For those with brain injuries, community education key to rehabilitation

By Katie Demeria

STEPHENS CITY — In 2011, Marley Robertson of Stephens City, then 24, had the next three years of her life planned. But when a tractor trailer struck her on Interstate 81 as she drove to Harrisonburg for a wedding, everything was thrown off course.

Robertson suffered a subdural hematoma, a brain injury that impacted how she would be able to function on a daily basis. She was in the hospital for two weeks, then in rehabilitation for five days.

“I had just finished my first semester of seminary schools two days prior,” Robertson said. “And I had just interviewed for my dream summer job, and it went really well.”

Robertson said she did not get the job, probably due to her brain injury.

Brain injuries change the ways people are able to live their lives. Though generally associated with sports injuries, Jill James, regional resource coordinator in Winchester for the Brain Injury Association of Virginia, said they can happen to anyone.

Judy Blakley lives in Martinsburg, W.Va., and works in Winchester. She suffered a concussion when she slipped down her steps after freezing rain hit the area on Jan. 10.

“I have confusion and memory issues,” Blakley said. “I have to write everything down now. If I’m talking and I lose a phrase, I’ve learned to just say something else that means the same thing, because otherwise if I spend a lot of time thinking about it, the confusion just gets worse.”

Blakley said she also experienced changes to her personality. She once considered herself a calm person, but for about a month after the injury she had a very short fuse.

Robertson experienced a similar shift. Before her injury, she would describe herself as an extrovert.

“Now I’m in a constant battle with myself as an extrovert fighting an introverted brain injury,” she said.

According to Robertson, she did not have very many places to turn when looking for services after experiencing her brain injury. She had to figure most things out on her own.

“There’s no real community entity that you can go to and say, I have this problem, and they’ll give you the solution,” she said. “This is a black hole part of the state, where you have nowhere to go.”

“Everyone with a brain injury just wants their life back,” she continued.

James said providing services for those with brain injuries is not as simple as funding one organization to start providing for them. It is instead a community effort.

“Getting jobs, or at least keeping their jobs after they have the injury, is very important,” James said.

James provides staff education programs, in which employers can go to her and find out more about brain injuries and how someone can operate with a brain injury in a workplace.

It is through this way, James said — personal education and awareness — that the community can help those with brain injuries.

After experiencing her concussion, Blakley was able to keep her job — because she worked for a health care provider who already understood her situation.

“That’s not something that usually happens,” she said.

Education and awareness about brain injuries, James said, is vital, especially in this area. Many people will hurt their heads, suffer a concussion, and downplay the symptoms.

“It’s not something to play around with,” James said. “That’s what I really want people to know — they need to seek medical attention for something like that. Protect your brain where you can.”

“We’re all a piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a community for someone with a brain injury,” James continued.

Though brain injuries can happen to anyone, Robertson said she does not want people to be afraid of them.

She described brain injuries like snowflakes, with every injury relating to each person in a different way.

“It was hard, for sure, but if I could go back to Dec. 15, 2011 and change things, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I like who I am, and I love life so much more knowing that I might not have been here, and I appreciate my time more.”

Robertson still faces challenges on a daily basis. She is trying to start seminary school again, but has trouble reading — she cannot finish a paragraph and retain the information she absorbed.

“I am where I am today because of the people who helped me,” she said. “That’s what everyone with a brain injury needs — people who are positive about it. If you know someone with a brain injury, just send them a positive note. Every day is a struggle for them, and just giving them a simple smile could be the boost they need.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com