Family Matters Blog: My Discovery of Mild TBI
By Heather Marsh
Defense Centers of Excellence Strategic Communications
WASHINGTON, July 28, 2011 The phrase, “can’t see the forest through the trees” seems to describe a bout of cluelessness I recently experienced. Or perhaps, the more common “if it was a snake, it would have bit me” is truly the best fit.
Either way, the fact is I work at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury with top subject matter experts in the field of traumatic brain injury, and I couldn’t even recognize that the weird symptoms I had, after a recent good bump to the head, were symptoms of a concussion. How’s that for irony?
Put a name to the pain
In March, I spent about 10 days of feeling a little disoriented and helpless — having no clue as to what was going on with me. After a few conversations with a variety of military health care providers, to include an emergency room resident and former chief of neurology, I finally was able to “put a name to the pain.” It turns out I had sustained a mild TBI as a result of a recent fall — hardwood floor, meet Heather’s face. It wasn’t a pleasant introduction and resulted in five stitches and a severely bruised ego.
With a huge sigh of relief and several deep breaths later, I began my recovery process by talking to friends and family, and combing through resources and facts. The first tidbit that jumped off one fact sheet — courtesy of Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center — was that falls are the leading cause of a traumatic brain injury.
I know much more about mild TBI now, like the fact that you should give yourself a little slack and let your brain heal, which can take one to three months in most cases. But, as my neurologist insists, that doesn’t mean you should stop doing routine tasks, like reading. He reminded me how amazing the brain is and it’s important to keep working it because, in time, it will learn new tricks to help self-correct.
I also have a newfound appreciation for deployed service members who have sustained not one, but multiple concussions, and yet they still continue to put themselves in harm’s way when they’ve recovered. This gratitude was even more apparent during a recent commute.
I was driving home from work one day, not too long after my diagnosis, taking my usual route along a scenic parkway. I drove along my curvy path and watched the sunlight flicker through the trees and shimmer off the flanking river crests — this sounds like a tranquil moment until I mention that the flickering light quickly caused my brain to hiccup and feel overloaded — like someone pushed the pause button. I felt a sudden rush of panic as if I was intoxicated; I felt disoriented and blinded all at once. Luckily, I was able to pull over to the side of the road — thank goodness for a nearby outlet — and regroup.
Almost as quickly as I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be driving, my thoughts shifted to our nation’s warriors. As a patriot and veteran, I feel a connection to our service members and their families frequently. I’ve lived the life and still do as a military spouse. I had visions of uniformed service members and wondered what it must be like to have the responsibilities they have down range. I imagined them walking around on patrol, on high alert, charged with keeping their unit, local civilians and themselves safe in the middle of an unfamiliar, wartorn city, catching glimpses of sparkling metal or debris that just seem “off.”
Sound like an intense scenario? Let’s make it more realistic by mentioning that the group of service members experienced a jarring blast from an improvised explosive device during a convoy to deliver supplies a few days prior. Oh, and it’s the third blast this month. Wow.
So, I’m pulled over on the side of a picturesque road worried about driving impaired while there are men and women, with guns, fighting to keep my family safe who may be experiencing the symptoms I have right at this moment? Again, wow. Another TBI fact: In the military, the leading causes of TBI are bullets, fragments and blasts.
Fortunately, my story has a happy ending, and I learned some stuff too. I made it home safely that day and as I write this, almost all of my concussion symptoms are gone. I learned that people use different words to describe the way they feel, so it’s important to talk to someone who can help decipher when a response or feeling is normal and when it’s not. I also know a lot more about the human brain than I ever thought I would, which is pretty cool.
I’ve found among all that I have learned, the two things I want to share from my experience are:
1) I discovered simply knowing what was wrong with me offered relief and comfort — proof that it’s crucial to talk to others and reach out for help.
2) Because of the amazing people I work with at the Defense Centers of Excellence, things are changing on the battlefield for men and women who experience TBIs. New guidance and research are helping health care providers ensure injured service members get the right treatment at the right time, when it’s absolutely critical to their mission, the lives of others and themselves.
I feel I can’t end without offering a sincere “thank you” to those who continue to fight. I’m thankful for the men and women who sacrifice their lives to fight for freedom and just as importantly, for the people at home who fight to ensure deployed service members, returning veterans and their families have access to high-quality treatment, support and information. Thank you and keep fighting!
(Note: This post originally appeared on the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury blog.)