Ever since I can remember, my mother's priority in life had been her horse. As a matter of fact, growing up, our Sunday ritual was driving an hour to the stable. On our outbound trip, the backseat of the car was filled with hay, and on the return it would be filled with buckets of manure to fertilize her small backyard vegetable garden. During the week she would visit the horse and go riding through the local forests.
Along with any sport or passion, there are risks. The risk of brain injury for horseback riding accidents is huge. In fact, falling off a horse is compared to being pushed off a car going 12-15 mph, and even more severe if the horse is trotting or galloping. I lost count the number of accidents my mother had over the years, but the most recent one four years ago was the one where I told her "It's time to stop mounting that horse." Up until then she had broken her pelvis, ribs and leg bones, not to mention the number of times she was kicked by horses, which resulted in huge scars to her shins.
After she was in the ICU for two weeks in 2010 and not remembering a thing about the accident, we decided enough was enough. Much like my father who did not give up smoking until he coughed up blood as a result of a pneumothorax, she agreed to stop. The outdated helmet did not provide enough protection as she fell so hard on the ground. She ended up in the ICU for two weeks, weaving in and out of consciousness.
As it turned out she had a concussion, the most common type of brain injury which can cause a temporary loss in brain function, and according to Harvard Magazine, more than five million people in the United States suffer with the long-term effects of traumatic injury to the brain. Sometimes the effects are more obvious than others. In fact, after my mother's accident, we found a kind streak come alive in her and we laughed that maybe something was knocked into place. The skull might be tough, but like any previous injury, whether to bones or brains, the ramifications of injury can surface years later in life. I know this from a whiplash accident I incurred at the age of 30 -- I still suffer from periodic neck pain. The fact that my mother forgot the accident, the fact that she was in the ICU and her grandchildren visited daily and that she had months of rehab is a scary thought.
Sometimes, re-traumatization can occur and the cumulative affects of the injury can become apparent. This is what recently happened to my mother, who until about eight weeks ago was in good help -- until she developed a bad flu leaving her housebound, weak and confused. What has been happening to this previously independent woman living alone is beyond belief. I remember a friend once telling me after her mother died at the age of 85 that each year over the age of 80, her mother seemed to age five years. I now understand.
My mother always had a strong immune system. People could cough in her face and she never got sick. With a sudden onset of the flu recently, she vomited for four days and when I called from California to New York where she lives, she sounded weak on the phone. I called a wonderful Polish neighbor to check on her and she ended up bringing her homemade soups for a week. It was a tough winter and the snow was six feet high around her house. One day, the woman knocked on the door and there was no answer. She made her way to the back of the house and peeked through my mother's bedroom window to find her lying on the floor beside her bed. She broke in and learned that my mother had fallen on her way to the bathroom and was incontinent and could not get up unassisted.
Once again, I was reminded about her former brain injury and made an appointment with her internist, who suggested a neurology consult. She is currently being evaluated for hydrocephalus ("water on the brain") because the most recent fall was accompanied by an unsteady walk, loss of bladder control and nausea. This could have been caused by a sudden change in cerebral pressure caused by hydrocephalus, probably secondary to all the head injuries from the previous horse accidents.
Further, another sign of hydrocephalus is recent memory loss, and I noticed after we arrived home from visiting her horse I asked her how she found him, she said, "I haven't seen him in two weeks." I also noticed during my last week's visit a stack of unpaid bills on her desk and a VISA card that was being declined at stores. Sometimes one thing might happen which paves the way to something else going on in our health and that's what happened with my mother. Had she not had the flu, we would not know the impairments of her previous brain injury.
Happy Brain Injury Awareness Month.
Take care of your brain.
Take care of your life.
Lust for life!