Sunday, September 10, 2000

Brain injury survivors find support




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        Jim Schweitzer says he will celebrate the 21st anniversary of his 40th birthday this month, and he gets a kick out of his own sense of humor. But there's another anniversary in his life that he recalls with a more somber attitude.

        On April 7, 1972, Mr. Schweitzer, a lifelong Anderson Township resident, turned right instead of left, and the road taken made all the difference. His 1964 Ford Fairlane tumbled into a ditch and he, in an era preceding mandatory seat belts, was unceremoniously propelled to the rear deck.

        “I had complete amnesia for that first month,” he explains, in a halting, deliberate speech that induces the listener to attend to every carefully enunciated word. “For that month, I didn't know who I was or who anyone else was. If you came near me, I would either grab you to hunt down a cigarette or punch you in the face . . . . I was in such intense pain — and I thought anyone near me must be responsible for that pain.”

        Still unable to stand, his erratic behavior inspired him to leap from his bed one day. He toppled backward, struck his head, and his identity and memory were restored.

        “I tried to tell doctors later that all they had to do with anybody who lost their memory was just hit 'em on the head,” he says,but his own resulting condition is no laughing matter.

        Mr. Schweitzer's traumatic brain injuries (one from the accident, another from the fall) resulted in hemiplegia — affecting one hemisphere of the brain — and are manifested in one blind eye, one deaf ear, an uneven gait, and a left hand that is crunched into a permanent fist.
       

Numbers growing

       

        After three months in the hospital and several more in rehabilitation, Mr. Schweitzer tried to return to his job at Cincinnati Bell.

        “I thought if you didn't work, you were a bum,” he says.

        Like many individuals with traumatic brain injuries, however, his endurance, attention span, ability to handle stress, and relationship with time were not at all what they had been the first 30 years of his life.The pressures of a job were simply more than he could handle.

        Mr. Schweitzer is one of 5.3 million Americans affected by head injuries, and the numbers are growing. According to the Ohio Brain Injury Association, the number of Ohioans living with long-term effects of traumatic brain injury is about 196,000, with 11,000 joining the ranks each year. An estimated 2,000 of those die each year, with another 3000 becoming permanently disabled. As in Mr. Schweitzer's case, the leading cause of most head injuries is motor vehicle accidents, followed closely by falls, sports injuries, and personal assaults.

        For some, there are physical manifestations of head trauma — paralyzed limbs, awkward movements, or alterations in speech. For many, however, head injury is an invisible disability that affects relationships, jobs, the ability to manage time, money and daily routines.

        “Understanding,” emphasizes Suzanne Minnich, executive director for the Columbus-based Ohio Brain Injury Association, “is key in helping people with brain injuries. If you understand a person's brain injury, why they do things the way they do, then it's much easier to accept their limitations.”

        Mr. Schweitzer is proud that he was the first survivor of a head injury to become a member of the executive committee for the state organization in 1986, and later to be one of the founding fathers of the National Survivors Council.
       

Conference scheduled

       

        The 19th annual conference of the Ohio Brain Injury Association will be held Sept. 28-29 at the Columbus Marriott North. It will provide valuable information and support to individuals with traumatic brain injuries, as well as family members, service providers, and professionals who work with people with brain injuries and other disabilities.

        “Paths to Self-Determination: Creating Choice and Community” is the theme for the event, and a host of national and regional presenters will lead sessions on employment, education, legal rights, faith communities, sexuality, depression, and more.

        To register for the conference or for additional information on traumatic brain injury, call the Ohio Brain Injury Association, (800) 686-9563.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: dkendrick@enquirer.com.
       

       



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