajectory. It could, however, indicate that something else is going on."

 

That something else, I deduced, was an autoimmune disorder. She started to talk about demylination and wanting to rule that out. She sent me to a doctor who only sees patients with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  You can imagine my emotions in hearing this idea. 

Through several brain and spinal scans over the span of 2 years, doctors have said I don't currently show any signs of lesions or early MS. However, I threw myself into learning about a world I knew very little about - the world of autoimmune disorders.

My eyes began to open:

Mom has IBS. Her sister had Crones Disease. Their father died of colon cancer. My other grandfather died of Alzheimers Syndrome. Could it be my health was failing?

While waiting for test results to rule out MS, I learned about Dr. Terry Wahls and her pivotal TED Talk entitled, "Minding Your Mitochondria."

 

Be prepared! The next 17 minutes will change your life ~ check it out here:

Food: My Ever-Present Healer

I wish I had found Dr. Terry Wahls' book, The Wahls Protocol, years ago. Within a few short days, I devoured the contents of this book. For the first time, I felt as though all of the conflicting, confusing information I've heard for years about food finally came together to make sense. 

Sugar is toxic

Keto is good

Eat your fruits and veggies

Sleep matters

Exercise is healthy

Eat local foods

All of those important ideas that I've heard over the years were finally woven together in this simple-to-understand book. Dr. Wahls is an expert at taking highly scientific ideas and making them accessible for all of us. 

I launched into the Wahls Protocol that day and have never looked back. 

Food is my ever-present healer and makes the difference for me every day on how I feel. I love to grow my own medicine in my planter box garden. May you find inspiration in the information shared here!

My Brain Now

I'm still not out of the woods.

Every year, I get a brain and spinal cord scan to see of there are any signs of MS, considering how consistently my TBI symptoms looked like MS.

Every day, I wrestle with lingering cognitive effects of my TBI. They are directly related to what I chose to eat yesterday.

When I eat foods that are low in inflammation and consistent with an autoimmune diet, I feel clear-headed and energized. When I indulge in sugar, grains, or other high-inflammation foods, I pay dearly the next day.  I'd like to say that I've stayed on a healthy food path without fail. I haven't, as I'm human and our food industry is not structured for those of us who wish to eat healthy, refrain from refined ingredients, and live long lives free of inflammation. 

However, I am grateful to be alive and to know more today than I did yesterday.

Please share your health story with our community on InstagramHere's to your health and being grateful for what we can still do today. 

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