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Surviving Head TraumaA Guide to Recovery Written by a Traumatic Brain Injury Patient
By Terry Smith
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Terry Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I felt death deep inside my soul. The yell of the Marine sitting next to me made the nightmare real. The explosion was the last thing I heard. Marines were dead." Fatal accident survivor, Quantico, Virginia, 1984
Smith and I were in a ghastly truck accident with other Marines at Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia, on July 20, 1984. He was a muscular man of average height and weight. He talked about sacred life when he was alive. I finally understood what he meant after I was hurled at sixty-five miles an hour from a three-ton, tumbling truck. Now, I wish I had listened more when he went into his spiritual zone. I was too busy in my physical, real world to hear his theoretical, theological, metaphysical, and supernatural philosophy.
I try to remember his words; they now help sustain my life. One of his favorite lines was, "Life is like the ocean. There are going to be high tides and low tides, good times and rough times. Life is on a cycle, but it always continues. Man just needs to ride the wave." Another one of his favorite but morbid sayings was,"Nobody gets out alive."
Sometimes, you can see the end of life coming in a long, grave illness. Dying can also take less than a whole second. Being alive, heroic, and healthy with a gleaming future can turn into death before the complete blink of an eye. People die with open eyes every day.
Stephen Rose and Smith did not see death coming when they died before they could blink. Rose was from California. He dreamed of a sparkling military future. Smith and I were from Florida - we grew up together. We, too, were well adorned for a brilliant, star-filled career. Smith said that he would one day remove his stars and become the commander-in-chief of the United States of America. In other words, he wanted to be president. I have no doubt that he would have done just that. That's the kind of person he was.
Sometimes, though, life doesn't always unfold the way you plan, no matter how ambitious, talented, or smart you are. On Route 619, at 13:00 that July day, a three-ton troop carrier was bouncing extraordinarily fast around the curves of Quantico. Twenty marine officer candidates in the back of the truck were gravely aware of the excessive speed.
When the vehicle swerved off the narrow, winding road onto the rough shoulder, the young men saw disaster in flashing horror. Three tons of steel traveling in excess of sixty-five miles per hour flipped four and a half times on the unbreakable road. One hundred and seventy-nine feet later, the trampled vehicle came to an upside-down, calamitous freeze in the trees next to the road, the enormous weight of the vehicle bearing down on the military men inside.
The top half of the truck was crushed like a clay toy. The only sound was the burning fire of the canvas top and the wheels spinning. Slowly, moans of pain came from bodies strewn along the path and inside the wreckage. Nature took a deep breath of silence. Those who were thrown from the vehicle yet still strong enough to use uniforms to smother the flames extinguished the fire. A part of me died that day.
By the time the sounds of life began again with the birds chirping, Young, Murphy, and O'Leary were still trapped under the bed of the truck. The reckless driver, Private First Class Badgley, and Staff Sergeant Gorman were trapped inside the cab of the vehicle.
Approximately five minutes after the crash, another truck, an M-880, arrived on the scene. This truck transported ten marines. These adrenaline-filled marines lifted the three-ton truck and rescued Staff Sergeant Gorman, Private First Class Badgley, and Candidates Young, Murphy, and O'Leary. People were hurt with varying degrees of severity. Two marines ran to a house on Joplin Road, approximately 200 yards east of the catastrophe site on Route 619.
At 13:05, July 20, 1984, a call for emergency assistance was made to the Prince William County Fire and Rescue. At 13:14, a two-person medic unit from the Dumfries/Triangle Volunteer Rescue Squad arrived at the scene and provided an initial assessment of emergency requirement. Within fourteen minutes, eighteen emergency units were involved with treatment and evacuation.
Rose, Melone, Smith, Boettcher, and I were airlifted to Potomac Hospital to be stabilized before being moved to Washington Hospital Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital.
To this date, I don't remember any of these specific details. To assist me in my writing, I have used accounts from the official Marine Corps Investigation Report, eyewitness testimonies, and writings from my own journals. I clearly recall being excited about going to OCS. After that solid memory, there are small flashes of images of meeting a group of other OCS candidates in an airport and being transported to the base. After that, there are only abstract images that I can't describe.
My first memories after head impact start in the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. I was transported there after brain surgery at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, Virginia, during which I flatlined twice. We all would have died had we not been treated immediately. With head trauma, the difference between life and death can be reduced to simply how soon or late the patient is treated.
Bethesda was my first time being near the commander in chief of the United States-Ronald Reagan and I were being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital at the same time. I thought of Smith and his dream of becoming president. He never returned from surgery. Rose and Smith were dead.
* * *
The reign of peace in the world fell especially hard today, Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Three planes were hijacked this morning. At 8:45 am, terrorists crashed planes into both World Trade Center Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. The aircrafts had enough jet fuel to travel more than 3,000 miles. Each passenger-filled jetliner exploded like an enormous torpedo.
Thousands of people are reported killed or injured. There is no exact number of casualties at this point; various media are saying that the figure might be too shocking for mass mental wellness. The towers had a combined capacity of more than 50,000 people. Both towers are annihilated. "Reality TV" has come to life.
At this moment, the horribly unreasonable experience seems surreal to me. If this reality were TV, I would change the channel. What preserves sanity in a maddening world is hope that these monumental screams of terror will somehow blossom into immense wisdom for human growth and development. What makes my family sane is that at least my son, Trae, flew safely from Florida to California a week before these inhumane atrocities. He has been flying safely alone for a few years with airline escorts between the East and West Coast.
If that truck had not flipped back in 1984, Rose, Smith, and I would be militarily involved in this new world war. Instead, they are dead, and I sit in the audience and on the stage. I record what I witness in the global theater, and I participate in the drama that unfolds there, a living cast member of this horrible tragedy.
Forever after I have died, I hope that no author will ever again record the occurrence of such unimaginable human experience. Let him instead write of the higher dimensions man has reached and how he lives peacefully therein.
* * *
Wednesday, September 12, 2001-Rain is falling again today. The day after the incomprehensible occurred, banner headlines are born. The Florida Times-Union has a headline that is straight to the point: "attacked."
A New York Times reporter, N. R. Kleinfield, included a quote in his article from John Maloney: "I don't know what the gates of hell look like, but it's got to be like this."
After experiencing massive head trauma, the world seemed like the gates of hell opening before my eyes. With the love, support, and understanding from those around me, the world has become lifelike again, but the healing process lasts forever.
Chapter TwoJohn Maloney, the man quoted in the New York Times, was one of thousands of people at the twin towers who were chased by the smoke that seemed to creep everywhere like the breath of death. Pictures both in print and on broadcast news show the horrid reality of that day. One of the most touching images showed abandoned baby strollers in the parks. The ash-covered carriages clearly showed that parents quickly grabbed their children and ran. That imagery sounds like glimpses from a dream. Life was like a dream when I returned from my experience with death and coma. At that time, my medical prognosis was dim. I flatlined two times during brain surgery. Marine Corps personnel had already given my mother my personal belongings. She took my possessions with the pain of a mother losing her child.
My first dim memories are of crying, smiling strangers standing around my bed close enough to touch some part of my body, as if they could somehow bring me back to life. They were ostensibly happy to see me but sad at the same time. I didn't understand their concern or know who they were because I had amnesia. They told me that I had been badly hurt.
My mother said that as time passed, people started looking familiar to me; I thought that she was my sister and that Mrs. Berman, a friend of our family, was my mother. I somewhat recognized my sister, Jackie, and Jack from Big Brothers Big Sisters. Seeing them made me stronger, more responsive to life.
* * *
Thursday, September 13, 2001-Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that this new war, in early predictions, could last for many years, if not forever. The first thought in my mind is why they did this to us. Those people obviously hate us, violently. "What made them this way?" I asked. "What's their side of the story?"
Today, the world is saying that we shall never forget. I write and pray that we faithfully remember.
Because I have TBI, many times I forget events and people. Sometimes, because I forget things I should have learned, I've repeated the same poor choice. With 9-11, we must always remember that a tragedy should be a catalyst for growth from insanity to a clear-headed planet. Otherwise, history will repeat itself.
* * *
My mother said, "Prayers to God from my church saved your life." My doctors said that I survived the crash because of my strong, healthy, young body and undying will to live. My brain tissue, however, was not as firm as my body or spirit. Inside my crushed skull, the soft matter that facilitates thinking was critically crushed and bruised. The crash created irreversible brain damage-dementia. My mother said that she was thankful to God that I survived, no matter what. The doctors told her I was going to die and that if I did live, I would be nothing more than a vegetable needing constant care. They said my brain would never be the same, and I would be like a helpless child for the rest of my life.
Inside my left ear, a loud, piercing noise screamed inside my head. There was also blood draining from this ear. Doctors hoped the bleeding would soon stop naturally; otherwise, they would have to go back inside my head for more surgery. I could barely hear out of that ear. Doctors said that the sound inside my head, tinnitus, would last forever.
Approaching three decades later, I know they were correct with that prognosis. The loud sound inside my head surrounds every waking moment of my life. But I learned that I could take the lemon I'd been given and make lemonade. My loss of hearing was an advantage in disguise. For example, if there is a loud noise when I'm trying to fall asleep, I turn my good ear to the bed. Noise disappears except for the symphony constantly playing inside my head.
There have been times when I thought I would rather jump off a building than hear this sound for one more moment. But I found my own way to cope. In the dark of the night, when everything is quiet except for the sound, I don't allow the high volume to take control of my mind and make me insane.
I've screamed to the Pacific Ocean when I was in Santa Monica, "PLEASE! Turn off the sound inside my head!" I don't know if people thought I was crazy, but I sure felt better afterward.
My crushed skull also severed a tear duct, and tears stopped falling from my left eye. I felt like a freak, making everyone around me feel awkward and uncertain how to deal with me.
"Terry, you look like a freak when you cry. Why do you just cry out of one eye?" people would ask. My tears of pain would turn into laughter when I did the two-sided face routine. I would look normal on one side, with clear white eyes, yet I would be red-eyed and crying on the other.
Many difficult changes have come from my injury. I think of the positive memories and the people who love me to help keep me from hurting myself or sometimes having a seizure. Once I was standing in line at a grocery store and could feel a seizure coming on. Having been taken away in an ambulance before, I didn't want the public embarrassment again. I concentrated as hard as I could on a time when I was a boy waiting at the front door of my house for my father to drive down the street. I had not started kindergarten, so I was probably about three or four years old. When I saw him get out of the car, I jumped up and down as if God had come home. I ran to him as fast as my little legs would carry me.
"Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" I shouted with no limitations. I jumped into his strong and safe arms. This single scene, one of few that I have of my father, repeated in my mind, calmed me, and stopped the seizure.
* * *
Rain has been falling almost every day this summer. Trae, who is eight, didn't get to skateboard as much as he would have liked. I, too, missed videotaping his rides in Boone Park. He lives in Los Angeles with his mother during the school year and with me in Florida during the summer.
At the beginning of the summer, he needed me to run alongside him, pushing and holding him on the board. By the end of the summer, considering how frequently inclement weather prevented his practice, he became pretty good. After he learned how to balance and guide himself, he wanted to skateboard on his own. He said, "Let go, Daddy. I can do it now!"
His attitude was like the head injury recovery process.
Over the past nineteen years, the more I've learned to do for myself, the more independent I've felt. Each little step is positive progress.
As time passed after my surgery, I grew stronger. My first steps were with the aid of two nurses. I didn't like it, though, that people talked to me as if I were a child.
"Terry, don't try to walk so fast. There's no hurry," my mother said.
My mother's choice of words wasn't the problem. It was her tone that made me want to jump out of my skin. After seeing the x-rays of my head, I understood why everyone was so alarmed about me. I also grew to understand why blood still drained from my left ear. The remaining blood from my brain was evacuating. I was amazed, and I felt fortunate to be alive after seeing what I called an intense electrical storm on the x-rays.
On the x-rays, it seemed a billion bolts of lightening streaked across my skull. A large square was sawed out of my skull and was in the center of this lightning storm. A round hole about the size of a quarter was at each corner of the square. The square marked the area where the neurosurgeons worked diligently to stop the bleeding. The round holes accommodated the swelling of the brain when my skull was stapled back together after surgery. A portion of my brain was removed.
The holes in my skull remain there. Sometimes, I feel my brain throbbing against the holes as though it's trying to escape from my head. My skull feels as though it will explode at times from the pressure. I can hear the crackling sound of the bone.
Excerpted from Surviving Head Trauma by Terry Smith Copyright © 2009 by Terry Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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