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July 28, 2010 / Mark Kerrigan

Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors and Keys to Success

When a person’s head is slammed into an immovable object like a dashboard or hit with a baseball bat, the brain, which is about a three-pound mass of gray matter with the consistency of gelatin, is forced into the front of the head and then recoils or moves to the back of the head, much like a water-balloon dropped onto the ground bounces. In the same manner of the water-balloon, the brain bounces from one side of the skull to the other–in this case, it’s front to back. This phenomenon is called coup and contrecoup.

Though the majority of autonomic functions—breathing, digestion, gross-motor control—all originate in the brain stem at the back of the head, the higher-functioning processes such as sequencing and planning and decision making all take place in the front of the head.

Many survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) find that they have difficulty in school or at their jobs after they return. The problem is that though they may have retained 90 percent of their intellectual abilities, they often cannot plan time for homework, extra work at home, cooking or cleaning after they get home from work or school, etc…

Because TBI survivors—including stroke victims—typically have short-term memory problems, therapists encourage them to make lists or write down what they do, as a way to jog their memory. When in school, teachers and professors may instruct the students to write down homework assignments but often fail to follow-through to make sure it gets done.

And sometimes TBI survivors even forget that they have written anything down, so they wind up omitting the assignment. What survivors need is to have a support system—whether parents, family, church members or even an accountability group—to make sure they follow through with both writing assignments down and getting them completed in time to turn them in for a grade.

This support system can last a few months or several years, depending on how well the survivor does remembering to take theses steps on his or her own. It is when the survivor becomes irritated or embarrassed by others trying to help that a problem arises.

For years, I ignored my head injury. I told myself and those around me that I was completely normal. This was not the case, and I wonder if my actions or inactions to take advantage of the support systems around me would have made any difference in my life today. But that is neither here nor there. I didn’t accept my head-injury as part of my new life.

Tips and tricks to promote memory and organizational skills:

Specialists who work with brain- and head-injuries know that one of the keys to a  successful recovery is repetition. Not just one, or 10, but hundreds of times. Keep after whatever it is you want until it comes naturally. Whether it is inflection while speaking or learning how to walk without a limp, therapists will tell you that you just have to keep practicing. Much like typing, the more you do something, the better you get at it.

Work on a schedule. Start by writing down all the things you must do in your morning routine. From getting out of bed to brushing your hair, everything you do in the morning needs to be written down with a specified time next to it. And try to maintain that same order from day to day. The survivor should do this until he/she can get these jobs or tasks finished without the help of a piece of paper or being reminded to stay on task.

If the survivor has trouble writing, he/she can use a tape recorder to capture thoughts or just take down notes. Some of the most successful writers, doctors and attorneys, employ this tactic.

Make lists! The key to being a success, and feeling good about yourself is being productive. In addition to getting mundane things done, you will find that you have more time for the things that you really want to do. You need to keep a list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks or chores that you need to do in order to have the life you want.

When you are finished with an item on your to-do list, mark it off. It’s a great feeling when you look back at the day’s list and see that you accomplished seven out of eight items you wrote down. Often, if I do something not on my “Mark’s Mission,” I’ll write it down anyway just so I can mark it off.

Keep a diary or journal. Keep track of the things you want to do in the coming days and weeks. Write about what frustrated you each day, or how you felt and why. To improve your memory, write down what you had for lunch on a particular day, and then come back a day or two—or even a week—later to see if you can remember what you had.

If you are a TBI survivor, the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to persevere. Stay with your recovery until you get the life you knew back. If you are the caregiver or family member of a survivor, don’t let them give up. Keep pushing until they can’t give you any more, and then push a little more. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.



Leave a Comment
  1. Garry Prowe / Jul 28 2010 3:16 pm

    In my work I’ve come across way too many survivors who refuse to acknowledge their brain injuries. This becomes even more of a problem when the people around them also refuse to acknowledge the brain injury.

  2. Dick / Oct 14 2011 11:56 pm

    While I agree, as a spouse of a TBI survivor, that you should keep pushing and pushing, and there will be improvement,sometimes extensive improvement, you and anyone else who writes about TBI have to admit, and address, the fact that, at some point, the TBI survivor reaches a point beyond which they cannot improve. Further, you say that the survivor should keep persevering until they get back the life they knew. Please be honest here. Many survivors will NEVER get that life back, no matter how hard or long they persevere. I know. We’ve been at it over 17 years, and her life that she had before is NOT coming back. Hope and striving, of course. But a dose of hard-nosed reality is necessary, too. False hopes lead to greater depression.

    • kelly / Jan 2 2012 7:06 am

      Dick, thank you for saying that. I had my tbi 21 years ago and the first several years after I tried to be “normal” and just convinced myself I was dumb when something was hard. My Mom has always told me that I made straight a’s in school and never studied So, for years after the head injury, I would always try to learn thngs without reading or studying then just convince myself I was dumb when I didn’t get it. Now, after 21 years, I have finally come to accept that I might actually need to read directions and learn how to do things and even then it takes a while. But that’s okay! I hope your wife is okay! I imagine it can be just as hard, if not harder, on the family as the patient.



  1. If I Only Had a Brain Injury E-Book |

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