It would be easy to make this a simple feel good story because, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it is. Laura Perry could be dead, after all, or a vegetable — that’s how bad the accident was. But instead, she’s very much alive and as far from a vegetable as any of us. Though she’s still recovering, she’s a thriving, vital, contributing member of society with an infectious smile, a gregarious laugh and such a total lack of guile that you can’t help wanting to be around her.
But while it may be, around its edges, a feel good story, at its core it’s something more, something deeper.
The accident she’s still recovering from — it was in 2003, and if you ask her what she had for breakfast, she won’t be able to tell you.
When Laura’s Ford Explorer hit that patch of ice near Bush Field nearly a decade ago, she was a marketing professional and a fiancé. After the accident, the job went away, as did the fiancé. Brain injury is a game changer for everyone. It rewrites the story, manhandles the plot and sometimes it messes with the casting.
Because she now has a memory problem — short term, mostly, but long term, too, as well as some problems in organization and setting priorities — it’s tempting to think of her as an innocent child protected by her disability. That memory problem should be insulation, right? A firewall between her and those sad and uncomfortable reminders that things haven’t ended up the way they were supposed to.
But let’s not be romantic about this. As bright as her smile and as sunny as her disposition, she is very much a living, breathing woman. Make no mistake — when she falls upon the thorns of what her life is now, she bleeds.
A month or so ago, she went to Lexington, Virginia, to attend her 15-year class reunion at Washington and Lee, where she graduated with a journalism degree.
The fifth year reunion was before the accident. The 10th was after, and she went to it with her sister, Beth, who was in the class two years behind. That worked out okay because they shared a knowledge of the place and she was her sister. For this one, however, Beth was busy, which meant she had to go with her mom.
“It’s embarrassing to go to your 15th reunion and have your mom drive you up,” she says. But seven and a half hours on the road is a long time, and although Laura had begun practicing driving again, that was just too long and too far to go it alone.
More than the embarrassment, however, she came back recognizing the widening gulf that’s growing between her and those lifelong friends.
“Everybody’s just in a different part of their life,” she says. “That’s kind of what the hard part was — everybody’s not only married, but they have kids and they’re dealing with things like that. I’m not on that same playing field, so it’s a little hard. I don’t want to be always talking about the same thing — my brain injury recovery.”
But when you have a brain injury, it can consume you, and being consumed by a disability makes it easy to be defined by it.
“I’m Mike, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m Laura, and I have a brain injury.”
But here’s the thing — Laura doesn’t want to be defined by her brain injury. In fact, she rebels against it, and unlike Mike, who some would argue needs to be defined by his alcoholism lest he take the Nestea Plunge right into it, she doesn’t need to be. Not at all.
When Laura came to volunteer at the Metro Spirit a few months back, she was game for anything, but often confused. She would arrive very tentatively, and if someone wasn’t there to direct her back to the writer’s room, she would just sort of stand there in the lobby, looking at the walls as if she suspected she might have gone into the wrong office building.
When she’d leave, someone would have to direct her to the door.
Since then, she’s become more familiar with her surroundings and more confident of herself within them. She’ll crack jokes — often about herself and her memory. They’re always funny. She recognizes the staff, and if she doesn’t immediately know them by name, she at least knows she’s interacted with them before.
And after helping with some research projects, she’s become an actual contributor, first with a shared byline and then a full byline of her own.
A byline is a big thing for any writer. It’s validation that what you’ve done has been judged worthy of being read by others. Though it’s your name, a byline is really the publication’s seal of approval.
This issue she has a full-fledged news story to go along with her contributions to this feature, not to reinforce the feel good nature of the story, but because it was a timely story and one she was well suited to tell.
Yet even her success with writing hasn’t come without a struggle. She was offered her first real writing assignment, a We Recommend DVD/Netflix review, a couple weeks ago, and she accepted it with enthusiasm… then spent the next 20 minutes calling her mom and her sister asking what movies she’d seen.
For the record, Laura loves movies — she used to be one of those annoying people who can recite all the good parts immediately after the credits — but as much as she loves them, they’re not easy for her to hold onto now.
“Her memory for events and stuff is kind of like Swiss cheese,” says her mom, Betty Perry. “There’s a lot of it still there, but there are big holes.”
Betty has had a crash course in traumatic brain injury, and talking with her about Laura is very much like talking with a doctor.
“The worst problem was she had a subdural hematoma,” she says. “That’s where the blood collects between the dura, which is the covering of the brain, and the skull. All that blood accumulating pushes the brain stem down into the spinal cord, and that causes damage.”
Then, a couple of days after surgery to repair the subdural hematoma, Laura had a stroke.
“The doctors said that people with the injuries Laura had — 99 of them die,” Betty says. “Laura is Number 100.”
But if you had to pick somebody to have such a terrible thing happen to, Laura is the type of person to survive it — literally. She’s a female with a Type A personality, and statistically, they’re the ones most likely to survive. Besides that, Laura’s a lefty, which means her brain is wired differently. Had she been right handed, she would be in a very different place right now, slurring words and having a hard time coming up with the right ones.
That’s not to say she hasn’t had a struggle or come a long way. After the accident, she had to relearn the basics — the how to swallow, how to eat and how to talk basics.
“If you could have seen her,” Betty says, “you wouldn’t believe where she is today.”
She is where she is today because of her onboard resilience, but also because of lots of therapy and lots of love and attention.
“She is a testament to the power of having high motivation, a great family and a community of resources that get behind her,” says Dr. Leila Hartley, her speech-language pathologist/cognitive rehab specialist.
Laura graduated through programs at Walton Rehabilitation here in Augusta, then Shepherd Pathways in Atlanta. Once a week, every week, Betty would drive Laura to Atlanta for therapy, where Hartley would direct exercises that worked on her weaknesses while providing her with strategies to cope with life.
“That’s what’s hard about a traumatic brain injury,” Hartley says. “It doesn’t totally take way your intelligence, it just means you have deficits in specific areas and that you have to learn to use strategies and the people around you have to learn to set things up for you in a way that you can use your strengths to be productive.”
Those strategies allow her to undertake processes and many-stepped endeavors like cooking or shopping.
She loves cooking, but to do it she has to be very focused and very deliberate, setting out all the ingredients, then moving a Post It note down the recipe so as not to skip or repeat. Same thing for shopping. She makes an aisle by aisle list so she can march through the store without the ‘Oh yeah… I need broccoli…” that sends the rest of us scuttling back and forth.
“I can probably shop quicker in a grocery store than a non-brain injured person,” she boasts.
Her biggest triumph, which she relates here, came recently when she was able to drive herself to work, cutting the most obvious cord remaining to her independence. Instead of getting dropped off and then picked up, she now controls when she leaves and where she goes, though it’s not like she’s going to be buzzing around like a teenager with a freshly minted driver’s license.
“I never just go someplace on the fly,” she says.
While sometimes even freedom has its limitations, it’s nevertheless something to treasure.
Getting My Head on Straightby Laura Perry
What do you remember about your past? Many people say they don’t remember everything, but when you’re talking about the old days with a group of long-time friends, it all just comes back, doesn’t it?
Believe it or not, that’s how it is now for me, too — I just might need a reminder or two to get going. In December 2003, I was in a pretty rough car accident early one morning when my Ford Explorer slid on ice on Doug Barnard Parkway. Thankfully, I was wearing my seatbelt, but I wasn’t wearing a crash helmet.
Obviously, I survived, but my memory has needed lots of nursing to get back to good health. I have a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), sometimes just called a head injury. Awareness needs to continue to build, because nobody ever expects it to happen to them. In 2010, the CDC found that about 1.7 million people sustain a TBI each year. With so many veterans coming back from the Middle East with head injuries, it’s no longer an unusual disability. In fact, our own Charlie Norwood VA has a brain injury rehab program for veterans.
Because we’re all different people, our brains are also different. The way that a TBI affects one person can be nothing like the way it affects the next. Think about it — the brain controls not just memory, but judgment, reasoning, decision making, physical function, even sight, speech, hearing and personality. For me, memory is my deficit — I’m still the same bad singer, loud laugher and goofy dancer I’ve always been.
I remember nothing about the morning of my accident or much about the time surrounding it, but I can tell you all about this road I’ve been down since it happened. Within the last four years, I’ve gotten my own house, a new car and a volunteer job matching my journalism background.
Know that the brain injury recovery road is long and not always straight. It’s like your own personal experiment with doctors to find the right mix of medicine, therapy and personal goals. Obviously, medicine is very important, but the therapy you receive is even more crucial. You are learning to manage your new disabilities and get back to being yourself again. I still attend bi-weekly Walton Rehab therapy group meetings with other TBI survivors. It helps to compare notes and give encouragement.
My family learned that just because some doctors (and insurance companies) say that most recovery happens within the first year, that isn’t always so. I’m still continuing to improve in lots of ways — some subtle and some major.
With my brain injury, I suffered a “bleed” in the hippocampus. It’s kind of like a vault where memories are stored for safekeeping and retrieval. My memories are there, but the vault door is heavy and rusty; a cue or hint may sometimes be all that’s needed to open that door.
Post-surgery, brain swelling further complicated things by causing a small stroke in the occipital region — that’s your brain’s visual processing center. My visual rolodex of memory for faces, places and mental maps was clouded in an instant, making it necessary to develop strategies and depend on technology for assistance. My car’s GPS is a wonderful security blanket, but through the process of my recovery, I’ve also used many other cognitive tools to compensate for my rusty memory.
My first in-home occupational therapist (OT) helped me master a pretty basic task early on — grocery shopping. We went to my neighborhood grocery store and created a grocery list form that was essentially a map of the store aisles. For example, Aisle 10 is canned fruit, cookies, popcorn, crackers and applesauce. My list form has all aisle numbers with what you find on each aisle at the store. That way, when I make my grocery list at home using those headings, I know where to find it when I get there. Grocery shopping is no longer a scavenger hunt.
Another strategy we developed was how to get a handle on friends’ names and faces with a wonderful personal kind of cheat sheet — my own “Friend Notebook.” This was simply a spiral-bound notebook with one page for each friend. I could make any detailed notes about my friends on their own pages — like Kelly is married to Joe, who’s from North Carolina, and they have two children. I could put that all on her page, along with other details and a photo. It was reassuring to know that I had my own personal cheat sheet at home if I needed it. I hope you get the picture!
I think the toughest thing about this is just staying positive, patient and keeping focused that there is a grand plan for me. I’m determined to keep the faith. They say that for those who refuse to give up, the treatment results can be extremely successful. There’s nothing more motivating than that.
Don’t Mind the Commuteby Laura Perry
Yay — I got to work! That’s probably something you don’t often hear, but that’s exactly what I said today. I drove to work on my own for the first time since my 2003 car accident. This is big.
It’s been eight and a half years since I’ve handled the CSRA rush hour, and I’ve lived to tell. Okay, okay — CSRA rush hour? Here’s the deal — I haven’t been able to drive on my own until recently because of my short-term memory challenges, so any driving is major. Patience pays off. Driving again is a tremendous feat.
Periodically, throughout the past several months, I’ve been working with Beth Gibson, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist (CDRS) with Freedom and Mobility, to get reacquainted with getting to and from places I regularly go here in town. We usually worked together two days in a row, a few times per month. My driving times varied between daytime and night time, but all of my training was conducted in local areas I’m familiar with in an effort to be sure I could drive independently in my community. Even though Augusta has been home most of my life, it’s been a little like driving in a new town every day — not having landmarks to know where to turn.
“You’ve gone from being unable to find your way to the grocery store, which is just a third of a mile from your house to driving to work in your own car,” Beth reminds me. “Sometimes things stick. You may recognize a friend’s house or remember that your dentist office is coming up on the left. But other occasions, you’ve had a tough time remembering which way to turn to get to a particular place when you leave your own driveway. I know it can be frustrating.”
Often an occupational therapist (OT), the driving specialist has to determine if the potential driver can make rapid decisions or deal with unexpected behavior of other drivers. OT driving specialists are trained to break an activity down into small parts and devise solutions to help their clients compensate for aspects of the activity that they are not independent with. For experienced drivers who’ve become disabled, it is mainly about being able to compensate for the disability.
For the most part, I was a mix of excited and nervous — just like I was 16 again getting that first license to drive. I felt calmer as I got to know Beth and started to feel sure of myself. Gradually, I soloed, and Mom’s new house was probably the first place I could get to.
Did I feel a sense of progress as I moved along with the training? It’s hard to get a good viewpoint on how well you’re doing when you don’t always remember the details of what you did five minutes earlier, let alone a week ago.
“The time I remember best was when you drove home from your friend’s house over by the Partridge Inn without consulting the GPS, your map or me,” says Beth. “You didn’t go a way we’d driven before and you drove straight home without thinking about it. Once you got home, you were being pretty hard on yourself until I pointed out that you had just done that. You smiled big, clapped your hands and said, ‘Yay, me!’”
This is independence — I can add my trip to the Metro Spirit to my list of other possible driving destinations. Now I can remember that Highland becomes Berkmans, and that although Wrightsboro is a busy road out by the mall, it becomes a two-lane road near my neighborhood grocery store.
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