We never know if the course of our lives may be altered.
All we can hope is that there is help when we need it.
Editor’s Note: The following is an open letter dictated by Kelly Buchanan to her fellow hockey players, following a traumatic brain injury she received while scrimmaging with her amateur hockey team.*****
Hey there everybody – I propose that we wear helmets, both for scrimmage and for BTSH. I’ve been meaning to address this for a while now, but these months have been a little difficult. All the same, I apologize for having put it off this long.
On March 9, I suffered TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) at Sunday scrimmage when I took a shot to my upper right forehead*. It has come to my attention that many of you have no idea that this happened, even those of you who were there that day (and there were a lot! We resorted to playing two-minute shifts). Additionally, I believe that the severity and significance of this injury is lost on those who
do know about it, probably because my methods of coping involve cracking jokes, telling funny anecdotes, focusing on my improvements, and repeating only the positive news.
However, the reality is that my life will change because of that shot to my head. It is very likely that I have suffered permanent brain damage, that there will be lingering effects on my long-term health, and also, the economic ramifications of this injury are far-reaching. I personally believe things happen for a
reason, and that ultimately, wherever this path leads me, my life will change for the better. That said, if I improve enough to play hockey again, I will wear a helmet. Cause while the silver centerpiece of all this will one day reveal itself, I will make every effort to avoid following this detour twice.
First off, you should know that doctors & nurses at Beth Israel marveled at me, saying I have a “guardian angel” and that I am “extremely lucky”. I later learned they put me through rush triage and cut me in front of dozens of patients and into the CT scan. They said the ball was traveling a minimum of 50-60mph at impact, equating the damage to my forehead to that of car crash victims who flew
through the windshield head first at that speed. My brain should have hemorrhaged, and my chances of making a full recovery are exponentially greater because it did not. They gawked at how the ball struck me at precisely the thickest point of the human skull. A few inches to the right (above the ear) and it would have either killed me or caused severe permanent brain damage (do you have a living will?). The good news was that I got off with only a severe concussion w/ amnesia, swelling of the brain, and a dislodged balance crystal.
I wish this were enough to convince you. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s not. I was kinda surprised the other day when I finally made it out to a game and saw that not one person who has seen me since the accident was wearing a helmet. Am I handling this TOO well? I guess you’ve only seen me at the moments where I’m well enough to be social. So I’ve gone the extra mile, and I’ve spelled out my
adventures-in-brain-damage, including the humiliating stuff, with the hope that no one else in this league will have to write the sequel. This is how that “extreme luck / guardian angel / good news” translates into daily life:
23 out of 24 hours I lacked the motor skills to speak, stand or walk. The minutes when I had energy, my speech was absurdly slow, stuttered and slurred. I wore the same clothes for a week at a time and developed infections from lack of hygiene. Close friends came over to help me bathe, bring me food and meds, take out the trash, do my dishes. I had double vision, blurry vision, was so sensitive to light that I lay in the dark with sunglasses on. I had constant vertigo, dizziness, nausea, and vomited in my mouth a lot. I swallowed it down again since I couldn’t stand. The pain was a combination of searing, burning, stinging, open-flesh-wound-with-salt sensations that alternately throbbed all over my entire skull or turned into ice picks being jabbed through my forehead. I cried while I brushed my teeth (frayed nerves of swollen brain jiggling in skull). And yet my memory was so fried that minutes
later I’d ask my roommate why my toothbrush was already wet. I wrote the times of my narcotic doses on my arms and hands (prescribed in the ER). Most of that month, I just lay perfectly still. I was conscious, yet my body was asleep – the feeling you get when your foot or leg falls asleep engulfed my entire body. Often my mind was blank too. Not a single thought would float through. Friends physically hoisted me into a car and got me to a neurologist in week 4. Between fighting insurance and planning how I would eat every day, I didn’t get to it ‘til then.
When I began moving around again, there was a delay between my brain’s command to do something and my body’s execution of that command. I’m talking – “hey hand, pick up that DVD”. 5 seconds later my hand would rise and begin the reach. “Hey fingers, open that DVD”. 6 seconds later my fingers fumbled with the plastic encasing. 15 minutes after I selected a DVD, I had it in the player. Every gesture was a battle, and frankly, it was frightening. I was so sensitive to light that I lay with my back to the TV and just listened. I slept a lot of the day and spent my waking energies navigating the red tape of my health insurance and coordinating my friends’ visits. They continued to bring me food, prescriptions, videos, and take care of my mail & my laundry and any other thing I needed. On neurologist’s orders, I tried walking a half a block to a block every day that I was well enough to do so. My personality emerged towards the end of month 2. In week 9, I believe, I held my first witty conversation with someone in real time (no delayed responses) for a solid 20 minutes, and I completed a few daily tasks on my own without anyone assuming I was mentally retarded.
I have found myself in so many absurd misadventures from the moment I left Moffo that day. I will share one that illustrates the challenges of memory damage. In late May, I went back to PA to recuperate with family. I forgot my pillbox, so I wrote “AM Med” on my hand to remind myself of the nerve-numbing painkillers I was to begin the next morning. Apparently, I “remembered” to
take it many many times. Observing neither this, nor that the water heater was turned off, I decided to take a long hot bath in what turned out to be freezing cold water. Fortunately, at some point, it occurred to me to get out of the tub. It was then that I noticed that I was barely breathing, despite my best efforts, and that I couldn’t feel my heart. Was I not circulating blood? Then I saw my toes were blue and that I could not move them. I looked in the mirror and my face was a ghastly white-blue – my lips pure blue. I was so far along in hypothermia that I wasn’t even shivering. Even though I still didn’t put it together, I thought I was having an allergic reaction to the medicine, I at least had the clarity to stumble to the phone and call 911. After I stabilized, the EMTS had a hearty laugh when I took off my oxygen mask, and in my hypothermic stupor, declared “Oh my God! For the first time in months, I don’t have a headache!” Ding Ding Ding. Hey, at least the pills worked.
Here we are in Month 4. I walk with a cane and can get anywhere from 2 block to 6 blocks depending on the day. I have vertigo, which often leads to wheezing, nausea, and vomiting. My friends take care of my groceries and laundry, but on Friday I made it to the pharmacy, 5 blocks away, and filled my
own prescription. (Go Kelly!!) I am unable to take public transportation, nor can I drive a car. Sometimes my hands shake… sometimes I stutter and slur… My roommate discourages me from cooking since I lit a small fire in month 2, but I make sandwiches and microwave meals. I have a constant fire-ball headache that intensifies when I walk, lift things, shift my weight. Artificial lights
continue to cause burning throughout my brain – the computer screen is particularly disagreeable. (I wrote this on paper and have typed it up in many installations over the past week). And frankly, none of this bothers me much at the moment. For now, I’m thrilled to feel like myself, mentally anyway. I began physical therapy for TBI patients today (vestibular rehabilitation), and those silly little exercises totally kicked my brain’s ass, which is good news. I know they’re doing something.
I continue to see improvements every week, and it is still possible that I could make a full recovery. It may take 4 months; it may make take a year and 4 months. With vestibular rehabilitation, my end goal is to walk without a cane. In time it should help my balance, and end the vertigo, nausea, and
vomiting. I hope very much that I’ll be able to run again as well. I know I’ve got a long line of physical therapies and exercises ahead of me, which is reassuring. Hooray for advances in treating brain injuries.
Unfortunately, my neurologist feels my lapses of amnesia and cognitive dysfunction are abnormally acute, and that I may have suffered permanent cognitive brain damage. This news is worsened by the fact that she made these observations in our routine checkups, without me sharing ANY of my fun stories. I will undergo a full neuropsychological evaluation come September, once all swelling should
have subsided. This extensive testing will pinpoint the problem areas of the brain and determine whether I would benefit from cognitive remediation (training in how to manage cognitive brain damage in everyday life).
While I am not thrilled by this news, I am less thrilled by what it will mean to my family. Who should be responsible for me should I retain permanent brain damage? Should my parents gamble their retirement on my recovery? What makes this worse is that last fall, upon seeing the BTSH welts on my legs, my mother asked me to please please wear a helmet. And I LAUGHED at her. “It’s just a plastic ball, Momma, NOBODY wears a helmet.” And while my family is in no position to help me the way they’d like, I am in a financial crisis. I had a couple months’ expenses set aside as a rainy day fund, but I was not prepared for THIS. I have spent more money doing nothing than I ever have in this city, by ordering in every single meal, taking door to door car services every time I leave the house, and continuing to pay rent and bills while I have not worked for a day in months. My stepmom helped me file for disability through social security, but the application takes from six months to a year to process. Relations have volunteered to move me out of Brooklyn and take me in until I can work again – but my health insurance, HIP, will only pay for health treatment in New York City and I need to complete the TBI physical therapies if I want any shot at running again. And yes, that makes the PA ambulance out-of-pocket. Come fall, HIP will pay for neuropsychological evaluation, but the catch 22 is that if the damage is “permanent”, HIP won’t pay for the cognitive remediation as it not considered “curative”. I will still complete the evaluation to have a better understanding of what I’m up against.
On March 8, my world looked so different. My physical and mental health was at its’ best ever. I was supporting myself full time with a career in music. I had health insurance, a savings account, and the luxury of spending money on hair color and vintage clothes, and I had worked for years to get myself into that position. I was prepping to release a new CD in late April, had a pick of heavy-hitting lawyers to shop it, and an MTV team interested in creating a reality series around it. NY1 paid me to time their 15 year anniversary ads with my release – and then I dropped the ball on everything.
Please don’t misread me – woe is NOT me, all is NOT lost, things WILL work out for the better. “For the better” will simply be a little different than what I had planned for myself in 2008. And hey – I had no idea I even had so many phenomenal friends here in NYC and then poof they emerged from every corner- I just want to illustrate that things can change in a heartbeat, and that a helmet can prevent you from having your own March 8 vs. March 9 scenario, or even save your life.
This injury is indeed a kinda big deal, and yet, it is SO MUCH LESS than what it could have been. I only hope that one of us facing the prospect of permanent brain damage is enough to make all of us protect our heads – for our children, for our parents, for our spouses, for our friends, for ourselves.
Thanks for reading this far down, I genuinely put a lot of effort into writing you. As I am thick-skulled both for better and for worse, I’m sure that I’ll see you out at scrim/games soon enough. (I’ll be the one with a helmet!)
*Some have asked who shot the ball. Frankly that is irrelevant. Accidents are a part of every single game – both at scrimmage and at BTSH. The rules don’t need to change, the players don’t need to change, it’s our level of protection that needs to change.
To find out how to help Kelly with her recovery, visit www.kellybuchanan.com.