CUMBERLAND — Earlene Ahlquist Chadbourne doesn’t remember the bicycle accident that caused her traumatic brain injury two decades ago, but she recalls the struggles and triumphs of her road back to recovery, a journey she shares in a new book.
“Parenting Myself: Recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury,” published by Custom Communications of Biddeford, serves as not just a story for everyone about conquering adversity, but is also a tool for those who have experienced such injuries. Experts in the field of traumatic brain injury have praised the book as a resource for those people, including the hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who could perhaps benefit from the tips and the sense of hope that Chadbourne offers.
Chadbourne’s son Adam Cote, a captain in the Maine Army National Guard and a veteran of the war in Iraq, urged his mother to share her story.
“My year serving in Iraq brought my mother’s situation into focus as I saw firsthand the damage done to my fellow U.S. service members from the improvised explosive devices and other weapons used to target them,” Cote wrote in the book’s preface. “I realized that those families were going to have to deal with the same issues my family faced so many years ago after Mom went on a simple bike ride in rural Maine and ended up, hardly recognizable, in a hospital.”
Chadbourne, who wrote a previous book of poetry and several historical articles, went back through the journals that documented her recovery following her accident on Aug. 14, 1990, less than three miles from her home at the time in Saco. Her last memory before waking up in a hospital six days later was that she was going to ride her bicycle, but she has no recollection of the actual ride. She planned to take a casual ride on a rural road and didn’t wear a helmet.
It is believed that Chadbourne, 41 at the time, may have suffered two separate accidents. The major hematomas – swellings filled with blood – on the left side of her body triggered suspicion that she may have been struck by a car first and then laid in the road for several hours before climbing back on her bicycle. No such incident was reported to police, although the second occurrence – in which Chadbourne reportedly fell over the handlebars as she headed downhill and then landed on her head – had witnesses.
The impact of Chadbourne’s head hitting the ground caused her brain to move inside her skull and all four quadrants of her brain to be injured. If the swelling of her brain had not receded within the critical first 48 hours, a portion of it would have had to be removed, she said.
Upon seeing her husband, Ted Chadbourne, in the hospital, she identified him as his cousin. While he is indeed her fifth cousin, the injury had initially clouded her memory of the 18 months they had been married.
“The book reads a lot like a mystery,” Chadbourne, who is known as Kitty, said last week, “because when you face traumatic brain injury, you are in effect living out a mystery. You don’t discover, or at least I did not discover, all of the different areas of damage until I started to do something and found out I didn’t know how to do it. I remembered having done it, but I couldn’t remember how.”
Recipes she once easily prepared were part of that terrifying mystery. While Chadbourne could line up the meal’s ingredients, she did not know what to do with them. Even making a cup of coffee was tough. The accident had also left her with significant hearing loss in one ear, and her difficulty in bringing to mind the words she wanted to speak also made communication a challenge.
Chadbourne credits two doctors – John Knowles, a hearing specialist, and Judy Shedd, an osteopath – in helping her make progress.
“It was this solid, really seamless reinforcement between M.D. and osteopath that pulled me through this, along with a supportive family, even though they didn’t know what to do or how to help, and I didn’t know how to ask,” Chadbourne said. “We all grow up with this cultural background of ‘you don’t ask for help, you just put your boots on yourself’ … and it really doesn’t do us many favors, sometimes.”
Chadbourne noted that the hard work of recovery cannot be left totally to doctors, but that “it still comes down to day by day, applying the same work that you did as a toddler, learning how to walk, and to speak, and to cause actions that effect change.”
Once brain cells die they can’t be resurrected, Chadbourne pointed out; instead, new networks must be connected within the brain, and other areas of the brain take over, in order for people to relearn functions.
The problem she faced, and that which brain-injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East face, “is that they start to look normal, and they can speak, the sound of their voice is the same, but when it comes to functioning and carrying the load that they carried before the accident, they’re really at a loss and may be ashamed to ask for help and confused that they can’t do it,” she said. “So that leads to a fair amount of depression for a lot of people.”
An appendix in Chadbourne’s book provides a timeline of her recovery. She was released from the hospital 13 days after the accident, and by March 1991 she could drive short distances in light traffic. She had taught herself to knit again, although the right-handed woman found that the only instructions that made sense were for left-handed people, indicating that new networks had developed in her brain.
In August 1991 she rode a bicycle again for about 1,000 feet and was able to cook a simple meal from scratch. A decade later Chadbourne had recovered successfully, overcoming obstacles such as navigating Boston subways and flying alone to Spain. She had also conquered creative challenges in areas such as Nordic Hardanger embroidery lessons, using her right hand, but following left-hand diagrams and instructions.
Her book’s Web site, parentingmyself.com, offers resources for people with traumatic brain injury, with links to organizations such as Operation Homefront, which supports soldiers and their families during deployment and after they return, as well as the Brain Injury Association of America and several Maine neuro-rehabilitation facilities.
Chadbourne’s site additionally offers tips for dealing with concentration and organizational problems related to traumatic brain injury, along with rules for living while on the road to recovery.
Her tips also point out that bike helmets are mandatory in her family. “It is the cheapest insurance possible,” the site says. “Even if there’s nothing worth saving in your head, I tell family members, you will have lost nothing by wearing a helmet!”
If she were to speak to a returning soldier with traumatic brain injury, or to her injured self 19 years ago, Chadbourne said the three virtues she would promote would be patience, faith and intentionality.
“Clearly determine what you’re going to do, and apply yourself to do it,” she said. “Don’t set a deadline, don’t set a time-line, just do a little bit every day. And you do it with a deliberateness.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.