The Luckiest Day of My Life - A Survivor's Story
A day in June of 1991 was the luckiest day of my life. That was the day that I survived an almost certain death. I was working in Wyoming as a railroad trainman for Burlington Northern Railroad, when our train collided with another train. The accident claimed the life of our Engineer, and sent me to the hospital for 40 days with a head injury.
Initially there were huge gains in my recovery, and then slower gains. I continued to see improvements, but I would not recover to the extent that would allow me to return to my former occupation on the railroad. I agonized over that loss, and all of the things which I had lost as a result of the accident. It was a grieving process. At the same time I felt very fortunate, because in fact I was very fortunate -- I had survived against million-to-one odds.
It was six months after my injury when I first became aware of the Oklahoma City Head Injury Support Group. But I did not decide to attend a meeting until another six months had passed -- I was sure that I wouldn't have anything in common with those people -- I was not like them. That's what I thought. But eventually I did decide to give it a try. At my first meeting I felt very welcomed by the group, and I began to see that these were just regular people like me who happened to share a common bond -- life after head injury.
After approximately 2 1/2 years of recovery, it was time to come to grips with the fact that I needed to make a career move, so I became a client of Oklahoma Vocational Rehabilitation. Through my Voc Rehab counselor, I enrolled in a computer programming training program offered by one of the facilities that serves persons with disabilities. This was a one-year program (40 classroom hours per week) designed to train people with disabilities for a new career in computer programming. I received a lot of encouragement and support from my friends at the OKC Head Injury Support Group -- and I would certainly need that support and understanding from those who knew about head injury.
It was during my year of Voc Rehab that I learned first-hand about the fact that, unfortunately, there is such a lack of understanding by the public about brain injury. One would think that an organization that serves people with disabilities, whose very reason for existence is assisting people with disabilities, would be very knowledgeable and understanding about people with head injuries. But, in my opinion, that was not the case.
Our computer classroom/lab was located in a room adjacent to an extremely noisy contracts area. Throughout our entire day, there was ongoing hammering, sawing, riveting, rolling of heavy metal barrels across concrete flooring, operation of noisy machinery, fork lift operations, sorting of nuts and bolts down long metal chutes, etc. Because of my attention and concentration deficits, I had a very difficult time maintaining my train of thought in such a noisy environment. After I complained and asked that something be done about this problem, I was perceived as a "troublemaker". It was made clear to me that those who were not considered to be "team players" (as defined by those in charge) would have a difficult time.
Another glaring example of the lack of sensitivity and understanding of brain injury was when I asked for the reasonable accommodation of being allowed some extra time to take exams, and to be allowed to take them in a quiet area. This request, too, was initially met with a negative response. It took a visit from my Voc Rehab counselor to remind them of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.). A reasonable accommodation for a disability during test-taking, is something that has been upheld time and time again by complaints under the A.D.A.
I graduated from computer programming training at the end of 1994, and got a job working as a programmer at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. After our graduation ceremony, the Executive Vice President of the disability facility came up to me and said that she would like to thank me for "pointing out some things that needed to be seen." I believe and hope that I made a positive difference.
I feel strongly that each of us has to be our own advocate and an advocate for our cause, and help pave the way for those who come behind us. Our cause should be the very Mission Statement of the Oklahoma Brain Injury Association: "To facilitate the receipt of services by individuals with brain injury and family members through the provision of education, referral, advocacy, and empowerment programs; to foster prevention of future head injuries through education and legislation; and to advocate for a full range of services within the state."
My own experience has convinced me that we have a lot of work ahead of us if we are going to accomplish the goals of our Mission Statement. That is one reason why I feel privileged to have been recently elected to the state Board Of Directors of the Oklahoma Brain Injury Association, and I am happy to be helping with the statewide newsletter. I believe strongly that together we can make a difference!
A day in June of 1991 was the luckiest day of my life. On that day I was given a second chance, and I intend to make the most of it. Life after head injury may never be the same . . . but it can still be great!