It was snowing that day. Local news in Oregon
said it was the first significant snowfall in months, and reported a handful of other car slippages and accidents.
I still have no memory of the accident -- the police report says my car slipped into the other lane and crashed headlong into another. The people from the other car walked away from the accident -- thank God -- and I ended up with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that TBI is a huge cause of death
and disability in the United States. In 2019, according to the CDC, there were nearly 61,000 TBI-related deaths in the US
If you've had a concussion, you've had a form of TBI. They're caused by many things -- firearm injuries, sports, falls, assaults, and yes, car accidents. My brain -- as my therapists and doctors have explained to me -- jiggled very hard in my skull, causing the connecting fibers to be severed.
This meant that I forgot a lot of things that were so simple and instinctive before -- I forgot how to post a video on social media, I forgot how to make a phone call on my cellphone. All I could do was glare at my phone, utterly baffled.
I live in New York, on the other side of the country. At the time, I wanted to live by the sea after a pandemic year of being locked inside my first-floor apartment with little sunlight.
After the accident, I was in the hospital for about three weeks. When the hospital tried to call my parents, who are from the Philippines, they had to go first through my boss, my roommates, my uncle in Ohio, and finally my mom, who picked up at 2 o'clock in the morning on the other side of the world. My parents got an emergency visa and traveled to Oregon in the middle of the pandemic. At that point, not a lot of people were traveling, and vaccines were a thing of the future, not quite a reality for most people yet -- but the danger was. Both my parents are 60, and if I weren't in a coma, I probably would've told them not to take the risk.
Recovering from a car crash with a brain injury in the middle of the pandemic, very far from home, away from all of my friends and family, was not what I imagined my year would look like. Like, I would say the unexpected onset of a global pandemic last year is a close second, if we were to rank bombshell events. But I remember my friend Jen -- the only friend who was in Bend, Oregon with me at the time -- asking me in the hospital how everything felt and I said that it felt inevitable. The way building blocks can only fall when someone knocks the castle down.
What followed after that was a recovery period I never would have expected. You know how when you break an arm and feel the bones stitch together, it makes sense in a way? There's an end and a beginning, a result you can see and feel. This was, if not the exact opposite, then not quite as straightforward as that. At first, I didn't quite realize there was anything wrong with me, which is quite normal for a brain injury.
Then one by one I noticed the symptoms, and even today, six months later, I continue to discover ways that my mind and body have completely changed. In the beginning, I was in a wheelchair even though I had no physical injuries. I learned it was common for TBI patients to experience a loss of balance and gait. I remember relearning how to walk in the hospital, my physical therapist playing a metronome on his phone to improve my gait from a turtle's pace while telling me to swing my arms. Because that's how humans walk.
My sense of time was completely off. I asked a nurse once, "Does time always move this slowly?" Something, I'm sure, that wasn't covered in nursing school.
And I was always cold. Some TBI patients complain of this because of damage to the part of the brain that controls the body's temperature. I would turn up the heat in my hospital room to boiling, and I was still covered in blankets. A nurse came into my room to ask if I was okay and wasn't I hot?
But all of these were minor disturbances compared to the cognitive changes I experienced. My speech therapist asked me to read an article on facts about heart rate early on in my stay at the hospital, and I could recall none of the details when quizzed about it only a paragraph later. The facts were like water -- slippery, elusive, impossible to hold. And something I needed in my work as a journalist. Worse still -- and it does get worse -- was multitasking. I was speaking with my doctor in the hallway, and two of my therapists went by and said hello. I completely forgot what my doctor told me just because I waved back, my full attention not on the doctor.
It's staggering how much of our minds we take for granted when it's running at full capacity. How much it takes to listen to music while reading or having a conversation with a friend, and still understand the words.
Recovering is not a straight line. Most people never fully recover from TBI, never go back exactly to the way they were before the injury. It depends on so many factors -- how old you are, how your health was like pre-accident, how severe the brain injury is. Some people have difficulty controlling their emotions with TBI, becoming a moodier person or an angrier person, depending on what part of the brain the injury affects. This didn't happen to me permanently, but there was a time that I didn't realize I was yelling at my dad one night. After I realized that, I resolved not to let that happen again. But mood change is not always something that can be controlled. No two people experience a brain injury in the same way.
I spoke with my friends after the accident, and their worst fear -- death was of course the main one, but after that -- was that I wouldn't be the same person. I was afraid of that too, of course, but after surviving, really, what more could I ask for?
If I've learned one thing during this whole experience, it's that the brain is extremely plastic. It means that it adjusts and changes throughout our whole lives according to what we need it to do.
Being all right again -- going back to 'normal,' whatever 'normal' means -- takes hard work, an effort I make every single day. I show up at every therapy appointment and I do all my homework. Nearly all of my therapists in Bend suggested meditation, which has helped stabilize my moods. And I recognize that it's a privilege to have the time off from work to recover -- something not many have. For a brain injury, time and effort matters. At the very least, months after the accident, I can recall facts about heart rate now. And I can call someone on my phone.
I do know that it seems fitting that I feel much more myself in the summer. Seeing New York City come back to life -- watching my friends rediscovering what it's like to dine indoors and go to bars and parties and re-establishing their own new 'normal' -- feels a lot like my own coming back to life.
The ever-present heat of the sun is a reminder that once, I was always cold. And now I'm not.