I am sitting in the hospital’s spinning outpatient waiting room, which reeks of disinfectant and old people. A smell that makes me want to escape to Peter Pan’s Never Never land, so I never radiate that aroma. To make it even better, the people look worse than they smell. They have the wrinkles of a Basset Hound and their faces are frozen in the grimace of smelling something foul.
Bethesda is a serious hospital with only the worst head injuries or people with Parkinson’s disease. The hospital tries to disguise the disheartening situation with an oversized birdcage that a basketball player would fit comfortably in. With all of those colorful cheerful birds, they try to make me forget the depressing reason I am there. The volcanic reds, summery greens, exciting yellows, and calming blues distract me for a minute but looking around, people are being pushed on gurneys unable to sit up or talk, hooked up to IVs. Already these people look like cadavers.
The waiting room is overheated and awkward. The hum of activity makes me cringe in pain. All of the old people are looking at me as if I am their grandchild, wondering why I am in the waiting room with them. On the other hand, the cranky ones glare at me because I am young. I sit restlessly on the uncomfortable bench without talking to them, or answering their unasked questions. I let their minds wander and try to avoid their stares by messing around on my phone, surfing the internet, and playing random games, but it is impossible to escape the situation. My concerned, worn out mom is next to me giving me a pep talk that I am only half listening too. I think she is doing it as much for herself as she is for me. My nicely dressed QRC (qualified rehabilitation consultant) Lori is sitting on the other side of me trying to make small talk, and organizing her files. Lori always asks me specific questions about how I am doing, fishing for information for the insurance company. I feel bad doubting her because she is a nice woman and it seems like she truly cares, but she can’t be trusted. She works for my enemy, worker’s compensation, after all.
The overfriendly woman at the check-in desk finally calls me back. I stumble along with a familiar nurse like a drunk during a sobriety test, vertigo taking over. The nurse checks my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, but the worst is my weight. I couldn’t care less about how much I weigh, but the way they collect the measurement is humiliating. The nurse sits me down in a chair as if I am incapable of standing. The chair has foot pegs she insists on putting out. I feel like I am in a straightjacket, strapped down, and powerless to function on my own. What makes it worse are the elderly people wheeling past me, internalizing their judgment. I know they are thinking, “What could possibly be wrong with that young girl, she looks fine.”
Finally, the measurements are collected and the nurse leads us back to the exam room. It is exam room four. I am always in four, with its bright lights that hurt my head and barren cream walls. Entering through the wide door, I trudge to the well-known table with two chairs on one side, and one on the other. Lori politely asks the nurse for another chair for another chair as she always does. I brace myself in my straight-backed seat while trying to control my ADHD like wandering thoughts and constant fidgets. While uneasily waiting, I talk with Lori about medicines, possible treatments, and outcomes of the appointment. The doctor comes in later. He is always late.
The robust Dr. Britton saunters into the room and sets himself down with authority on the other side of the table, the side with all of the mysterious cabinets that hold all of his medical secrets. The doctor goes over social formalities because it is what doctors do. I should know, I have seen close to fifty by now. Britton asks me how I am doing, which is the same as always; I am in a lot of pain and I feel slow. We go over the medications I am on, and he decides to start me on another new experiment. The previous five have failed miserably so this next one must work. All of the drugs he puts me on are to manage the pain, but they only shrink my cognitive performance. Prescription painkillers don’t even take the edge off.
The doctor reviews my neuropsychology exams with me; Lori is taking notes the whole time. He points out where my areas of cognitive deficits are, and areas of brain function that are severely impaired. He tells me that I do not have a mild traumatic brain injury a.k.a. concussion, but a moderate traumatic brain injury. He tells me that I cannot lifeguard anymore because of the cognitive deficits as well as the pain it would cause my neck. He pauses for a moment, and tells me I will NEVER get my old self back. After my brain hit the inside of my skull the neuron pathways ruptured, and will never reconnect the same way, if at all. After the atomic bomb he just dropped, Britton tries to console me by saying, “On your worst day, you’re still better than half of the population.” As if that is supposed to make me feel any better.
My thoughts wander back to the event that started this all. It was a sunny, summer day and I was going to work at Valleyfair Amusement Park in Minnesota. I worked as a head-lifeguard and we had a new round of lifeguard training beginning that day. I arrived at work around eight A.M. to help with training. My group of newbies were working on rapid extrications out of the pool (if someone is unconscious you have to get them out quickly in case you need to do CPR or rescue breathing). The trainees correctly got me onto the backboard from the pool. There were two of them, one on either side of the backboard, each holding the head of the board with one hand, and gripping one of my wrists with their free hand. They proceeded to pull me from the pool this way, with the foot of the board on the ground, and the head of the board about two and a half feet off the ground. Next thing I know, I came-to with a headache. Those idiots had dropped me! I took Advil immediately and worked the rest of the day until about nine P.M.
I woke up the next morning and almost fainted. I haphazardly took a shower, praying the whole time that I wouldn’t pass out, and somehow managed to drive myself to work, again at eight A.M. I don’t know how I stood up in the shower, or managed to see through the swirling road when I drove. When I got out to the water park, the EMTs checked me out, and said if my symptoms got worse, I needed to go to the hospital. Well, we were short-staffed that day because of the training, so my supervisor told me to hide the symptoms. I worked until about four o’clock until a sympathetic manager sent me home because she said I just didn’t seem right. At this point, I was fully encased in a zombie-like state, so my mom picked me up. I went to Urgent Care and learned that I had a concussion. I thought, “No big deal, it will be gone in a few days. I mean a concussion is just a bump on the head right? My friends get them all the time and they always seem normal and come back quickly.”
The next day when I woke up, it felt like a thousand needles each applying their own sharp force on my eyeballs like pins on a pincushion, trying to force my eyeballs out of their sockets. I could not even flutter my eyelids open to see. My head was a balloon that kept filling with air; I was just hoping it would not explode from the pressure. My neck was like a tube of toothpaste that was almost gone, rigid, and impossible to maneuver. I was scared to death. I went back to the doctor and she said I had multiple cervical strains and sprains (stretched or torn muscle or tendon and stretched or torn ligament tears). I thought, “Oh well those heal quickly if you just ice them.”
Nonetheless, here I am a year later and none of it is better. I lost myself that day in June when I was dropped. My optimistic, outgoing, happy personality is gone, and it will not come back. My cognitive functioning is diminished and my memory is shot, those will not come back either. My hand-eye coordination is retarded, and my impulse control is out the window. I am no longer socially acceptable because that filter in my head that tells me what I can and cannot say aloud, oh yeah that’s spent too. I feel like a boy and a toddler at the same time because I can only feel one emotion at a time and that emotion is amplified by a thousand. I do not understand my personality or the emotions I experience; I am as lost as those around me are. I have food cravings like a pregnant woman, and if the food I want isn’t an option, I won’t eat. My injury is also similar to having mono; I have barely enough energy to get out of bed. Worst of all, I have to suffer alone because no one understands or cares to understand. They cannot see it; they cannot touch it, so therefore it does not exist.
The excruciating pain in my head and neck I experience every day is something I have to suffer alone, the doctors cannot even figure out how to curb it. Along with all of the changes I have to deal with, there is the societal aspect. My friends left me because I’m not myself and no longer fun to hang out with. Society does not sympathize because it’s just a concussion, and not a big deal.
I come back to the room with the realization that I had been zoning out, staring at those cabinets that I can’t quite figure out, when my anxious mom started tapping me on the leg. The news has sunk in and I accept the facts. I know that I will have to continue to suffer alone and I have embraced that. It is easier to suffer than to try to explain to someone exactly what is wrong with me. I have learned not to tell anyone anymore. Each time I begin to tell someone the story, I get my hopes up that this person will be the one who finally understands and this person will be able to empathize with my situation. But, every time they just don’t get it and my hopes come crashing down. So now, I avoid telling people, it’s easier that way. If a brain injury is not something you have experienced or been close to someone who has experienced it, it is easy shrug off.
The doctor drones on about a treatment plan. More physical therapy for my neck for the strain that will not heal, the strain that is pulling my cervical vertebrae out of place creating bumps like tumors protruding out of my neck. More drugs to control the head pain, the pain that makes me feel like my eyes will squirt blood and my head will explode. The drugs do not manage the pain, but I amuse the doctor and accept the prescription slip from his thinning prescription pad. In the background, I hear Lori saying, “You know, I’ll have to get this approved by Natasha before we go ahead with anything…” I ignore her because I have heard it a thousand times. I leave the room wondering if the doctor even understands what I am going through, but knowing I will see him in a couple weeks regardless.
When my faithful mom and I tiredly climb into her familiar comfortable truck, the dam breaks. She is the only one that understands. She is the only one who knows how significant that fateful fall was, my mushy, play-dough brain hitting the cinder blocks of my skull. She is the only one who has been with me throughout the whole thing, from doctors appointments to midnight food cravings, to taking care of me because I cannot move. I will cry to her because she believes me and will hug me tightly to her small frame and tell me everything will be ok, even though we both know it will not. At that moment, I decide to internalize my situation because it is easier to suffer alone than to feel the rejection when someone brushes it off. Maybe someday people will get it, but for now, I will suffer in silence, appearing normal, because that’s easier than being heard, but not understood.