Thursday, March 21, 2013

Brother's Birthday

Last week my youngest brother turned 22. Every year on Joe's birthday, I feel especially grateful that he is alive, because when he was 14, we almost lost him. He got hit by a car while crossing the street and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for a month, and even after he woke up, had to do months of intensive therapy to walk and talk again. I wrote a bit about the whole situation last year on his 21st birthday and also shared some news articles from that time.

Maybe it seems strange to talk about his brain injury after almost seven and a half years, but the thing is, he still has it and he is still changing and healing. His personality, medical concerns, and struggles are different every few months. Occasionally my friends will ask, "How's your brother?" which I appreciate for that exact reason- it's always changing! But it's a hard question to answer. There is no standard for which to measure his "progress". Where is he trying to get to? For someone whose brain damage was so severe that neurologists said he might be unresponsive and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, isn't anything more than that a success? Is the goal for him to live independently, or just be happy? Brain injury is not like a disease that can be medicated, or a tumor that can be removed. It is a permanent, elusive issue that science and modern medicine still grapple with.

But there is definitely a lot of good to share, even in the last year. Like any young man going from 21 to 22, he has matured noticeably. He is waaaaaay more appropriate with women. He writes little essays about what makes life worthwhile. He has worked at the same golf store successfully for two years, originally placed in a mentored employment program through Children's Hospital. He still has frequent seizures, though most the time they are mild and he can feel them coming, and lay down and call for immediate help (usually our parents).

Of course, there are still hard and terrifying moments. He is not always treated kindly by strangers or acquaintances. He can be very confrontational with authority figures and law enforcement and is often on the verge of getting himself into trouble. Also, while his seizures have become more frequent but less severe, he will occasionally have a really bad one. A few months back we were at my mom's house for my niece's 4th birthday party, and a bunch of little kids were playing in the backyard on the sunny day. Joe started having a seizure.... and it just went on, and on, and on. My parents, sister, and I were huddled around him, waiting for it to stop, desperately looking at each other's faces for the point when long was too long. It was like the air went stale and music had stopped. Joe's nose started turning purple and he seemed too far away and wasn't coming back to us. "Yeah, now is time to call the paramedics," we agreed. It was the most terrifying moments I've felt in years, like I was falling. I felt absolutely sick watching a seizure last so long.

I went out front to meet the ambulance, and by the time they got to him, he was in a weird half-seizing/half-agitated state that I have never seen before. He was thrashing and fighting some invisible force. They ended up taking him to Northwest Hospital and heavily sedating him before running all sorts of tests. They never concluded what had triggered such a massive seizure, so they sent him home and said that they had given him enough drugs to sedate a small elephant, and that he probably wouldn't be able to walk for awhile. However, in typical Joe fashion, he defied usual medical expectations and walked bleary-eyed up and down the stairs to his room.

The end of that summer, when Joe came out of his coma, I remember thinking it was like a rebirth. He had to learn to walk and talk again. He had to be completely taken care of and then slowly get more independence. He was literally like a new person. Different body, voice, personality. For a long time after the accident, I used to call his cell phone just to listen to the voice mail recorded message. It was his old voice, my only chance to hear it, and I missed it. I sometimes wonder what he would be like right now without a brain injury, if the accident had never happened to that teenage boy just trying to cross the street. I wonder, but not for too long. I mostly try to celebrate the wonderful Joe that is still here with us.


Katherine Jenkins said...

Beautiful! How lucky Joe is to have a sister like you!

mysticmamajoy said...

Amber, Thank you For Sharing..Joe Has So Much Beauty in his Life, and You Help Amplify it...

mysticmamajoy said...

Amber, you are such a wonderful sister and woman. Joey will be fine in his life, and I love your suspport of Joey.