It has been almost 24 years since the night that changed my life forever.
On the evening of Aug. 29, 1989, I was the passenger in a car that crashed on McCully Road in Hampton. The seat belt saved my life, but it did not prevent me from sustaining a traumatic brain injury. My head turned faster than my brain, my brainstem twisted and stretched, and the right hemisphere of my brain hit the inside of my skull. I immediately went into a coma for six weeks and had a post-traumatic seizure at the scene. I was flown to Allegheny General Hospital.
My prognosis was grim. Initially, the doctors said I most likely would be bedridden for life, and there was not much chance for significant recovery. Once I regained consciousness, the doctors said I would not be able to graduate from high school without major assistance. Higher education was out of the question.
I remember waking up at the rehabilitation center unable to walk, talk or eat. My tongue was paralyzed and the left side of my body severely impaired. I couldn't even hold up my head.
My first attempt at speaking was extremely frustrating. Thoughts accumulated in my mind, but because of my paralyzed tongue, I produced only an incomprehensible monotone.
During one of my speech-therapy sessions, the therapist placed a mirror in front of me. When I saw my reflection, I started to cry. Who was this girl with the partially shaved head, glassy blue eyes and deathly pale skin?
On Dec. 26, 1990, a year after the accident, The Pittsburgh Press published a story -- "Never Give Up" -- about my experience. The article noted that I "shunned babying," was elected homecoming queen after returning to high school for my senior year and maintained a grueling schedule of therapy. In 1991, the Press named me one of 10 All-Star Achievers among high school students in the north suburbs.
I never have given up. In fact, I have made a remarkable recovery, one beyond everyone's expectations but my own. My journey has been tedious and long, full of physical and emotional obstacles. Returning coherency and clarity to my speech has been a particularly difficult process that involved two surgeries.
Since the accident, I have had to discover a new self. That may sound like an impossibility. How can one discover a new self? I am no longer the girl I was at 16, nor am I the woman I would have grown to be if the accident had not happened. In that way, I am a new self and new person. I have grieved over my losses time and again. At times, I still grieve for the life I never got the chance to live. However, my determination to strive for the best and continue to grow as a person has helped to guide my recovery.
It is only when we quit believing in ourselves and our capabilities that we lose the ability to grow and learn. I am very fortunate that my injury did not take this desire from me. I am also very fortunate to have a family that believed in me, supported me, never gave up on me and wanted the best for me.
I haven't been in the news since my senior year of high school. Now, I would like to tell the story of my progress, my life's work and my hope for the future. I have dedicated my life to advocating for appropriate services and supports for children and adolescents with brain injuries.
From victim to advocate
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls traumatic brain injuries "an important public health problem."
At least 1.7 million of them occur each year, The leading causes are falls, traffic accidents, collisions with moving or stationary objects and assaults, respectively. Most vulnerable are infants, toddlers, adolescents and senior citizens.
The concussions sustained by student and professional athletes are one kind of traumatic brain injury. Also at elevated risk are military personnel in war zones.
Most traumatic brain injuries are mild. However, as the CDC notes, these injuries can affect thinking, sensation, language and emotion, and they've been linked to epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
As if the physical and emotional dimensions of recovery weren't taxing enough, people who have sustained traumatic brain injuries also face barriers in school and the workplace.
In 1991, I graduated from Richland High School in the top 10 percent of my class. In 1995, I received a bachelor's degree in sociology from West Virginia Wesleyan College.
After college, I looked for work but discovered that employers were unable to see past my speech impairment. It was suggested that I continue my education, so I did. In 2000, I received a master's in literary and technical writing from DePaul University in Chicago.
But my career plans again were sidetracked. While studying for my comprehensive exam at DePaul, I discovered a program at George Washington University that offers a master's in transition special education with an emphasis on acquired brain injury, an area that most primary and secondary teachers know little, if anything, about.
I immediately knew that this degree was something I needed to pursue to fulfill my ambitions. After receiving that master's in 2004, I went on to a doctoral program, also at George Washington, in special education and brain injury. I received the doctorate in 2009.
Today, I am a certified brain injury specialist, author and entrepreneur. I have started ABI Education Services, LLC, a consulting business with the goal of providing awareness and education about the implications of brain injury for children, adolescents and young adults.
My focus is helping young people navigate the transition from a rehabilitation or hospital setting to a school system. I help to orchestrate appropriate special education services and supports within the school system and then assist with the student's transition to life after school.
Bringing awareness to an unmet need
When I transitioned back to high school, there was a lack of information and understanding concerning how best to accommodate me and provide services that addressed the unique needs of my injuries.
Unfortunately, my pre-injury ability level and other specialized circumstances were not factored into my recovery trajectory. I was generically classified as a student with a brain injury and expected to perform like other students with brain injuries had performed.
Even today, while federal law requires customized education plans for students with disabilities, schools struggle to provide appropriate services to students with brain injuries. Indeed, there is need for a systemic overhaul in how services are provided and coordinated.
School staff members aren't sufficiently familiar with these injuries. Funding for services may be limited. Students may be placed in inappropriate grade levels or learning environments. Services must evolve as a student's recovery proceeds.
We need to create an educational environment that promotes inclusion, understanding and compassion. We need to create an environment that provides marginalized students with an appropriate education, so they can be successful in their life endeavors and have realistic hope for the future.
The needs of individuals with brain injury (including our littlest survivors) have gone unrecognized for too long. It is time for society to hear our voices.
Katherine Kimes, who lives Downtown, wrote her doctoral dissertation on how the San Diego Unified School District provides services to students with brain injuries. She may be reached via her website: abi-edservices.com.