9 Strategies to Optimize Post-Brain Injury Recovery

Hugh Rawlins
Every Little Thing You Do Hugh Rawlins

When I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury fifteen years ago, I learned that every small step I took to return to health made a difference.

It took over a year of intense occupational, physical, speech, and cognitive therapy to regain the use of my left side, my balance, ability to walk, run, ride my bike, speak coherently, and increase my attention span and memory. In short, I began enjoying life once the cloud lifted (brain injuries heal slowly). It also took nearly a year for me to motivate myself to work hard again since I had executive function issues, but once I was able to motivate myself, my healing accelerated.

It wasn’t always easy, and I often felt like quitting, but the important thing is that I didn’t quit. I stuck with my rehab and listened to my family and friends even when I felt they were annoying.

In the past twelve years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me, “How did you do it? What did you do differently?” The first and only response to that question is that every individual and every brain injury is unique. Some injuries make it impossible for a person to regain his or her speech, balance, or memory. Other injuries require persistence, a healthy lifestyle, and rehab to reach success.

There are no guarantees, but there are smart choices and strategies that can optimize recovery after TBI. The following is a list I compiled as my answer to the many people in the beginning stages of TBI who have asked about my success over the years. I hope it helps.

1. Find doctors that you trust and follow sound advice.

Some doctors are more informed about TBI than others. This seems like obvious advice, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who do not follow through—who don’t exercise, eat right, or make an effort to rest and follow instructions—especially when it comes to doing the “homework” required of therapy.

2. I take short naps when I need them.

They help me rejuvenate myself and give me the energy to enjoy a full day that lasts well into the night.

3. I think about multiple ways to accomplish something.

Mental fatigue is harder on me than physical fatigue.

For this reason, I break my mental work into smaller segments of time. I might read the newspaper in the morning, balance my checkbook an hour or two later, and check email or work on the computer for only thirty minutes at a time. Taking a break in between mental work sessions allows me to stay energized.

4. I’m able to laugh at myself when I mess up.

This puts others at ease and helps me because then I’m not so hard on myself when I fail at something. In my book, the only failure in life is a failure to keep trying.

5. I (still) always consider the people in my company.

When in the company of new acquaintances, I tell myself to be quiet and not say too much because I know I’ll be at risk of saying something offensive off the top of my head. When I’m with family or friends, I am open and more talkative because they know me and understand that I sometimes express myself in unclear ways, and usually, we have a good laugh.

6. I always evaluate risk: both physically and mentally.

I ask myself these questions: How could I get hurt if I do this? If I do get hurt, what will be the likely injury? What plan do I have for escape? (If riding my bicycle on a road, I make sure there is a safe landing spot, grass, etc.) I leave extra length between other cyclists and especially vehicles. For mental risk, I think about places that are loud, noisy or have flashing lights (all three aggravate my symptoms and give me a headache). So I might choose to sit in a corner away from the crowd, or I may use earplugs (during a concert) to dull the noise.

7. I make sure to keep up social ties.

I will visit the surf shop to see a friend, make a phone call to reconnect with someone out of town or text a friend to catch up. These relationships enhance my life, and focusing on recreation is a welcome rest from “thinking” too much.

8. I make it a priority to exercise regularly.

I am fortunate that I love to exercise and be outdoors. I ride my bike, swim, surf, and walk with my wife. Exercise is a way of life and involves planning and research to maintain and improve physical and mental health. I also set goals by using a heart monitor, power meter, and Strava (a social network for athletes). Keeping track of progress provides motivation!

9. A few simple strategies that help me throughout the day include:

  • I manage my meds with a plastic med keeper to be sure I take my medicine on time and don’t take it twice.
  • I use alarms on my cell phone as reminders to do various activities.
  • I make an extra effort to drink liquids whenever I can to stay hydrated and because I have dry mouth from certain medications.
  • I still struggle with sleeping through the night so naps help.
  • When driving, if I feel tired, I pull over and take a power nap in the car.
  • I keep my wife’s cell phone number in my phone designated as ICE (In Case of Emergency), and wear an I.D. bracelet when cycling.
  • I talk about my feelings with trusted family members because it reduces stress and stress can exacerbate symptoms of TBI.

TBI is something that happened to me, but it’s not what defines me. Knowing that any moment could be my last makes me want to see, do, and enjoy as many people and as many experiences as possible.

Posted on BrainLine July 17, 2017.

Comments (10)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

I also received a brain injury and am still living under care for approximately 10 years! For the first couple of years I could barely wiggle now I’m eager to take part in any of the exciting adventures that are made possible for me to do! My one friend named Niko has been a very great help for me in my healing quest! Niko is not afraid of the fact that some things need to happen in order for me to do it, I love him for it, Niko and I have been able to stay friends for approximately 40 years! We ALWAYS have a blast while hanging out! For some what I would call a fun exciting day would put them to sleep! I still am unable to walk but I’m able to fully appreciate the scenes that I’m lucky enough to get to be apart of!

Thank You very much for this input and advice! I am only 22 years old and suffering from a very bad TBI from my epilepsy and recently surviving a brain aneurysm somehow and have been very hard on myself about it. I have felt alone and felt like I am never guna recover from it, but seeing and reading your story inspired me a lot, so thank you!

I have survived two separate TBIs from auto accidents and can relate to your very well written article. I have a message of hope and healing to share as well. Website is www.AMosaicOfTheHeart.com

Hi there I just read your story it gives me hope that there’s hope for me thank you. I also have a Tbi I was walking with my four year old son and a drunk driver hit us I saved my son but it got me i was in the hospital for months and I just got done with therapy over the summer it’s coming up on three years and I still have no movement on the left side of my face I continue to try everything I can but that’s ok to everything I accomplished that the doctor said I couldn’t but I do the same thing u do on a daily basis I’m glade that I’m not alone. I do have one question for you though do u think people treat you differently than they did before and do you think ur slower to get a joke or saying? Thank u again it helped me.

Hey a interesting story. I to had a TBI from a nasty car accident. Until the doctors told me I was unable to do anything again.

That was my wake up call to do what they said they couldn't. Its always important to keep a positive attitude. My sleep wasn't that great then came across something called Gabba which has been pretty amazing.

Life is pretty amazing, and a TBI really changes your out look on life. Something that has taught me a great deal about what you can do when you make the decision to move forward.

I need help with sleep. What is gabba? I googled it, and only found a cricket field and a game, nothing about sleeping.

Excellent advice. And your aside at the end ("knowing that any moment could be my last") is a reminder of the gift of treasuring life that comes with survival.
I was asked to contribute to BrainLine for their July 31 posting and am honored to be in Hugh Rawlins' company.

Thank you for this wonderful article. Makes me feel like I'm not alone on this journey that is all too new for me.

You are absolutely right and on point to everything. I believe that your positive attitude defines you. Thank you for sharing.