Welcome to the Survivor’s Perspective:
Where our family members & fellow survivors share their stories of survival, strength, and success.
If you are a survivor of brain injury and would be interested in sharing your story, please contact Daniel.Ignacio2@stjoe.org
Headline: “Gratitude for our lives is the most important message I have for everyone.”
Date of Injury: 04/23/2000
Cause of Injury: Traumatic Brain Injury (Motor Vehicle Accident)
Headline: “I feel proud because I’ve survived the struggles and realizing these lessons could only have happened because of my brain injury…”
On Easter Sunday 2000 I was involved in a motocross accident, followed by a coma for ten days. Finally awoke a month later to learn I had survived a traumatic brain injury. I could not put any thoughts together or speak. I could barely move, and all memories were fuzzy. After a few weeks, I began to snap back from that deep and strange reality, but the right side of my body was numb. My speech was slurred, and I would always shake. The real challenges began once I returned home. After a few weeks attempting to pick up where I left off, my wife was acting strange, since she couldn’t handle such drastic change. Instead of supporting me, she packed her things, grabbed my five-year old daughter and moved in with her best friend. I felt abandoned, incredibly alone and sorry for myself. I remember at one point felt completely defeated and began looking for ways to end it all.
The next thing I remember was starring at a mirror with tears drooling down my face and thinking this was the extreme lowest and thought about the other extreme, so I challenged myself to smile no matter what, which I did and realized what I felt was just a decision.
About five years later, I could do certain things well enough it seemed and began to appear normal, so I attempted to go back to work. Before I was an institutional contractor furnishing and installing seating and athletic equipment in gyms and auditoriums so my license and insurances were renewed and everything was back, people around me figured everything was normal. But reality is no fairy tale. Memory problems, patience, and deep anxiety were significant issues. Also it seemed I had nothing in common with anyone and lived in my own world.
I’ve learned that every mind, every situation, and circumstance is unique and unless you’ve been in a similar situation don’t assume. Support systems are critical, family and friends and healthy social interaction are vital to recovery. Exercising body and mind, doing things like bouncing a ball improves coordination, etc., playing board games like chess force critical thinking and is a great exercise for the brain.
My circumstances didn’t allow for much of a support system and suffered the consequences. I’ve talked to many counselors, but none were brain injury specialists. I read tons of information, and still, I am lonely, but I’ve learned a great deal about myself, my tendencies, compulsions and the reasons behind them. I feel proud because I’ve survived the struggles and realizing these lessons could only have happened because of my brain injury. Thank you
Joshua Espejo (Joshespejodds@gmail.com)
Date of Injury: 05/17/2015
Cause of Injury: Traumatic Brain Injury (Fall)
Headline: “I truly believe this injury was a blessing in disguise”
I awoke with bloodshot eyes. The could only hear the pulsating beep of heart monitors and drumming sounds of vital machines. The feeling of sharp pain extended throughout my body. I couldn’t move.
As my eyes came into focus, I saw tubes coming out of my arms. I wasn’t breathing through my mouth but instead, was breathing directly through a hole in my neck. An unfamiliar woman walked by in a bright white outfit. “Excuse me miss, where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital.” She replied, “You’ve had an accident and have been asleep for two weeks.”
When I heard this, my mind started racing and spinning its wheels. I was desperately gripping for traction on what those words meant. I was trying in vain to put the pieces of my broken memory together. Unfortunately, unknown to me at the time, my brain underwent major traumatic injury and was incapable of linear thought. It was so taxing on my mind that, only a few minutes later, I completely passed out.
It was 2 weeks before my dental school graduation. One week before I was scheduled to take my dental licensure exam. It was surreal. It was unexpected. The nightmare has become reality. Something I could not completely comprehend at the time, and something I would not fully come to terms with years later.
My mind was like that of an infant: inquisitive and exploring. I was oddly fixed on the most random things: the irregular beeps of the machines at the hospital, the squiggly green line going up and down on the heart monitor. It was as if I was born yesterday.
I remember vividly, hobbling down the halls with the nurse of the ICU brain and spinal injury ward. Walking past the rooms with people who had their whole upper body casted, howling in pain as they went through rehabilitation. I remember childishly asking my father, “Can we go back in time and change what happened?” After he told me that was not possible, I remember telling myself, “Oh, that’s right. that was silly of me to ask. Why did I ask that?”
I was bound by a cast on my leg and neck for a few more weeks. I was unable to move, unable to change my own clothes, even unable go to the bathroom by myself. It felt as if I was an enormous baby with a mental capacity to match. Immobile and useless, I was left in bed to lie with my own thoughts and nightmares. “How could this happen to me?” I began evaluating my life, my life choices, and whether I was truly becoming who I’ve always dreamed to be: a young and true professional, leaving behind my impact on the world and making positive, profound differences in people’s daily lives.
It was during this time I felt emotions I have never known before: bottomless feelings of hopelessness, deep thoughts of anguish and despair, unbounded feelings of inadequacy, mediocrity, and frustration. It was only through these feelings of darkness and general self-contempt that a dim light of hope shone through the darkness. My innate instincts and perhaps even a miracle of God, came forward and ignited my will to survive. I will persevere. I will overcome. I will conquer this.
I contacted instructors at my school to practice my fine motor skills by drilling on fake teeth. I performed so well that I felt confident enough to ask to work on patient’s again. Granted. Six months later, I signed up and passed my dental licensure exam. The physical healing happened so quickly that it was truly a blur in itself. It was the unseen injury that plagued my existence for the year to come.
People always overlook the mental health fall-outs that are associated with my brain injury. Although it appeared I could walk “normal” again, I could not take the right steps to coming to terms with my new disabilities. Although it appeared my fine motor skills were intact, I could not define who I was because of this injury. Although I could hold a conversation, it was nearly impossible to hold back the crumbling world that I felt inside. The keys to coming to terms with all this mental anguish were simple things, yet challenging to face.
Writing down my experiences helped give me clarity on what I was feeling and how I was handling what I was experiencing. Having the ability to confide in trustworthy people allowed me to verbally portray my plaguing thoughts while releasing emotional distress. Exercise helped the blood flow to my brain and allowed it to heal while relieving the stress that my body was holding back to the public. Developing a sense of gratitude allowed me to focus on the great things that happen in daily life and to learn from the things that didn’t go my way.
Having a brain injury brought me on a priceless journey. It gave me an alternate view of reality, one that’s invisible to the ordinary person. It was not a trip I wanted to take, but it was a trip that became the most meaningful in my life. Although endless struggle was endured because of this event, I am the best version of myself for it. I truly believe this injury was a blessing in disguise, and I have nothing but gratefulness for lessons it bestowed onto me.
Date of Injury: Summer 2015
Cause of Injury: Traumatic Brain Injury
Headline: “I knew that I needed to fulfill my goals to inspire my daughter.”
In the summer of 2015, a large wooden pole flew directly at me. I was told that there was a lot of bleeding in my brain (hemorrhage). After the blood was removed, my intracranial pressure inside my skull was increasing and began reaching dangerous levels, so a young surgeon performed a decompressive craniectomy. When I woke I was a little cognizant and a little drowsy, but I was ready to leave the hospital and return to the life I had abruptly left. Somehow my brain informed me that I got hurt through a dream while I was in a coma. But I didn’t grasp the reality of my injury until weeks later.
Although I was enthused upon waking from a coma, the pain and not getting what I wanted was difficult. I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital to be thoroughly checked. I only used a walker for a few days, but I did need extra dark sunglasses since I had bleeding that made my right eye extremely sensitive to light. They also assessed my capabilities, and to their surprise, I was still able to make a scrambled egg! However, my sense of smell and taste were affected, and to this day, I cannot smell and taste anything “accurately.”
There was a delay in my discharge from the hospital, and although I was eager to return home to continue my life, I was beginning to feel darkness. I had a breakdown, and my best friend was with there to support me, but that was just the beginning of my emotional downfall. When I finally got home, I was still depressed. There were no nurses to help with the difficulties I continued to experience at home; I felt alone. It was difficult to fall and stay asleep, so I frequently woke up unrested – the only thing that told me that I slept was the hours that passed. I was experiencing many difficulties and although asking for help was not my forte, I learned.
The most unexpected struggle I experienced was my emotion. The attention I received from everybody made me feel whole, and when I looked like I had recovered, I lost the spotlight. I started craving and needing company. I automatically felt sad when my friends were not with me. Then I started having this internal conflict: I started thinking that I have nothing to gain from trying to live because I will only be brought down again. I believed that life was futile, so why try.
HOWEVER, another part of me knew that I needed to get back on my path to finish what I had started. I hated living, but I knew that I needed to fulfill my goals to inspire my daughter. I felt so tired since I was going back and forth in my head with my internal struggle and neediness. I did not know what was going on with me. I was crazed with mixed emotion: depression, sadness, loneliness, stress, and misery for no apparent reason.
The best decision I made was to ask for medication to subdue my feelings, and to continue talking to my real friends. My buddy reminded me that being alone is not the same as being lonely. It was an a-ha moment! I needed to be comfortable being with myself again. With the help of a pill, I could focus on this new way of thinking. I’ve calmed down, which allowed me to think. Without all the noise of emotions attached to any event, I have made it back onto the path of looking forward and striving in life.
I’m still learning about myself while managing my emotions. When I ask why this happened to me, one answer I form is because, maybe, what I knew about life and myself was wrong. So, I’m learning and questioning who I was and what I had become. I am not regretting my previous life, but I ask myself “looking at the old me, how should I change to become a better person?” What I take from my injury is that, although my brain is damaged, I still have a mind that functions to strengthen my will to achieve.
Date of Injury: 01/07/2008
Cause of Injury: Traumatic Brain Injury (fall)
Headline: “We are blessed with hardships to humble us…”
In 2008, I was pushed off a three-story balcony. Left lying in the soil, unconscious and seemingly lifeless, I was eventually picked up by emergency services and transported to a nearby medical center. While I stayed unconscious for the next three weeks, my family and friends waited anxiously day in and day out, even when a doctor informed them of my permanent vegetative state (or so she thought). I was 18 years old.
Awaking from a coma, I had no control over my body; I could only blink my eyes. I could not lift my arms, move my head, or speak. I did not know what had happened, where I was, who were the people pushing my stretcher, or why my body would not work. I was trapped in a broken shell with many exploding emotions and no way to express them.
I spent all day forcing myself to go to sleep, desperately hoping that I would finally wake up from this nightmare. As I sat in my wheelchair, I developed a deep appreciation for the daily abilities that I used to take for granted and an even deeper frustration that I could no longer perform them. Over the next few months, I relearned how to walk, how to talk, how to eat, and how to use the bathroom (among many other things). I thought I had overcome the worst, but it was only the beginning.
After returning home, I slowly started managing my physical ailments, but it was the devastating mental symptoms of traumatic brain injury that completely thrashed my identity, self-esteem, plans, and hopes I once had for my future. I could not maintain focus; my attention span was that of a child; I could only remember events for minutes at a time, and I developed an eating disorder. I was constantly depressed, frustrated and angry. So angry. I did not know it at the time, but I was mostly upset with myself for wanting to give up. I wanted to die … but I would have always questioned what would have happened if I had tried.
I refused to live a life of regret. One day, I cut my unkempt hair and started running. I began a diet and an exercise regimen while reading for my school courses. I kept pushing myself until I cried, exercising until my feet would bleed, studying until I fell asleep on my desk, and praying until I had nothing left to say. An adage came to me in prayer that put my disability into perspective: “We are blessed with hardships to humble us, as the meek shall inherit the Earth.”
Having a brain injury has taught me invaluable things about how to live. It is those who are broken who truly know the value of being fixed. It is during the times that we have less, that the little bits are cherished. When I took my first step away from my wheelchair unassisted, I felt magic: left foot — magic, right foot — magic. When I first started remembering the names of my family and dearest friends — magic. When I could remember the last time a friend and I were together and could even remember the last joke that we shared, I cried.
Every day since then has been magic to me, and, ultimately, I realized what that adage meant. I inherited a beautiful brain-injured perspective. I inherited a lens that allowed me to experience a profound sense of appreciation: to not concern myself so much with the pursuit of happiness, but with the happiness in my pursuits.
I wish you the absolute best of luck as you approach the hardships in your life; how you respond to them could be a reflection of who you might become.