Stephanie: A Hero with Traumatic Brain Injury

by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen

Stephanie: A Hero with Traumatic Brain Injury

I have a hero. Her name is Stephanie. If you see her while you are at Balance Atlanta, I hope you say hello. She deserves a standing ovation. So does her mother, Carolyn. Lives were on the line. Miracles happened.

One year ago, I gave a talk for the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury support group. The participants painstakingly shared their stories with slow deliberation, tapping into as much brain power as they could muster.  Some sustained an injury to the brain as children, while others were hurt as adults – head-on auto collisions, a parachute that did not open while skydiving, a fall from a tree, a stroke, multiple concussions from contact sports.

Life was business as usual one day. Without warning, an unlucky hand from fate would kick you into a coma the next. Should you be so fortunate to survive, your future morphs into an endless circus of doctors, drugs, therapy, and medical bills. Career aspirations are canceled. You are physically, mentally and financially dependent on the goodwill of others. The long road of recovery is punctuated by occasional glimmers of progress. Hope and self-esteem are fragile. Life as you knew it? Over. At least that’s what they tell you.

Throughout the presentation, I found myself in a state of gratitude. For my own health. For understanding neurology. For being invited to speak to this group. For the prevailing optimism, no matter how difficult the journey. For the unrelenting patience of caregivers. For being innately called to make a difference.

I spoke of chiropractic, the healing power of the mind, and learning to find balance when life becomes challenging. I also shared about BrainCore therapy, an ancillary service offered at Balance Atlanta especially beneficial for people dealing with the symptoms of ADHD, insomnia, migraines, PTSD, fibromyalgia and yes, traumatic brain injury. Where drugs don’t work, neurofeedback and chiropractic will.

A woman in her 30s and her mom were fully engaged in my talk. Their eyes met mine, their heads bobbed in agreement. I’ve done public speaking for 15 years. I am a good judge of body language. These two were enthusiastic – the type of people who are open to new ideas. They are the ones who suspend fear, doubt and disappointment for the sake of self-improvement. Not surprisingly, Stephanie and Carolyn met me after the talk and requested an appointment.

Approximately fifteen years ago, Stephanie and a friend were in a devastating auto accident. Their car was slammed into (and under) an 18-wheeler. The friend was killed instantly. Stephanie survived. Head split wide open. Broken neck. Months in a coma. Years of physical and occupational therapy. Memory loss. Excruciating headaches. Carolyn said, “She was like a baby. We had to teach her how to do everything from scratch.”

Call it what you will, I sensed hot sparks of tension between mother and daughter at times. The combination of frustration, patience wearing thin, codependence, needs not being met, physical pain, and figuring out what to do with a brain that wouldn’t cooperate at full speed was palpable. It was a battle of the wits on both sides. Who could blame them? Yet there was also plenty of love. And that’s what mattered the most.

One look at Stephanie’s x-rays and I knew my skills as a chiropractor would be challenged. Was I a bit nervous? Yes, indeed. The neck was twisted as though it had been struck by a tornado. Misshaped bones were welded together haphazardly. Discs separating vertebrae no longer existed. Range of motion was severely restricted. Though Stephanie is very attractive, the damage to her entire spine was obvious from top to bottom.

Stephanie and her mom decided to follow my recommendations: BrainCore therapy and adjustments three times per week indefinitely. We’re talking months, if not years. No compromise. No negotiations. Unless they agreed, I would not accept Stephanie as a patient. I don’t start something I cannot finish. Half-baked hillbilly effort? No can do. I won’t waste my time or Carolyn’s money.  Being new to both chiropractic and neurofeedback, and having tried everything else under the sun, they put their faith in my hands. Good – a relationship was forming. Insurance didn’t pay for any of her visits. Carolyn figured out a way to make it happen, insurance or no insurance. She rearranged her schedule as a realtor to accommodate Stephanie’s treatment plan. Not a single appointment was ever missed. Those two were determined warriors. Do whatever it takes. No matter what. Futures were on the line. Both Stephanie and Carolyn needed to move on with their lives – separately.

It’s been a year since Stephanie and I started working together. Three times a week she is adjusted. I use Cranial Sacral therapy, a special technique well-suited for people with brain injuries. Three times per week she does neurofeedback using BrainCore. Not only is she training her body, she’s teaching her brain to become strong, resilient, balanced, quiet and focused. If you walk by the BrainCore room, you may hear music by the Grateful Dead. That’s Stephanie – busy at work with the neurofeedback computers – plugged in and on a mission to unwind the brain damage caused by that horrific accident fifteen-years ago

After a few weeks, I noticed that Stephanie was consistently calm. Those sparks of frustration subsided. She was in control of her moods. One day, Stephanie was sitting on the adjusting table looking very peaceful. Her light brown hair, parted in the center, brushed her shoulders gently. I abruptly exclaimed, “Stephanie! You look like Jesus!” We both laughed. I was slightly embarrassed. But it was true – she was a different person on the inside and it showed on the outside.

Fifteen years of debilitating headaches? Gone! Migraine medication? No longer needed. Fifteen years of chronic insomnia? Gone! Sleep medication? No longer needed. Short-term memory? Improved! For the first time in her life since the accident, she is now able to dream. Unless you’ve been held hostage by your brain, you’ll never appreciate what a big deal this is. Stephanie is finally getting the mental and physical rest that has eluded her for a decade and a half. No wonder the persistent agitation is wearing off. I saw balance.

I asked Stephanie what she does all day besides walking Marley, her dog, and hanging out. With job opportunities limited, I suggested getting out of the house and volunteering somewhere. One month later, Stephanie was beaming. She will be trained as a peer support specialist for people with brain injuries. None of this would have been possible had Stephanie not found health from within. Combining disability funds with her new salary, she will be financially independent. When the brain and body are connected, good things happen.

Yesterday, Stephanie came leaping into Balance Atlanta with a huge smile on her face. I wasn’t expecting her since she’d graduated to wellness care for both chiropractic and BrainCore. “Guess WHAT??!!!!!! A friend who hasn’t seen me in a long time told me I’m moving better and standing straighter than I EVER have since the accident!” She continued, “I bought a bathing suit and I looked at myself in the mirror from behind. For the FIRST time since 1997, the shoulder straps are lined up!!!” I was walloped by a huge hug. Looking into Stephanie’s clear blue joyful eyes, I fought back tears. Our hearts connected. You cannot put a price on health, or self-esteem for that matter. Both Stephanie and Carolyn focused on success. Sheer will made it happen.

This is why I do what I do, Balance Atlanta people. Not one doctor in Stephanie’s past had a clue about helping her spine and nerve system heal. I don’t think anyone had ever touched her spine with love. Drugs, brain scans, MRIs and surgery were the answers. Stephanie was a patient file, an insurance case, a diagnosis and a limited prognosis. I wonder if anyone besides her mom saw her as a woman who wants to feel beautiful, become independent, contribute to society in a meaningful way and lead a normal life.

I don’t look at limitations. I look for potential. I dig beneath the surface to see what’s in the core. I don’t hear excuses. I search for commitment. Some take me up on my offer to help. They are spiritually ready for change. Questions are replaced by action. Determination fuels results. Others resist, blame, ignore and pretend. Fear holds them back. It’s OK. Everyone is on a journey at their own pace. Extend the invitation with compassion and an open hand – perhaps we can walk together in the future when the timing is right.

I am proud of Stephanie. I am proud of myself. Transcending limitations towards a brighter tomorrow. Together.