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Treating Brain Injuries with Poetry

posted by SK Brain Injury    |   September 25, 2011 18:28

It was the morning of Feb. 14, 2005, and Angela Hunt walked down the sidewalk heading to the staff door of the Chaska Library, where she is a librarian.

“I was due at 9:45 a.m. to open,” said Hunt, a Carver resident. “I caught my toe on a brick and tripped. The snow was falling and swirling. It was that dry kind of snow. I don’t remember hitting the ground. I do remember though that I saw a gas engine pickup truck heading down the street toward me right before I tripped. But when I got up, I saw it was an idling diesel-engine truck. I remember thinking that was odd.”

Hunt picked herself up. Her glasses were broken, and her ribs hurt. When she entered the library, she noticed that another li-brary employee had already gotten everything — the computers and equipment — up and running.

“I felt a little shook up,” Hunt said. She’d also skinned her knee badly, but attended to it, and then went on with her day.

It was one month later, when Hunt was opening the library, that she realized she didn’t know how to start up the computer.

“I didn’t recognize the people I worked with, or the patrons I know,” Hunt said. “I couldn’t read. I recognized Janet [Karius, the assistant library director] but I couldn’t say her name. Then a friend of mine came into the library, took a look at me and said, ‘She needs to go to emergency.”

OUT COLD

Doctors did X-rays and an MRI. The scans revealed that Hunt had suffered a traumatic brain injury when she tripped and fell in February. She’d been knocked unconscious.

“I have no memory of the fall,” Hunt said. “I do remember that when I picked myself up that morning, there was all this snow covering me. I had thought that was odd at the time. The doctors think I was probably knocked out for 20 minutes.

“And no one saw me lying there,” Hunt said, “because I had my white coat on and a white beret. It was snowing and I blended right in.”

Falling face first, she’d broken her nose, “crushing my sinuses like an accordion,” she said.

And being knocked unconscious explained why the gas pickup truck she’d noticed turned into a diesel truck seemingly in the next instant.

“The doctors said that I had such good coping skills and was so high functioning, it took a month before the brain injury became apparent,” Hunt said. “The brain just continues to function until it stops. I had cracked the bone by my eye, and injured my frontal lobe in a closed head injury. Right after the fall, I had noticed my nose was sore but all the pieces [of that morning] didn’t come together until they did the MRI.”

STARTING OVER

Hunt had been down this road before. In 1995, she suffered a stroke after having surgery. At that time she had to relearn speech and mobility. When doctors at HCMC looked at Hunt’s X-rays and MRI, they saw the earlier brain damage from the stroke.

She worked with physical and occupational therapists for 14 months to help her relearn spatial relationships, manipulating objects, and dealing with her loss of peripheral vision.

“I was spilling and dropping things and poking myself,” Hunt said. “And the sad thing is, if I’d been a housewife, someone who didn’t work outside the home, they would have sent me on my way after a few weeks. If you can read at a fifth-grade level, they con-sider you recovered.

“But I’m a librarian,” Hunt told her doctors. “A librarian has to know and access all this information. It’s what I do. This is the expectation of this profession.”

Hunt had to learn to speak and read all over again. Comprehending what she read took longer.

“I wouldn’t know what I had just read,” Hunt said. “When I’d had my stroke I’d started getting up in the middle of the night to do devotions. I would open my Bible, and I would look at two words and concentrate on them. And then I worked up to three words. And I just kept at it, adding words. So I did that again.

“My doctor encouraged me to go back to work after a month,” Hunt said. “But I didn’t know how I could. It turned out they let me work in the library’s back room, where I scanned bar codes on materials. It helped with my hand and eye coordination, and with my thinking process.

“’When was the last time this material had been checked out?’ ‘Should it go to another branch?’ It helped me so much to learn the collection again.”

POET EMERGES

Not being able to find the words to speak and describe her feelings felt lonely, Hunt said. It was a struggle to search for the right word. For all the thoughts and emotions she had swirling inside, “I only had nickel-and-dime words,” Hunt said. “I could write things down but my vocabulary was small.”

“The core of humanity is emotion,” Hunt said. “If you don’t have that palette of words, it’s a black and white world.”

Hunt began writing poems to express the thoughts she couldn’t vocalize.

“It began with the speech therapist,” Hunt said. “She’d ask, ‘How are you?’ I would hand her the poem I wrote.

“Speech, physical, and occupational therapy can be like school,” Hunt said. “A person tends to get out of it what they put into it. But after TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) or stroke, the effort to get to ‘normal’ can be a lot more excruciating than a formal education because the struggle is continual. A brain-injured person can’t just close a book and take a break from it. I quite literally studied every night in preparation for the next day’s speech therapy in order to gain back a lifetime of skills in 14 months. I affectionately call that time in my life my MBA-N: My Best Angela Now Degree.

“I didn‘t know how to make dinner,” Hunt described her life as she recovered. “I would go to the closet and not being able to fig-ure out what to wear. I’d ask myself, ‘what am I going to do today? What is the weather like? Do I need different shoes? It was a big puzzle. When I had my cognition test at HCMC, I asked, ‘Am I dressed all right?’

Hunt found that the physical act of writing helped her brain make connections with language. Writing poetry helped her recover language skills. It was also an outlet for expression and integral to regaining her emotional equilibrium.

Since her injury, Hunt has published is “Am I Still Me? A Group of Words with Fundamental Questions for Those Struggling to Recover Themselves.” The poems express Hunt’s emotional journey as she regains her cognitive skills, her language skills and vocabulary.

“Evidently people haven’t done a lot of writing during recovery,” Hunt said. “Not many [people with brain trauma] have done a journal and published it. I wrote a book two months out of hopper about what it was like to have a brain injury and then start to recover.”

She had definite ideas about how the book would look and feel, drawing on her own difficulties and experience.

“I wanted it to have stiff pages to make it easy to turn, to let it lay flat,” Hunt said, drawing on the challenges she faced as she re-covered. “I didn’t want it to be too heavy. I wanted lots of white space and to have a photograph on each page so the reader would have visual cues to what the words meant. I put exercises in the back of the book, for each poem, for the patient to regain verbal and comprehension skills.”

At Christmas, Hunt will publish her second book entitled, “I Am Still Me,” a book of free verse, directed in part to caregivers who are learning how brain injury can manifest, as well as for those recovering from TBI.

ONGOING RECOVERY

Though it’s been six years, Hunt’s brain injury keeps providing surprises.

Like reading her poems from her book after a length of time.

“It was a surprise to read them, that I had written them,” Hunt said. “It was the same when I had my stroke. I had to look at photo albums and I had kept journals of the funny things my kids had said and done. But I don’t have many memories. I don’t have memo-ries between the pictures.

“About eight months after the fall, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt words actually downloading into my head. I could see the words. It was as if the ligands and receptors had turned back on, the synapses in my brain. I was laughing. This went on for about four hours.”

Another result of the brain injury for Hunt was seeing only in black and white for about 10 days.

“One day, I was just staring off, looking at the wallpaper, and suddenly it went from black and white to color. I thought ’Wow. Those cones and rods have started firing again.’”

“Six years later and strange things still happen,” Hunt said. “Things are still coming back. Anyone with a brain injury can re-late. I was medium to mild brain injured,” Hunt said. “But it’s nothing compared to what some people experience.”

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