Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: How I Became a Runner.

It was a clear and sunny morning, Saturday, September 19, 2015, roughly 8:00am. I was stopped at a stop light. There were many people at the bus stop waiting for their morning bus, to the right of where I was stopped. The next thing I knew, I was launched fully across a normally VERY busy intersection in Minneapolis. I don’t remember my car stopping on the other side of the intersection. The back of my head was in excruciating pain. A man came running at me telling me all the people at the bus stop saw everything. The people behind me never even attempted to stop. They ran into my stopped car going roughly 35-40mph.

I was placed in one ambulance. Then, I was taken out and told to get into another ambulance. The woman of the other vehicle was screaming at the police and ambulance drivers, and with how irate she was they didn’t want her near me. I later found out (due to me googling her and finding a newspaper article) she had previously been arrested for heroin and flooding her apartment while she was passed out in her bathtub. This was after I learned she was an uninsured driver. I do not know if she was impaired at the time of my accident. That isn’t what this story is about.

After arriving at the hospital, I had an X-ray and was prescribed some medication. I had been diagnosed with a badly sprained neck. I went home. I know my mom flew in and I was in a lot of pain. This is where it starts to get blurry. I had a follow-up doctor appointment just a few days later, and was told I couldn’t return to work for a few weeks. This continued to happen for a LONG time. My list of doctors began to grow: General Practitioner, Chiropractor, Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Neurologist, and a Neuro-Opthamologist. In addition to my sprained neck, I had whiplash and a concussion. My concussion was then diagnosed as Post-Concussion Syndrome.

I wasn’t capable of working. I wasn’t capable of taking care of my kids. My husband would wake up in the morning, take our kids the opposite direction of his work to childcare, go to work, then return to pick up the kids. I wasn’t supposed to drive. In addition to my brain injury, I had extreme anxiety that every car was going to hit me. I had just gotten new glasses before the accident, my eyes were blurry; letters and objects would go missing from my vision although to everyone else they were still there. The anger you experience with mild traumatic brain injury/brain injury can be insane. These bursts of anger come out of nowhere for NO REASON. Bless my family for sticking by my side. My taste-buds changed; I went from not really caring for spicy food to wanting hot sauce on ALL of my food. I couldn’t handle loud noises or any smells, which made life with two small children very challenging. Lights made me sick; our house was mostly made dark. I was instructed to sleep. My brain needed to rest. I wasn’t supposed to read, go on the computer, or watch TV. My doctor’s said I could listen to podcasts, but the best thing for me was to sleep. I became very depressed. I had 2 very small children and I wasn’t physically or mentally able to care for them. My life had been taken away from me, as I knew it.

BUT because of my 2 children, I fought. I was going to try anything to be there for them. Most of what I tell you, I had either journaled or have seen in doctor notes. I don’t remember almost 1.5 years of my life, post-accident. Things I previously took for granted became very difficult. I had just turned 30, but my fine motor skills scored me in my late 50s. I had to wear sunglasses in any light, including inside (per doctor orders). After every doctor appointment, I had to sleep. I was so physically exhausted, I was asked a few times if I needed to lie down during my appointments. I got special prisms for my glasses because my eyes no longer focused together. I decided to cut off the rest of my hair because the weight of my hair was too heavy on my neck. I had lidocaine injections in my shoulder, neck, and occipital (lower quadrant of skull). Once, my childcare fell through and my kids had to come with me for my injections. I thought they would be terrified of seeing mom with needles being injected into her skull. Boy was I wrong. I had to stay as still as possible as my children ran around the doctor’s office.

IMG_8835
This is the day I almost passed out getting out of the MRI.

A few times, I left a grocery cart full of items and ran out of the store crying because I couldn’t handle everything going on. Have you ever really realized how many different things go on in a grocery store? SOUNDS, SMELLS, LIGHTS, PEOPLE…. It was too much for my brain to handle. I didn’t try again for a long time. In addition, I couldn’t lift my kids. Because of my sprained neck, I wasn’t physically able to pick up my children for a long time. My daughter had just had her 2nd birthday a month before my accident and I couldn’t pick her up. I felt like I was failing as a mom.

However, my MANY doctors collectively worked to get me better. I had many exercises I had to do to retrain my brain. I also had many exercises I had to do to strengthen my neck. Physical Therapy had me start walking on a treadmill (this was one of the things I had to do to help retrain my brain); the goal was to walk 5 minutes each time I went (generally a few times per week). The first couple of weeks my heart rate got too high, too fast, so I would only last about a minute. Mind you, I was walking at like the slowest pace possible, and my heart rate would spike into the 200s. Slowly, I walked more. I rested more too. Any walking made my brain very, very tired.

Then, I set a goal for myself. I wanted to aim for a 5k if I ever got better. I tried and tried and tried. And I signed up for my 5k, and then I got sicker. See, with mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) there is not a timeline of when you will get better or how your symptoms will change. Feeling like I moved 1 step forward would then take me 5 steps back. I wasn’t able to participate in the first 5k I had wanted to do, but a year after my accident, I was able to complete my first 5k (with a mixture of walking/running). I was so proud of myself, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I was still having symptoms from PCS (Post Concussion Syndrome), migraines I still had daily, and my short-term memory still wasn’t back. My heart rate was also very troublesome and made me incredibly dizzy. I tried to look at any improvement as a milestone. I bought a new running watch, a Garmin Forerunner 235, to keep track of my heart rate. I was on many medications for a long time (all which came with their own side effects); I was on painkillers, muscle relaxers and nerve pain meds. The medications made it tricky, so I would run when I felt good, and if I didn’t… I wouldn’t. I tried not to get too worked up about how fast I would run. I’ve had a bad foot my whole life, so running as an adult was a surprise in itself (for that reason alone).

After my 5k, I was super intrigued by the running community, and I decided to volunteer for the Twin Cities Marathon and 10 mile race. I woke up before 5am to go watch people I didn’t know run. THEN, I did the unthinkable… I decided I would set my next goal at a ½ marathon. I ran a 10k then a 10 mile race, and roughly 9 months after my first 5k I ran my first ½ marathon. My foot didn’t hold up very well in the ½ marathon, but I had finally been taken off of medication and I wasn’t getting as sick.

This past year, I took some time off of running to get some varicose veins removed (much longer recovery than I was initially told). Then, this summer, I decided with my love of lotteries to put my name in the drawing for the Medtronic Twin Cities 10 mile race (of course since I hadn’t been training AT ALL). Both my husband and I got in. We run in 2.5 weeks…almost exactly 3 years after my car accident. I decided to share this story with you because I felt ready to release a VERY difficult part of my life. Invisible illnesses are horrific for everyone. I KNEW I WASN’T MYSELF. Others can TELL you aren’t yourself, but… it’s hard for everyone to adapt or accept the changes. I hope me sharing my story helps people acknowledge how serious concussions truly can be. My car accident caused my 4th KNOWN concussion, possibly why it turned into Post-Concussion Syndrome. Getting rear-ended made it so I don’t really remember 1.5 years of my life. BUT I am a success story. My motor skills are back. I can be in bright lights, and my prisms help my eyes focus. I use hot sauce still, but not a bottle a week. I don’t freak out over the tiniest things (I mean, no more than a normal person and definitely NOT at the level I once was). My headaches …. OMG…the daily migraines are gone. AND NOW….. I can call myself a runner!