Keen curiosity, self-awareness, empathy and humor were all on display at the monthly meeting of the Williamsburg/Newport News Brain Injury Survivors Group at The Denbigh House in Newport News. The group, founded and led by Sara Lewis, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 1977 car accident, celebrates its first anniversary in June.
Each month's meeting centers on a different topic related to brain injuries, such as how to use strategies to improve memory, how to handle frustrations that stem from brain injury, and how to cope with resulting fatigue and sleep issues. It also includes a healthy dose of socializing and interaction. Those with newer injuries take comfort and advice from those whose symptoms have modified over time.
“Every brain injury is different depending upon which area of the brain is damaged. Many people (like me!) who are injured in car crashes experience frontal lobe injuries which affect aspects of personality like acting out , frustration, not wanting to deal with details, being impulsive," said Lewis, who just completed a degree in speech pathology. She is also writing a book about her experience with brain injury, and is training her dog Cici, a Jack Russell terrier and Shih Tzu mix, to become a therapy dog.
The dozen or so participants range in age from their 20s to 60s, from stroke-sufferers to those with subarachnoid hemorrhage, and others who sustained damage in auto accidents, in falls, or as a result of domestic abuse. Their professions are equally diverse, including a former soldier and a former instructor at a nuclear power plant. They're bright and engaged, and evidence that TBI doesn't discriminate.
"This is wonderful for him," said Mary O'Connell, who has accompanied her son, John "Jeb" O'Connell, 44, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, to the meetings for the past year. Jeb had his first brain surgery to remove an arachnoid cyst at 18. Five years ago he opted for additional, elective surgery to alleviate his seizures, but it has caused other problems. O'Connell recommends that caregivers and family attend the meetings. "It helps you understand about the sleep problems, the anger, to answer the 'what happened?'" she said.
Lewis presented a slide show on sleep issues. Several shared their sleep patterns, and talked of the changes they experienced over the years.
Chris Semple, 60, who fought in the first Gulf War, suffered a stroke while deployed.
"I had to sleep about three years," he said. "Now I don't sleep." Others concurred that after their initial injury, they slept a lot, but that as time passed they rarely enjoyed prolonged, regular sleep. The ensuing discussion zig-zagged between the importance of REM sleep, the dangers of the long-term use of over-the-counter sleep aids, and ways to achieve better sleep.
Alex Watson, program coordinator for the Denbigh House, chipped in occasionally, but mostly counseled participants to consult with their doctors on any specific problems.
The conversation meandered from the state budget to the need for humor to get through the day to recommendations for yoga, meditation and Tai Chi as ways to handle stress. They discussed sleep apnea, their risks of developing Alzheimer's, and the effects of their medications.
Next month, they agreed, they'd discuss strategies for social situations.
"Brain injury is a lot like old age, but it hits you all of sudden," concluded Lewis, citing an article she'd recently read, as she wrapped up her presentation exactly at the designated time.
Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.
Want to attend?
What: Williamsburg/Newport News Brain Injury Survivors Support Group
Who: Survivors and their families, friends, and caregivers
When: 5:30 to 7 p.m. third Thursday of the month; next meeting June 19
Where: The Denbigh House, 12725 McManus Blvd., Newport News
Format: Participants bring snacks and socialize, followed by a program with discussion; typical topics include memory strategies, coping with fatigue, relationships, etc.
Information: Sara Lewis, group facilitator, 757-784-0344, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Alex Watson, Denbigh House program coordinator, 757-833-7845, email@example.com. The Denbigh House for community brain injury services offers a weekday clubhouse program.