Stories of Returning to School after Brain Injury
The following are stories of real life survivors of brain injury. Clicking on the titles will take you to their actual story.
Speech pathology and other disability assistance helped her complete her last semester of college. With professional assistance, she persevered and obtained her diploma. Such was not an easy process, including being asked to leave one program. She asked the professor so many questions it became clear she wasn’t understanding the curriculum.
Betty states that she enrolled in Waterford in their Dental Hygienist program and had difficulty because she felt like she knew more that the teachers. She struggled through and was able to complete the course.
“I got really good help in school because I went back to high school and everyone at school helps me. I was in like the LD classroom where it was more one-on-one. I felt really dumb. (But) they helped me a lot (with) my schoolwork and being in school, remembering, writing. I graduated right on time because my high school took my therapy time in the hospital as credits for school.” High school, with its mandated accommodations became an extension of her therapy, but once the structure and commitment of high school was past, her education ended.The structure that comes with high school, getting up everyday at a certain time, having mandated rules that must be followed, is clearly something that is missing after she graduates.
High school was able to provide a structured day for Chris, an important part of her rehab/recovery. She got up at a specified time, went to physical therapy and speech therapy and then went to school. Although Chris remembers feeling “dumb” when she was placed in an LD classroom, she was able to receive more one-on-one attention and the assistance she needed with her school work and other learning tasks like remembering and writing. As a result, she graduated on time. Chris talks about attempting to continue her education by going to a technical school, however, they lacked the structure, focus and assistance she needed to be successful.
When discussing Fred’s progress with his mother she states; “Well and of course now he’s, we’re looking at, going to school and getting his life back on track and, and moving forward. We didn’t hold out any hope for him in the beginning.”
Kelly explains how she got started in massage therapy school: “The vocational rehabilitation, the director, I’m not going to say his name, but he asked me to find a school. Asked if I knew how to find a school. So we went through all this little tug play, verbal play, you know, finding a school. I used his telephone directory, I found the school and I made a call, he said call and make an appointment for us to come and tour the school. I did that. He took me to meet the director of the school’s education director and one of the teachers and they gave me all the applications to fill out. Then we come back to the rehabilitation center and, of course, as soon as we come back in, he knocks on the school director’s, the rehabilitation director’s office door. And she says, and I, no, I’m not going to paraphrase. This is the honest gospel. Kelly continues: “And I said no, no. Are you telling me that because I’ve had a brain injury that I’m not able to learn? I cannot learn? That I have no option to be a massage therapist? Yes. Watch me. And I turned to Mr. Brian and I said Mr. Brian, what are my options now? I mean, I know what I want to do. What are my options? He says let’s go back to my office, he says.”
Kelly states: “They did send me back to school to become a recreational therapist.” What is a recreational therapist? Is that like a personal trainer?: “It is. It’s a person that works with people with disabilities to help them find a better quality of life, and leisure in life through recreation.” So have you finished your recreational therapy degree?: “Yes, I, I finished that in ’07. I got my recreational degree.”
Even though Kelly has never made a gainful living after her severe brain injury, it is worth stating that the cost of the education she has received, is justified by the remarkable recovery she has had. School is one of the best place for survivors of TBI. It is challenging, it provides community integration and provides goals and structure. While it may still be too early to judge whether Kelly will economically pay back the investment in her careers, the investment in her mind has already paid dividends.
Then he went to a community college where he continued to get structure, community integration and intellectual challenge. Less than three years after his injury, he was ready to try college away from home. Yet going away to college is not the same as going off into the â€œreal world.â€ Structure is still there, accommodations available if advocated for. One might think that college is not the place for someone with severe cognitive deficits, but I believe the opposite is the case. Two of my first severe TBI clients graduated from college, after their injuries. And unlike what Lethan said about his high school, they were never coddled. With proper accommodation and planning, higher education can become “graduate cognitive therapy.”
But I had to relearn how to learn. And it was more important to me, like I said before, because I was recreating me, I was building the person that I wanted to be. And I cared a lot more about my grade and about being able to graduate. Where when I first went, it, when I was going to night classes when I was an executive secretary, I wanted to get, get more professional and, and a better degree or, and, and a better job. But I just wanted to get it.When I went back for occupational therapy I had to, to become the person that I wanted to be, I had to get that degree.
Okay, let’s go back and talk about the timeline of your recovery. What you told us was that you were with your parents for about a year after you got out of the nursing home?: “Yes.” Then what?: “Well, in the fall of ’94, I think, I went back up to
school and it was either the fall of ’94 or the fall of ’95.”
The big trend in education in the 21st Century is to make education specific to career and employment goals, with little thought given to education for education’s sake. Yet, Michael has benefitted immensely from the years of education he got after brain injury. One could look at Michael’s work career and say that his education was a waste, a failure – as his education could not move him from the disabled category to the abled. Yet the education made him better, it gave him greater insight into his needs, motivated him to continue challenging his brain and ultimately ensured that recovery was a decades long process, not 18 months. We must do more to send brain injury survivors to college, regardless of whether it prepares them vocationally or not. The best result is to find a place in our employment world where with accommodations, they can provide an economic benefit. But regardless, the process of learning is a viable end result. All brains continue to learn, given intellectual stimulation. The injured brain needs the structure of formal education more than most. We need to be committed to providing that.”
When she’s getting the tutoring, what are the problems that she’s having?: “I think the brain to hand issue; the writing is difficult. She can verbally express what her answers are quite well. Sitting still was very difficult for her, to sit in the kitchen with this nice tutor who has had a son who had a brain injury himself that actually passed away. She had a very difficult time just sitting still and staying put. It was frustrating for all of us and frustrating for herself too because , c’mon. We used to say “well you used to do this. You used to love to read. You used to like bananas” or, you know, whatever the situation was. I had to realize, you know, mourning the loss of the daughter I had. And it took me quite a long time because I wanted that daughter back.”
What kind of accommodations did she need when she went back to school?: “Well we were all pretty silly at that point in time, too. We didn’t realize she couldn’t handle a full day of school and the poor fifth grade teacher when she went back called us and said she you got to, you got to pick her up. I feel so bad. She’s just lost. We got her back in school in September and she was still pacing. She couldn’t sit in a class. She wasn’t doing anything destructive. Of course it was annoying to maybe the other students but then the teacher was great about pulling the classroom up just a little bit so that she had a walk area in the back so she could pace and not be in the front of the class and not interfere with anybody else’s learning and that was my big thing. I didn’t want her to interfere with learning.”
What do you think she needs, as she starts junior college?: “I would like to see a tutor with her. I think she’s going to need a paraprofessional. There’s too much time on your hands and that’s her problem. If it’s not structured and someone isn’t telling her during that non structured time, say like a Lab or something, it’s, it’s not going to happen. But I just want her to know that she’s isn’t done learning.” Even in the world of the relatively more comfortable setting of a community college, we have found that without an aggressive intervention, thriving academically for someone with a severe brain injury can be extremely difficult. Nancy would have the advantage of continuing to live with her parents, meaning much of the challenges of getting to class, staying on top of homework, might be less of an issue for her. But when the protective shield of a school system that had been intimately involved in her recovery is removed, the disconnect between her academic capacities and her frontal lobe deficiencies could derail learning. Her caregivers, her treating doctors, her community must continue to structure her next challenges to makes sure “she isn’t done learning. The longer structured learning is part of her daily life, the longer and better her recovery will be.
It strikes me that you’ve had one sort of bright spot over the last six years which is this return to school, is that accurate?: “Yes sir.” How did you get into this technology center?: “I got into the technology center because I was already disillusioned that a disability was ever going to help me and so I felt like I had to get better to be able to support myself because there was nobody to help me whatsoever. And so I’d gotten involved with that. Automatically, I like cars and I really had the assumption that it’s a two-year course by the time that the two years is up of that course I’ll be better physically and mentally to be able to handle the job and support myself.”