Brad Schmitz sustained his brain injury as a 13 year-old riding his bicycle around his hometown near Boise, Idaho in the United States. He and his wife and child recently moved to Australia.
“I am thirty-five years old now and my brain injury happened when I was twelve – two weeks before my thirteenth birthday (see photo at left). It’s interesting that you ask about my memory of it because that is the number one long-term effect my injury has had on my life. I prefer not to call it a disability, but at most times my memory is awfully fuzzy and in question.
I really have no memory of the injury itself or a lot of my life before the accident occurred. I have “imagined” it and what happened through the stories of my parents and others from that time.
Here’s what happened: The South Boise (Boise, Idaho, in the United States – my hometown) Little League Baseball All-Star tournament had just ended a few days previously and it was a hot summer day on August 1st, 1988. I decided to go and visit the love of my life then, Jennifer Angell, and to get there I had about a four and half-mile bike ride in front of me along busy Overland Road. I pulled out of my Countryman Estates neighborhood and pedalled along the right side of the road (with traffic in the US). My mom told me that I must have been hot and thirsty and either the Baskin Robbins ice cream shop or the snow cone shack I just passed on the opposite side of the road must have been tempting. So, just a few meters before Whitney Fire Station, I turned left into the road to make my way across to the other side.
And that’s when the accident happened.
The police and paramedics told me that as I entered across to the left lane I hadn’t noticed a car coming towards me that was traveling between thirty-five and forty-five miles per hour and it hit me head on. The car hit my right side and my head (with no helmet on) and I smashed the windshield and then flew fifty feet off of the car into a small canal next to the fire station. It was a blessing that this happened next to a fire station because I was immediately put in an ambulance and rushed to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center where I was under the surgeon’s care within twenty short minutes after impact. My dad told me that if it had been any longer they were sure I would end up dead or in a lot worse physical condition.
Dr. Michael Henbest was his name and he cut a hole in my head that started on the right side just above my hairline and continued for a half circle to the proximity of my right ear to relieve pressure and bruising. After the surgery my medical team decided I would heal best asleep so they put me into a ten-day barbiturate coma. When I awoke most of my cognitive and language skills were intact, but I was completely paralyzed on my left side. My parents have told me stories that as I awoke my brain did different things in its first few days of healing. For example, for a couple of days all I would do was cry. The next couple of days I would scream “f**k you” profanities to anyone next to my bed and kick and punch with my right hand and leg while my left side lay dead. The doctors told my parents it was just how the brain healed. After about three weeks in intensive care my doctors decided I was ready for therapy, so they moved me down to the third floor.
My days consisted of physical therapy to build back muscle, coordination, and balance that were lost during the coma. I had to learn how to walk again. Occupational therapy helped me by teaching me hand-eye coordination to do things like feed myself and comb my own hair. I had a great recreational therapist named Kelly Odell who became a personal mentor and brought all of the therapies together by incorporating them with fun activities I enjoyed. We even went camping on Shaffer Butte (where a local ski hill is during the winter) with a few other patients, which was really great.
Because my left lung collapsed I received respiratory and speech therapy as well. Other than that I didn’t get any physical injuries except scars on my left calf where my leg got tangled with a barbwire fence when I came down after getting hit. I was in the hospital for fifty-one days and when released was put on a plan to go back to school (8th grade) for half days for the first semester and then full days after Christmas. My mom would pick me up at lunch that first semester and I would go swimming for therapy at the YMCA five days a week. The doctors said I was at risk of having a seizure so I took medication for about a year and luckily never had one.
I’m not sure what my family was told in terms of recovery. I suspect that during the coma they were told that anything could happen- death, paralyzation, mental problems, but I think the odds went in my favor once I was on the therapy floor and left to my own determination to get better.
What was the recovery like? Challenges I faced?
Have you ever seen the movie “Regarding Henry” with Harrison Ford that came out in 1990 or so? His and my recoveries were a lot the same. He was a New York City attorney that got shot in the head and ended up in the hospital for a long stay. I felt his pain when he couldn’t walk or stand up and spent hours struggling to move on those metal bars. I felt his frustration when he didn’t remember and have a clue about whom he was before the injury occurred and totally confused about who he was then and who he was to become; I was very lucky though.
I had a really loving and supportive family and great group of friends that rallied for me through it all. Photographs are my memories now and I have one from my entire stay in the hospital. That was from a great 13th birthday party everyone threw for me at about the end of August, two weeks after my birthday and a couple weeks into therapy. I am unwrapping a gift on my wheelchair and the room is filled with family and friends.
What effects has my injury had on me overall? What do I find difficult?
About three and a half years after getting out of the hospital, while in the eleventh grade, I started researching and thinking about going to university. I also went to the career center at my high school. While researching I found a government agency called Vocational Rehabilitation that helped people with disabilities to go to school and get a career. Hmmm, I thought maybe I would qualify with all that had happened to me?
School wasn’t easy for me anymore after the injury. Grades went from straight A’s to B’s and C’s mainly because trying to remember lots of information for any test was about impossible to do. So I called up Voc Rehab and went in for an interview. My counselor Geri Williams thought I would qualify so she signed me up for some brain tests with a doctor and for a physical. I passed the physical, but the doctor found I had something like four or five learning disabilities based on test scores and what my records showed before the injury. With this, I did qualify for Voc Rehab help. I mention all of these because this diagnosis helped me understand what my limits and challenges were because of my brain injury. I was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my mid-twenties and most doctors think it was probably as a side effect from the injury.
I was born in America. What brought me to Australia?
I was born in America (Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho to be exact) and married to the great Helena Angeline Pagano on September 6th, 2009. One of her lifelong dreams was to go to school in Australia so we are here now as she is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Canberra.
What kind of work am I engaged in now?
Right now I have two jobs. I tutor English to students with the Southside Community Service and I work with the Living Skills Program of the Richmond Fellowship as a Youth Worker. Living Skills is a youth refuge for two sixteen-year-old boys that don’t live at home and need more support and direction to succeed. I serve as a mentor for these boys and help them with their day-to-day living.
Some people like to work in the field when they have experienced brain injury. Is that the case with me? What kind of things am I doing, would like to do?
You are right, my career and service path was shaped largely because of my brain injury experience. Two points to make here: and I hope it’s okay if I get a little spiritual/ religious with you. When I was just waking from my coma and in intensive care I told my mom that Jesus was with me during my coma. I don’t remember this. And from this, in a way, I felt inspired, and just decided at thirteen years old that I owed this Jesus for what He did for me in saving my life and giving me such a great recovery. So I decided to give back. Based on how much Beth Aubin (my physical therapist) and Kelly from Rec. touched my life while I was there by the time eleventh grade came around I knew I wanted to go into therapy as a career.
But back to the eighth grade…my opportunity to serve came almost right away. Shortly after getting out of the hospital a nurse from St. Al’s approached me about a program called Think First. This is where a nurse and survivor of a brain or spinal cord injury would go to junior high schools (grades 7 to 9) and high schools (grades 10 to 12) and give educational presentations on brain injuries and how to prevent them. The nurse would show a movie on brain injuries and then go over the physical effects of such injuries. She’d cover prevention techniques as well and at the end of the presentation the brain injured person would tell their story and how it affected their life. Everyone always said that was the best part of the presentation. The first one was very hard and ended with tears, good thing my dad was there to support me.
I learned a lot from doing these presentations at thirteen and fourteen years old. More than anything else I learned that I loved to give back. This then lead to my eleventh and twelfth grade years in high school. By this time I was getting serious about my studies and exploring university so I decided that I needed to start beefing up my CV and collecting letters of recommendation. So I went back to St. Al’s and started volunteering. I would go to the therapy floor and sit with, become friends with other teenagers that had suffered from brain and spinal cord injuries as well. And this is when I met Tami.
She was a senior in high school like myself and was on a long road trip to visit her mother in Pocatello. Her accident happened while driving with her girlfriend. She was looking for a CD and her friend took the wheel, then when she grabbed the wheel back, the car went out of control and they skidded and the car began rolling end over end. She received some really bad injuries and three or four brain and eye surgeries waited for her when she returned to Boise and St. Al’s in the ambulance. I first met her in the spring of 1993 as I would visit the hospital during my school lunch hour to volunteer. She would just be finishing therapy and over the first few weeks would fall asleep most days as we visited because she was so tired. After that though I saw improvements in her every day. Her laugh, smile, and attitude were contagious even from right there in the therapy ward of the hospital.
This was right at the end of her high school career and that meant that one big thing was coming up soon, her senior prom. She was dating a guy named Fernando when her injury occurred and he dumped her while she was in the hospital…what a punk. Our friendship grew over these weeks and I stepped up to the plate and asked if I could take her.
Since she was still a full-time resident at the hospital her doctor decided that she could only go for half of the dance and if we had an escort, which turned out to be her dad and step-mom. We went to dinner, got pictures taken, danced the night away and had a great time. And if you can believe it, that punk Fernando came up and tried to start a fight with me but it was broken up my Tami’s dad. He later apologized at her graduation ceremony. At the end of the night, I was honored to have her at my arm.
Besides volunteering with Tami I came across other opportunities to serve people throughout high school and university. I was introduced to a group called AMAS (Alternate Mobility Adventure Seekers). This was an organization designed to give people in wheelchairs and with other physical disabilities the opportunity to have some high powered adventure fun. My mom and I went to Austria when I was fourteen and skied the Alps for a few days with several people with physical disabilities. This group also sponsored tennis games for people in wheelchairs and I volunteered to help by collecting balls all over the court for these folks. My mentor Kelly was also involved by running summer camps for kids in wheelchairs and here too I was happy to volunteer and help out all I could.
By the summer’s end I left Boise and started my first semester in Pocatello at Idaho State University. There was a master’s degree in physical therapy there, it was inexpensive, and close to home, so that is where I decided to go. My studies in Pokey (Pocatello) only lasted one semester and I retuned home to Boise at Christmas and enrolled at Boise State. Too intimidated by the hard sciences leading to a physical therapy degree I enrolled in the social work program and after eight years of studying I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree. Since that time ten years ago I haven’t worked with any brain injured persons and have sure missed it at times, but have continued to serve by working as a counselor, mentor to troubled youth, teacher, educator, and volunteer.
I haven’t gone to graduate school myself over this time because I’ve never been sure of what program I want to pursue. Social work? Education? Business? Maybe…writing this essay sure is opening my eyes and heart that maybe the therapy field is the direction I need to go. I’m sure I would fall in love with a career a degree in physical or recreational therapy would provide.
Advice I would give to someone coming out of a brain injury?
It’s going to be hard.
Everything in life is going to seem different so surround yourself with people who can support and inspire you to lead the way. You are going to have to work harder than you could ever dream. Walking, remembering where you parked the car at the shopping mall (after walking around the car park for two hours to find it), remembering any subjects’ information for a high school or university test, are all going to be challenges that will require a higher level of focus and discipline to succeed.
The more organized you are the easier it will be to remember and keep your life manageable. Example…just after getting out of the hospital and going back to school in the eighth grade I started writing to-do lists each night for the next day. I would write this list on a three by five inch card so it could be easily folded, put into my pocket, and transported anywhere I needed to go. Appointments, school, meetings, phone calls I need to make, emails I needed to send, whatever I had to get done that day would go on this card. As things got done I would scratch them off of the list and as new meetings, calls, appointments, whatever came up they would be written on the back of the card, thereby becoming my memory. If it got written down it would not be forgotten. Then when I got home at the end of the day all of the new appointments, things to remember etc. on the back of the card would be written onto my office size calendar in my room for their respective time and day. Each night before bed a new to-do list would be written for the next day and each evening when home new events and information was documented accordingly.
I have found this system to be full proof in being able to get a guy with no memory well organized and 100% on task. And I still use it today.
Over the years I have learned that for us brain-injured folks remembering everything, or at least the important stuff, is impossible to do. It normally takes a cue to poke my brain of a particular memory and then I can remember it. Photographs serve as these cues. Whether in a frame, photo album, or pile in a box in the garage, when looked at they are the memory. My life in a lot of ways would seem empty if it were not for the photographs I took of my life’s adventures, traveling, family, and friends. These memories help to fill a void that I cannot fill on my own.
Always remember to give a little something back. Whether by thanking those family, friends, support workers, and hospital staff that directly helped you through your recovery process or embarking on a career as a volunteer or in a helping profession, make your life giving back to others.
Set goals and have dreams
Be ambitious, take risks, and create a CV built on serving others. Be willing to dream the big impossible dream! Then break your dream down by talking to someone about it and create goals that will achieve it. Create a support team behind you to root you on. Whether learning how to walk again, graduating from university, or doing something to touch the world, dare to have a dream and have the guts and brains to achieve it.
The story of a severely brain injured youth to a university grad, husband, and father living in a foreign country. I hope my story can live on to touch and help others.