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Mary Walia's Story: Humor and Moxie After a Brain Injury

Comments [10]

Laura Johnson, BrainLine

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Mary Walia's Story: Humor and Zest for Life After a Brain Injury

Karen and Mary Walia

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In many ways, Mary Walia is a typical 18-year-old — she goes to high school, loves adventure, and has a keen sense of humor. She is passionate about helping others and wants to use her public speaking skills to continue to reach out to people in need after she graduates. What is not typical about Mary is that she has lived almost half her life with a traumatic brain injury. She uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her arms, restricting the tasks she is able to do freely. People don’t always listen to what Mary has to say because her speech is slow and sometimes difficult to understand. It’s ironic, Mary says, “ … because even though I speak slowly, I think quickly. That means I have to be the patient one with others.”

Although her disability may be what people see immediately, the things that really stand out about Mary are the persistence, insight, and humor she and her family have woven into their daily experience. Mary’s curiosity and zest for life have impressed her friends and family since she was a toddler. Her mother, Karen Davis Walia, tells stories of “very-Mary-moments” in which her daughter is simultaneously astute, genuine, and comic. It’s easy to admire the energetic girl who seems well on her way to becoming a community leader or maybe a performance artist.

Life changed abruptly on a hot July day in 2002. Nine-year-old Mary was hit by a car as she crossed the street to get ice cream, just two blocks from home. Her injuries to her brain and body were catastrophic. Mary had diffuse hemorrhaging in the space between her brain and skull, a fractured femur, a bruised lung, and a possible spinal cord injury. She was resuscitated before being airlifted to the hospital in a coma. Against all the odds, Mary survived, and she has been working ever since to get better, day-by-day.

Karen has been Mary’s caregiver and advocate through every transition: from ICU to rehabilitation to home to school. One particularly wise doctor summed up her role when he told his medical students, “Moms know first.... Parents know their children better than you ever will, and your protocol needs to reflect that.”

As Mary worked to regain her speech and motor skills, Karen dealt with an array of challenges to adapt to their new lives. These included finding an accessible home and a new job and fighting seemingly endless battles with the health insurance company (sometimes representing herself in court). An unexpected challenge was learning to navigate the special education system. Though she had years of experience as a high school teacher, Karen often felt that she had to become the “difficult parent” as she had to fight with the school district to get Mary’s needs met.

Though she was placed in special education under the correct eligibility category, people who worked with Mary had no formal training in brain injury. She was the only student in her school who needed both physical support and regular education academic classes. Often her assignments were not modified to accommodate her physical needs. More hurtful, people who worked to support Mary’s physical needs did not always recognize her cognitive capacity or realize that she remembers what it was like not to have disabilities. It frustrates her that “people think because of my slow speech that I am not intelligent, or they treat me like I’m younger than I am. They are uncomfortable with what happened to me and assume I don’t understand things — although I do, very well. I know a heck of a lot! Maybe more than I should!”

Describing how they overcome difficulties like these, Mary and Karen both say that one of their biggest assets is taking a day-by-day approach to life, especially embracing opportunities to laugh. Seeking out irony buoys daily events and can help them get through situations where they have little control. As Mary dryly noted, “Sometimes we see strange things — we joke around.”

Listening to Mary and Karen talk, you can tell how much humor factors into their patterns of thought. Her mother recounts, “When Mary got her new power-chair — I’m really trying hard not to call it an ‘electric-chair’ — we were out on the sidewalk and our neighbor says, ‘Oh, Mary, be careful, you’ll get hit by a car!’ and Mary says, ‘Been there, done that.’”

Asked why they use humor as a coping tool, Karen explained that she and Mary decided a long time ago to see the funny side of daily events and noted that laughing “helps everyone else relax, too.” This approach can help groups work together more smoothly and can encourage people to collaborate to solve problems.

For mother and daughter, taking life one day at a time and learning to laugh go hand-in-hand. As Karen says, “It beats crying over it. I think we’re lucky. We’re no saints — we have our up and down days — but on the whole, Mary has a very good ability to look at her bulletin board and the pictures on her wall and say ‘I’m happy. [If I hadn’t had a brain injury], I wouldn’t have swum with the dolphins. I wouldn’t have met the amazing people I’ve met or learned some of the things I’ve learned; it hasn’t all been bad.’”

Mary describes her feelings in the text of a speech she has written: “I get asked a lot about what life is like, since I was once “normal.” Sometimes life is kind of difficult from my perspective, but more or less, it’s just what happened. I can’t change it now. I can’t go back for a ‘do-over,’ so I guess I’ve just got to deal with it. If I think about my life being sad or bad, I’ll never get anywhere.”

Written exclusively for BrainLine by Laura Johnson, Center on Brain Injury Research and Training, Western Oregon University.

Comments [10]

That is an amazing story! I remember babysitting for this young girl, when I was in high school! Karen was/is such a wonderful, warm, encouraging, teacher. It does not surprise me at all that her daughter is the same way. I hope that you two continue on your journey and are able to give others and yourselves as much happiness and joy that is infinitely possible. Keep laughing and enjoying the moments, because they truly are a blessing. XOXOOXXOXOXO

Jul 20th, 2013 11:06am

Thank you all again for commenting on my story. I hope you all find answers to your questions with what to do with your children. I am here to help. Love, Mary Walia

Apr 9th, 2012 5:05pm

Thank you for giving us some hope, our 10 year old daughter was involved in a 4 wheeler accident on 2-12-12 and although she was wearing a helmet she went into cardiac arrest and has an anoxic brain injury, the doctors said she wouldn\'t make it through the night, this is day 25, she is breathing on her own, we have hope for quality of life. Keep up the good work Mary

Mar 8th, 2012 4:29pm

For a mom here only 4 months into my daughters brain. This story gives me Hope. I want only the best for my daughter and struggle with am I capable of giving her the help. You are an inspration and like I said it gives me hope.

Mar 8th, 2012 4:11pm

Thank you all and may God Bless each and every one of you. And I want to thank you for all the support your comments give my mom and I. How do I keep busy? I just think of things I can do. I love shopping, and I love to write fiction and non-fiction. We just moved to a location where I can get to more places and events. A housing development did not offer such access. We always had to get in the van to go places.

Dec 17th, 2011 6:34pm

I want to say that this story has inspired me.....I am a mother of a 15 year old who was involved in a MVA six years ago when she was nine.....She is now wheel chair dependent, she only has use of one arm and she also remembers life without disabilities....Right now she is really missing her "old self".....I would love to hear more about what you do to keep your self busy...

Oct 27th, 2011 7:54pm

This story crystallizes what individuals and families do go through in the process of recovery from brain injury. They are stories indeed of perseverance, courage and love.

Jun 16th, 2011 11:32am

Mary's mother, Karen has been a BrainSTEPS team member here in PA for 4 years now. She & Mary have given presentations to educators and do a phenomenal job! I have not met many people with Karen's vision. She is a spectacular person, as is Mary! We are so lucky to have Mary & Karen in PA!

Jun 16th, 2011 10:37am

Mary is an amazing young woman! The daily obstacles she conquers is humbling. Mary, her mother and other family members are truly examples of the power love and support have in ones life. Mary may your life give you every happiness.

Jun 15th, 2011 3:49pm

This story made me smile and cry at the same time. These are two courageous women and a testament to the fact that loving someone so strongly can so greatly improve life.

Jun 15th, 2011 2:42pm


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