Brain injuries more common than you think

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Joanie Morris – For the Salisbury Post
HUNTERSVILLE — Nestled down a road that seems dedicated to farms — Black Farms Road is lined with farms and trees — is Hinds’ Feet Farm, a small therapeutic farm designed to help sufferers of traumatic brain injuries.
There, adults who have suffered brain injuries — due to both external trauma and acquired brain injuries due to internal, medical issues such as stroke, tumors or encephalitis — gather to spend their days in various life skills therapies. There they have an oasis, a haven.
There is where Donald Johnson spends much of his week.
From Faith, Donald suffered a traumatic brain injury in February 2008. A combination of life events, drugs and alcohol led him to try to kill himself by hanging.
“My life before my brain injury was very hectic,” said Donald, sitting on a porch at Hinds’ Feet Farm. “I had a very severe form of depression and I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. One thing led to another.”
At the time, Donald was going to school at Catawba College and working part time at Dominos Pizza. The South Rowan High School graduate has what is termed anoxia — the depravation of oxygen to the brain causing traumatic brain injury.
“I had to learn to walk again,” said Donald. “I had to learn how to hold a fork and knife again. I knew how to write, but I had to learn the motor skills.”
Donald doesn’t want anyone to go through what he has gone through as a result of his depression and subsequent brain injury. He spent a month in the hospital, part of which was spent in a coma caused by the attempted suicide.
He’s decided to share his story to bring awareness of brain injuries, what many people call the silent epidemic.
Traumatic brain injury
Every brain injury is different. Some are not traumatic, but others are. Many times, meeting a person who suffers from a traumatic brain injury is not obvious and you’d never know they had a brain injury unless you talked with them for awhile.
Kate, a 34 year old member of the Hinds’ Feet community from Kannapolis, takes her brain injury in stride. She received her injury after having surgery to remove a brain tumor. The surgery went wrong and Kate was left with a brain injury affecting her short term memory.
“I look normal and I act pretty normal,” said Kate. “When I meet someone, I (have to) tell them I have a brain injury.”
For Mike, who was hit by a car at 7 chasing a ball into the street, the disability is more visible.
“I sometimes find when I’m out in public people look at my disability rather than the person,” he said slowly. The two have very different brain injuries, but the same issues — some fine motor skill loss and short term memory issues.
Others in the Hinds’ Feet community have similar stories. Bogdan fell asleep at the wheel of his car in Canada and had a car accident. Bonnie was hit by a car in 1997 while walking down the middle of the road with friends. Morgan was playing dodgeball and suffered a heart attack, cutting off oxygen to his brain. Eric was 14 when his dad fell asleep at the wheel of a family camper on the way back from a backpacking trip in southern Utah. Brian suffered brain tumors. Allie had encephalitis when she was 2˝.
And all have what they call “residual challenges.” Whether it’s a goal to build up strength and agility or to stretch memory, speech development or balance and orientation, all have similar issues they are working on.
For Donald, almost all of his issues are associated with his memory loss. Loura Taylor, Donald’s mom, said Donald is mostly the same from before he suffered his brain injury.
“He’s still very expressive,” she said. “Sometimes he doesn’t react the way he would have and his anxiety level is greater.”
His cognitive abilities — the ability to read, write and learn — were not affected by the injury, though he did have to relearn motor skills associated with them.  
“We were told he would never be able to initiate conversation or activities,” said Loura. “We were told he wouldn’t be expressive.”
Donald is both.
“He’s amazing,” said Loura. “I’m just glad I got a second chance with him.”
Loura credits his team of doctors — family doctor Cecil Farrington and Robert Rhulman, PA; neurologist Dr. Sheila Small Stokes; and psychologist Dr. Lori Spells — with coming together and being a team for Donald rather than just taking a temperature or writing a prescription.
“This team of doctors has really communicated well,” she said. That’s one of the most important things when dealing with traumatic brain injuries, she added. “I credit them with a lot of Donald’s advancement. They research things with us. They are huge advocates for their practices and their patients.
“They make us feel like Donald’s case is important to them,” she said. She also encourages others dealing with traumatic brain injuries — or their caregivers — to contact local agencies to learn ways to receive help.
Agencies that help in dealing with traumatic brain injuries include the North Carolina Traumatic Brain Injury Association, Piedmont Behavioral Health Services, Easter Seals and CAP Care of Rowan County.
With the recent release of photos of Gabrielle Giffords, traumatic brain injuries have been brought into the media spotlight, but before that, knowledge of brain injuries was sparse, said Will DeGrauw, director of the Day Program at Hinds’ Feet Farm.
Hinds’ Feet Farm works to balance life for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
“Once they’re discharged from the medical community, they are discharged home without services,” said McGrauw. “Hinds’ Feet is designed for community integration and inclusion.”
Every day that members come in is a full one. From doing farm chores — checking the vegetable or decorative gardens, rabbit care, cleaning their meeting space and other tasks — to circle time, where members chat and write in day planners to help them remember what they’ve done, the adults are busy.
In addition, certain days denote special activities. Every Monday in June is “Out and About Town” day, where the group chooses an activity off the farm. This Monday, it was bowling. Other activities have included lunch out and movies.
Not every member comes every day. Johnson comes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
“They come on the days that are available to them,” said DeGrauw. “This is a huge need across the country.”
Community integration is used at Hinds’ Feet, to help members optimize their personal, social and vocational competency to live successfully in the community. For Johnson, Hinds’ Feet Farm has helped make a difference.
“They challenge me to use different pathways of thought processes,” said Johnson. As a result of his therapies at Hinds’ Feet, along with Saving Grace Farm in Salisbury, Johnson has seen an increase in his short term memory, an area where he’ll never be 100 percent, but improvement is possible.
“Donald’s doing very well,” said McGrauw. “Extremely well. He’s more engaged in terms of social skills. He’s taken on a leadership role.
“He has a nice balance between our program and Saving Grace,” he added. “For a gentleman who’s unable to go back to work, he’s got a substantial quality of life.”
Making progress
Donald is making great strides in his recovery. Since joining Hinds’ Feet Farm in November, as well as working with the horses at Saving Grace Farm for several years, he’s recovering at an unbelievable pace.
“He’s become much more expressive,” said Loura. “Shortly after (starting Saving Grace) we went to the Outer Banks. Donald came home and remembered part of the trip.”
Those small successes are what make the work associated with traumatic brain injuries — researching new techniques, medicines and therapies, as well as the driving to and from events and programs — well worth it.
“It’s sort of like that movie, ‘50 First Dates,’ ” said Donald of waking up each morning and not being able to remember the day before. “Except it starts coming back to me.”
“On a given day, he can see how fortunate he is,” said Loura. “On other days, he sees his life sort of on hold. He wants to move forward.”