By Kim Walter
When it comes to dealing with brain injuries, Jan O'Neil said it "can feel like you're out on an island by yourself."
In 2005, O'Neil's son, Jeff Fearnow, was in car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury that changed him forever. After being in the hospital for a little less than a year, he still needed another two years to learn how to communicate again, and still struggles from time to time with certain things.
"With me living with him, I still don't understand everything. I get frustrated because he can't do things that he could do before. I've experienced my own form of trauma from the accident, but it's not what he was and still is experiencing," his mother said. "He's just not the same person he was."
While some people who experience brain injuries come out of it angry, mean or even hateful, O'Neil said her son was very different, but "happy different."
"I can't guarantee tomorrow, but if it comes along, I'm going to make sure it's the best day ever," said Fearnow, now 28. "People don't realize how quickly things can change. I'm proud of who I am, and I've probably told my story 1,000 times, but I don't care, I'll keep saying it ... don't take life for granted, and don't drink and drive."
The family had been interested in joining a support group, but found that most were located more than an hour away from their home in Berryville. But when O'Neil read about a Winchester Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group in the newspaper, she told her son to check it out.
"There was no question. I wanted to go ... I had to go," he said.
The benefits have spread both to the son and mother, as Fearnow now said he feels that he isn't alone in his recovery and experiences. Additionally, his mother was able to meet other family members of those recovering, and in swapping stories and side effects that they noticed, she too has gained from the camaraderie.
"It made me and other mothers feel better to hear, 'Oh, that's normal,' or 'Yeah, my kid did something similar to that too,'" she said. "It's been helpful from a social aspect, to hear that I'm not alone either."
The local support group started two years ago with founder Kathleen Mancini from of Front Royal. Mancini has suffered from three brain injuries, and as a result, can't work. Previously an industrial engineer, Mancini said she struggles with organization skills and focusing, something that was not true before.
"People may look at me, or talk to me, and not realize that I've had three brain injuries ... but I did, and I deal with it everyday," she said. "Brain injuries are not a 'one size fits all' type of thing, and my story isn't true for everyone."
Those who attend the group are there for a variety of reasons that caused their brain injuries, such as car accidents, falling and even electrocution.
"So little is known about brain injuries, still," she said. "Overall, the camaraderie that takes place through this group is very important. Sometimes we just talk about a problem or experience, and see where the conversation takes us. We compare stories and side effects, and in May, we started inviting speakers that specialize in a variety of related topics."
The group meets on the third Thursday of each month in Winchester. In September, Michael Rohrbacher, director of music therapy at Shenandoah University, presented his take on how the program can positively affect those with brain injuries.
"People suffering from brain injuries can sometimes struggle with emotions and their reactions to certain situations ... music can help with that," he said during the session. "Music can help guide you in the direction you want to go, and can get you to tap into those parts of your life that are healthy. At birth, we are hardwired to music, so it makes sense to go back to it when we need to relearn these basic things."
Rorhbacher also said that the program has seen its best results through physical rehabilitation and motor coordination.
"It can help organize your behavior around a beat," he said. "Walking, speech, communication, feelings, emotions ... music therapy can help with all these things."
Mancini brought up the fact that after her injury, music, something she greatly enjoyed before, seemed flat to her. She is continually working with a music therapy program that affects the body's auditory processing system.
She was the first person to use the Integrated Listening System for a brain injury, and said so far it has helped with several of her symptoms.
"It didn't cure my brain injury, but it reduced the symptoms more than anything else I've tried," she said. Mancini spoke about the system during the group's October meeting.
After Rohrbacher's presentation, many support group members approached him and inquired about one-on-one or group sessions through his program.
"If Jeffrey had had the opportunity to do this music therapy, it would've been awesome," she said. "I mean he did other therapies, but I think integrating music would've helped him progress faster."
The support group makes sure to include a social time at the end of every meeting.
"I wish my daughter would come sometime," said Betty Friant of Berryville. Her daughter, Elizabeth, suffered from a traumatic brain injury several years ago. While she's made amazing progress, Friant said she feels the interaction with others who understand would be helpful.
"I mean, it helps me, even years after the initial injury," she said. "I've learned so much from these people, and I think others in the area could benefit from it too."
To learn more about the Winchester Traumatic Brain Injury Support group, email Mancini at TBI@mindspring.com or call Friant at 550-1784.
Contact Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org