Besides dealing with the consequences of my own traumatic brain injury, I became my dad’s caregiver in August 2012. He and my stepmother had only been married three months when he had a fall in 2005, fracturing his neck and sustaining a TBI. My mom had previously died from a fall that resulted in a skull fracture and traumatic brain injury. Dad functioned pretty well but needed assistance in some daily activities. When my step-mom died in July 2012, he could not live alone, so I packed him and what we could carry in our Beetle convertible and had the rest of the things he wanted to keep shipped to his new home with us.
My dad died this past December. While scanning old photos for my dad’s Irish wake, I found something special—a letter I’d hand written to myself on September 22, 2003, marked: To be opened six months later. In 2002, on the Monday morning of Presidents’ Day weekend, I had a fall on ice and received my sixth concussion with more significant ongoing effects than the previous ones. I don’t have any memory of writing the letter, but when I read it all these years later, I was pretty impressed with what I had to say. Especially since I remember that when my rehab staff recommended journaling after my TBI, my entries were really depressing—a litany of what was going wrong and how every day was a bad one.
The letter to myself questions how I’m doing and lays out some things I need to be doing on my journey to recovery. I have no memory of opening it six months later. It’s likely I put it in such a good place that I never found it until recently. Here’s the letter I found:
It’s been six months. Have you made progress? Are you at peace? Have you sought out your support network?
This brain injury is an event, visible, tangible. My reaction to it is based on my “maps,” my past, and who it has made me. I can choose to change my maps, to interpret the “event” differently. I can also choose a different reaction/interpretation and what I do about my reaction.
This is all about choice, not whether or not I have a brain injury, but how I choose to let it affect me. Of course, there are some outcomes outside my control like retaining my job, my medical license, and getting disability income to name a few key areas. But there are things within my control. I can isolate myself from available support or seek it out. I can keep reminding myself of who I was and what I used to be able to do, or I can move on. I can beat myself up about what I can’t do, or rejoice about what I can.
Unlike many TBI survivors, I have excellent physical health, am financially viable, am still able to drive and care for my needs, and have many more abilities. I need to find and do what I can do well and what gives me joy (flying, outdoor activities, fixing up my house, crafts) and try to enjoy my days.
I need to find balance, to let myself rest when needed, and be less worried about what I accomplish. It’s not what I do, but who I am that is the important thing. I also need to look at different perspectives; look at all options, and not be so narrow-minded or afraid to step out of my comfort zone. I need to stretch, to reach, and likely I’ll find myself in a better place than where I was before my injury.
Yesterday is gone
tomorrow isn’t here yet
and today will be gone at the end of the day
so make the most of it.
The amazing thing is that I was right. A few months after I wrote this letter, I lost my job as a family physician/medical office administrator after a failed ten-month monitored return to work trial. It was devastating because I’d wanted to be a doctor from the time I was a young child. I’d joined a brain injury support group soon after I wrote the letter, and I don’t think I could have done as well as I did without that support. I also had a difficult six-year battle to regain medical clearance to be able to fly my airplane. I subsequently let my medical certificate expire and no longer fly—it was more work than fun with all of the tools and strategies I needed to fly safely. Losing my medical career and my ability to fly were both significant challenges to deal with.
I spent lots of time doing outdoor activities and met my life-partner camping in the mountains of Colorado. I know we would not have met if I had still been working, and I’m not sure she would have liked me as a busy work-centered physician as much as the person I became after my TBI. The only “work” I was doing and continue to do is volunteer activities to raise awareness about brain injury in the lay and medical communities.
Because of losing my medical career, I was available to help when my step-mom developed lung cancer with metastases to her brain, including being there at her death. I also was available to take care of my father for almost three and a half years, giving him a much better life than he would have had living in an assisted living facility or nursing home.
Things happen to all of us in our lives that are not what we would have chosen. We can use these events as challenges to overcome and move on with a good life, or as excuses to why we have such a terrible life. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we deal with it.
About Dr. Cheryle Sullivan
Dr. Cheryle Sullivan received her medical degree from Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine and completed a Family Practice Residency at Saginaw Cooperative Hospitals in 1986. She worked as a solo family physician in private practice in Michigan and as a family physician-clinic administrator for a large non-profit HMO in Colorado.
In 2002 a skiing accident caused her sixth concussion (mild TBI), ending Dr. Sullivan’s medical career. She had previously lost her mother at age 61 to a TBI caused by a fall and in 2005 her 73-year-old father sustained a neck fracture and a TBI in a fall. Dr. Sullivan was his caregiver for three and a half years until his death in December 2016.
Dr. Sullivan now follows her passion raising awareness about brain injury. Since 2002 she has presented on brain injury related topics to a variety of audiences including the general public, medical providers, educators, disability and domestic violence advocates, vocational rehabilitation staff and military staff and troops. She is the author of the book Brain Injury Survival Kit: 365 Tips, Tools and Tricks to Deal with Cognitive Function Loss and contributing author to the book Chicken Soup for the Soul, Recovering From Traumatic Brain Injury. In 2011 she founded the Facebook page “TBI Journey” where she shares resources and information about brain injury as well as general health and wellness topics important to us all.