Living With a Loved One’s Traumatic Brain Injury

In December 2001, I answered the phone to hear news every wife fears. Bradley, my husband of three years, was in a motorcycle accident on a country road. He was in serious condition with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was being flown from our small town to a big city hospital an hour away. My stomach was in knots as a friend drove me to the hospital.

At the scene of the accident, Brad was having seizures and fighting the paramedics. They sedated him for the helicopter ride to the hospital. After being admitted, he broke the restraints that held him to the hospital bed and was now wearing heavy-duty cuffs. All of this can be “normal” for a traumatic brain injury, even though the words normal and brain injury don’t belong together.

Bradley was wearing a motorcycle helmet and armored clothing. He didn’t break a single bone in his body, but his brain rattled around inside his skull, bruising and tearing sensitive tissue.

He was heavily sedated for a few days, and upon waking up, he wasn’t the man he was before. He spent 28 days in the hospital and in-house rehab therapy for his injury. Thankfully, he didn’t need surgery because the internal swelling went down on its own. On the downside, Brad could not talk, walk or think properly.

A stroke is a kind of brain injury. Brad’s brain injury was brought about by outside forces, not a battle within like a stroke, but there are similarities. Stroke victims may have to learn to walk, talk and think again. Brad had to relearn all of these things, too. For him, much of it was still floating around inside his head, but the pieces were not connected.

He would brush his teeth six times in one morning because he didn’t remember brushing them. His short-term and long-term memories were affected.

His dreams were real to him. The science fiction books he loved were coming to life. One night, Brad was worried to the point of tears about my safety because “the robots” were out to get us.

He could not understand where he was or why he was there. Rehab had to put an alarm under his bed for his safety. When he got up, the alarm went off.

When we came home, Brad was improving a little every day. He continued outpatient therapy for a month or so, but that was as long as our insurance would cover it. We drove an hour each way to therapy to make sure he was receiving the best care.

Over the years, I’ve asked myself these three questions, which may be helpful to you if you have a loved one with a TBI:

1. How does a person live with a TBI?

Never give up. People who don’t know my husband would never assume he had a TBI. Eventually, he went back to work. It’s crazy how the brain works, but he didn’t forget how to do trim carpentry. That doesn’t mean it went smoothly. Brad’s father and brother were there for him, as was his hardworking employees.

His long-term memory was deeply impacted. As years go by, he forgets more and more of our time together. Brad knows people who remain close to him, but if we lose track of individuals for long periods of time, he forgets about them.

Brad is better at math and is claustrophobic after his TBI. How is that for weird? I’ve known this guy since we were 11. I mean, we were close growing up. We have been best friends for 25 years. Brad is different after his TBI. A couple of our friends said he was sweeter. He has always had a sweet spot for me, so I don’t know about that one.

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Brad worked hard for nine years after his TBI. Yes, nine years. There were so many things that happened behind the scenes that I won’t share. It wasn’t easy for anyone. Unfortunately with Brad’s brain injury, as time passed he developed more problems or maybe he just couldn’t hide them anymore.

TBI victims are also prone to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Brad was having complex partial seizures in his frontal lobe. This caused aggression, disruptive behavior, anger, swearing and black outs. The more stress he was under, the more seizures Brad experienced. After particularly bad ones, he would be drained of energy and have headaches and dizziness for a week at a time. We needed the help of family and friends to get through those times. We had to make changes, especially Brad. They included:

Avoiding anything that causes seizures or blackouts. For Brad, this was dehydration, becoming over-heated, hitting his head, energy drinks, alcohol, overexertion, strong chemical fumes and the worst and hardest to control, stress.

Taking medications as needed. Some can have side effects but sometimes it’s necessary. We went through several medicines before we found what helped Brad.

See your doctors. Rehab doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and family doctors can all help, especially if you have to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance.

Cutting back on work. Brad went from running a company to working part-time and this still wasn’t enough. He had to sell his company shares to his father, leave the business and apply for SSDI or disability. Then we declared bankruptcy, finally moving to Mexico, where our life is much simpler and calmer.

Realize your limitations and accept them. For Brad, this has been the hardest part of this journey, but with humility and sacrifice come blessings and happiness. Eventually.

2. How do I live with Brad’s TBI?

Same thing: never give up. Sometimes you want to but you can’t. When we were living in the U.S., I had therapy, which helped me cope. Since moving to Mexico, I have been able to function with a lower dosage of medication and don’t need therapy. My panic attacks are practically a thing of the past and the bad dreams are lessening as well. Life is going on and it’s not leaving me behind.

I love my husband and our beautiful children. I love Mexico and our new life here. I’m happy Brad is realizing his limitations. He’s a good husband and father. Things can always be worse. The TBI could have dealt us more damage and pain. What more can I ask for than what I have now?

3. How should you view a TBI?

With care. Remember the following if you meet someone with a TBI or if someone you love has a TBI:

  • A TBI is a serious injury. 
  • It may be a disability for this individual.
  • Their personality may change. This can be good or bad.
  • They may say or do things that don’t make sense. They may lose their filter between their brain and their mouth.
  • Don’t treat this person differently. Give them the respect they deserve.
  • Don’t let this person mistreat you because they have a disability. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior, although it may be a reason.
  • Their life isn’t necessarily over and neither is yours. Never give up.

Traumatic brain injury can be hard to understand. For one thing, no two brains are alike and no two injuries are alike. The brain is the world’s coolest and most advanced super computer. It can’t always be fixed, and it doesn’t always heal correctly.

It’s an injury everyone needs to be aware of. You can’t assume a person is drunk or has a mental illness because many times a TBI will present itself like drunken behavior or a mental illness. A doctor once told me that the TBI was a past injury. Perhaps, but I live with its scars every day and I’m only the wife. Do you know what my husband is going through? A little understanding can go a long way.

Tina Marie Ernspiker the mighty.2-001
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