Some people learn the true meaning of endurance when tragedy strikes, and keeps striking, and they discover just how much they can do. A local woman is starting a support group to help victims of traumatic brain injuries and their loved ones.
“It’s a lot more common than you’d realize,” said Sheila Ivy, Iola resident. “If you don’t know where to turn, you feel lost.”
Ivy knows firsthand how a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can suddenly and violently change the lives of an entire family. It’s happened to her own family — twice.
MAY 23, 2004 is forever etched into Ivy’s memory as deeply and as surely as scar tissue. It was a day that started out with joy and celebration and ended in tragedy.
The Ivy family was celebrating the high school graduation of their two oldest children, Heather and Christopher. They’re not twins, but they were close enough in age that they had attended the same grade. After the ceremony, the family returned home to socialize with relatives. Ivy’s nephew had driven his motorcycle down from Topeka and everybody wanted to take turns riding it.
The second time Ivy’s husband, Richard, rode the motorcycle, a bolt that secured the seat came loose and he was thrown into a ditch. He was not going very fast — he was found less than five feet away from the bike — but he was not wearing a helmet when he was thrown headfirst over the handlebars. His head hit a concrete block.
When they heard Richard’s name on the police scanner, the family rushed to the scene of the accident, just a couple of blocks away. Ivy stood in the kitchen for a moment, then tried to wash some dishes.
“I don’t know if I was in a state of shock, or what,” she said.
When she joined others at the scene, she fell to her husband’s side.
“He was having trouble breathing and I remember telling him, ‘Richard, just breathe, just breathe.’”
The fall had cracked his skull clean open, like an egg. After surgery Richard remained in a coma for nine and a half days.
“There was a lot of ‘ifs’ and a lot of ‘we don’t knows,’ even after he woke up,” Ivy said.
RICHARD had always prided himself on being a strong man. He was deft with tools and with his hands, sure-footed on the roof of a house and looked up to by his family and coworkers.
“I was invincible,” he said.
The accident did more than shatter his skull; it shattered him. Richard woke up unable to perform everyday tasks. It took months for him to learn how to do simple things such as eat or dress himself.
“I was not happy,” he said. “I didn’t understand what they were doing. I couldn’t speak.”
As he relearned how to speak, the first words to come back were curse words and he used them often. He was angry and struggled with depression, which is common for victims of brain injuries. His demeanor and personality changed, making him seem like a completely different person from the man Ivy had married almost 20 years before.
Ivy was at a loss.
“I felt helpless,” she said. “I didn’t know what words to say that would ease his pain. I still struggle with that today.”
Ivy stayed by his side, doing rehab Monday through Friday and coming home on weekends to be with their kids. Richard could not work anymore, and Ivy spent so much time away from work that she eventually lost her job. Christopher and Heather watched over their two younger siblings, Milton and Jeremiah, and worked to put food on the table.
“We really struggled that first year to find resources,” Ivy said.
After Richard’s rehab at the hospital was officially over, he still needed more help. A lot more help.
Ivy did not know where to turn.
Someone connected them with the Resource Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with disabilities and helps them to become independent. They helped the Ivy family with Home and Community Based Services. With constant, intensive therapy, Richard was able to regain the ability to do things the hospital said he never would do again. He is still, 10 years later, mending himself one step at a time.
Today, there are many things Richard has yet to reclaim from his old life, but he is already finding new talents, too. He has been relearning the guitar and played at church recently, which is something he had never done before.
“A lot of people have the belief that we will heal quickly,” Richard said. “And a lot of people believe we will never heal at all.”