Life After Traumatic Brain Injury: A Journey of Resilience and Caregiving

David and his wife smiling by a stone arch

On November 11, 2010, life forever changed when I was struck by a newly licensed driver. I sustained multiple injuries that included a traumatic brain injury. While virtually everyone who I was close to at the time was affected, it's a sure bet that the rest of the world didn't skip a beat. After all, I was only one person of millions of others who sustained a brain injury that year. I did so in a small town in a small state. Life for the rest of the world no doubt went on uninterrupted.

As the years passed, life for those close to me also continued its inevitable forward march. Our children grew up, graduated, bought homes, and some even had children of their own. The fact that I had a brain injury in 2010 did nothing to slow the progression of life. Children age, and so do parents.

In 2019, I lost my beloved mom after an acquired brain injury, which resulted from a stroke a full year earlier. Because of the stroke and the acquired brain injury, her last year was relegated to a locked memory unit. Fast forward to the present, and another inevitability of life has come to pass as my dad recently started the final chapter of his life and is now under hospice care.

Since my crash 2010, I've had a front-row seat to life defined by the roles of caregivers and those who need their care. Though I am one of the lucky ones living a full and meaningful life since my brain injury, my wife, Sarah, keeps a justified watchful eye over me. Though my executive function is close to my pre-injury level, I have occasional bouts with questionable judgment calls. While we both hesitate to use the term caregiver, Sarah does cares deeply for me on so many levels.

As my father’s health declined, I became his primary caregiver. Thankfully, it is a role that Sarah and I are both sharing and leaning into. But I have unseen challenges unique to being a brain injury survivor, one of which is that I am prone to emotional overload. In addition, my memory often fails me and my thoughts can be as scattered as fireflies in a glass jar. And all of these challenges can come on a good day. Add in the stress of end-of-life care, and an hour or a day or more can feel completely and utterly overwhelming.

But in what may sound odd, I am grateful that I am a brain injury survivor. You see, I've had well over a decade to develop and refine compensatory strategies that have not only improved the quality of my life but have also made those closest to me less concerned about my ability to navigate any given day.

To keep everything in order for my dad’s care, Sarah and I are writing everything down. Medications, doctors' appointments, conversation notes with visiting nurses — you name it, it's been written down.

And self-care has never been more important. Over the last few years, I've deeply embraced mindfulness as a way of improving the quality of life. Staying present in the moment, especially during times that feel especially uncertain, has proven to be a lifesaver. All I need be concerned about is the present, and if that is too much (and it often is), then I focus on my breath and bring myself back to the moment.

To say that I am different now is an understatement, but not all the changes are bad ones. I have more empathy and compassion now than I ever did before my TBI. I see life with a deeper clarity. My stripped-down verbal filter has been such a gift; never have I been more open with my feelings. Regularly, I tell Dad that I love him. He only recently started replying in kind.

While I am fully aware that we have a tough road ahead, I feel ready to move through whatever comes next. After all, I really only need to worry about making today a well-lived day. Tomorrow is none of my business.