In November 2016, at age 69, my life changed in a split second and my world turned upside down after I suffered a fall that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. On my road to recovery, I tapped into my resilience and learned important life lessons in dealing with a health challenge.
I was walking towards the grocery store where I shopped and fell forward on the sidewalk, hitting my head on the concrete. My face felt the full brunt of the fall. I split my lip, bruised my nose and forehead and impacted one front tooth and fractured another. My son drove me to a nearby hospital where I had a CT scan that was normal. I was sent home with no instructions. I continued with my busy lifestyle and three weeks later I woke up feeling dizzy and nauseous. I had to hold onto the walls of my apartment to steady myself. I thought I was having a stroke. I returned to the hospital where they took another CT scan that again was normal. The diagnosis was probable delayed onset mild traumatic brain injury. I was sent home, this time with a protocol to follow.
My balance was so poor that I had to use a walker to get around my apartment. I became a recluse because I couldn’t go down the three flights of stairs where I lived.
Over the next few months, I experienced facial and forehead pressure, dizziness, nausea, headaches and sleep deprivation. My head felt like it was filled with cotton balls. My doctor referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist and an osteopath, a concussion specialist who brought some relief from my symptoms.
I also reached out to a colleague who had also suffered a concussion and researched the Internet. I found many resources for athletes and young children, but few for older adults. I saw two neurologists who referred me to a vestibular therapist since my balance was affected. I also saw a chiropractor. All provided expert advice and treatments but none were able to tell me when my concussion would heal. They told me that brain injuries are unpredictable, recovery lasting anywhere from a few weeks to years.
Ten months later, I experienced a setback when I had a vertigo attack that reactivated my symptoms. My balance was so poor that I had to use a walker to get around my apartment. I became a recluse because I couldn’t go down the three flights of stairs where I lived. My family and friends brought in groceries and provided support and encouragement. My life, as I had known it, changed. I tired easily and my bed and sofa brought relief.
How can this be happening to me? I was an accomplished social worker, professor, author, mother and grandmother.
The road to recovery
I became sad and cried easily. I felt vulnerable. How can this be happening to me? I was an accomplished social worker, professor, author, mother and grandmother. I was the one who helped others and now I was frail and needed assistance. This was very difficult for me to get my head around. I then re-watched Brené Brown’s TED Talk on the “Power of Vulnerability.” I had recommended it to my clients and students when it first came out and it now resonated with me.
I decided to embrace my vulnerability rather than struggle with it and “dare greatly” by being authentic and talking about how I felt. I changed my mindset. Rather than seeing vulnerability as a sign of weakness, I saw it as “the courage to be imperfect.” It began by telling my students about my fall and concussion and allowing them to see me walk with a cane. Although I continued to teach during my recovery, I didn’t disclose my fall initially to my students. I felt shame and feared they would not see me as the capable and competent teacher I perceived myself to be. In fact, up until that point, I waited until the last student left the classroom before I took out my folding cane to steady myself as I left the classroom.
Since I was teaching a gerontology course, I saw this as an opportunity to honestly share my thoughts and feelings about what’s it’s like for an empowered and independent older adult to lose their autonomy and require assistance. This led to a rich discussion about ways social workers can promote the independence of older adults with disabilities by building on their strengths and adaptive coping abilities that helped them to overcome previous challenges. During a class on resilience, a student reminded me of mine. I felt validated. When faced with adversity, we may lose sight of our coping abilities and strengths and it feels good to be reminded of them when someone sees us through the lens of resilience – people who adapt and bounce back from setbacks.
I decided to embrace my vulnerability rather than struggle with it and “dare greatly” by being authentic and talking about how I felt.
I also decided to accept the changes in my body and adapt my lifestyle accordingly. I set daily goals and am proud of myself when I achieve them. I pace myself and rest after activity. I enrolled in a fall prevention program to strengthen my core and improve my balance. I also practice self-care by cooking nutritious meals, going for daily walks, spending time in nature and asking for help when I need it. I begin each day with a prayer and gratitude ritual that grounds me.
My fall helped me to face my mortality. I had never done that before. I had considered myself to be invincible and had never thought about my death. I updated my will, designated a mandatary in the event I lose mental competence and initiated a discussion with my children about my burial wishes. I also began to think about informal (voluntary help from family, friends, siblings) and formal (professional caregivers) support I might need down the road if I had a healthcare crisis. This contributed to my decision at age 71 to move to Toronto from Montreal so I could live near my daughters and their families. This was the right decision for me and I’ve integrated well into my new home and neighbourhood.
Throughout my recovery, I never lost hope that my condition would improve. I also adapted to the changes I was experiencing. I learned these life lessons from my late mother who was a Holocaust survivor. At age 15, she was interned in the Lodz Ghetto and then shipped to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Her words continue to inspire me today: “In life we never know what lies ahead. What’s important is to adapt to circumstances you can’t change, no matter how difficult and never lose hope that things will improve.”
Despite tremendous hardships, she never lost hope that she would survive and rebuild her life. In fact, she and my dad, also a Holocaust survivor did just that by raising a family and contributing to their community.
As my recovery continues, I remain optimistic and accept my present situation. I appreciate the simple pleasures in life such as loving relationships with my family and friends, my health, and participation in meaningful activities. I give thanks for my blessings and take nothing for granted.
Myra Giberovitch is an educator, consultant, author and professional speaker. She is adjunct professor, McGill University School of Social Work, specializing in gerontology and author of Recovering from Genocidal Trauma. Watch her speak at TedxMontreal – Genocide Survivors: Contributors Not Victims.