Moving Forward

Us all fancied up.

Todd and I at our vow renewal. He still makes my heart a flutter after 24 years.

Todd was critically injured on our anniversary.  It was our 15th year one, to be exact. Not only was he badly injured, but he lost two of his friends at the same time. Most of you who have been through combat understand that these sort of losses are never forgotten. The survivor’s guilt that comes along with it never leaves.

At first, I vowed that somehow, we would still honor our anniversary. Seriously, the Taliban almost got my husband, I refused to let them get our day, too. However, the invisible wounds of war are some of the worst and as September would roll around, the dark cloud of grief would roll in right at the end of the month, smother the joy out of the whole month of October and linger until November.

I am proud of my husband. He puts in the painful work with his counselor to be compassionate to the grief of this and other horrible experiences from war. We see a neurologist for the chronic migraine sort of headaches my husband endures as a result of his moderate brain injury. He is one of the best doctors I have ever seen. His empathy, kindness and emphasis on neuroplasticity has been very helpful for us moving forward. He was the one that first thought up the idea of getting a vow renewal as a way to move forward. We had never considered it.

Neuroplasticity is the concept that the brain is focused on survival. The brain is designed to remember pain first in order to keep you from hurting or killing yourself. When a brain injury occurs, the millions of pathways in the neurons and blood vessels are damaged, blocked, and eventually the brain starts re-wiring itself. Neuroplasticity explains that when you provide your mind with positive things, that it helps the brain create new pathways that connect its memory to enjoyment. I have to say this really does help. For the past 3 years, horse therapy has been one of those purposeful joys that really has improved my husband’s quality of life.  His recreational therapist has also been extremely helpful. Providing him with something new to learn, in his case photo development with black and white film. This is an amazing new hobby and he is really getting good at it. He is really engrossed in learning all he can and we bought him an SLR, too.

Check out http://reset.me/story/neuroplasticity-the-10-fundamentals-of-rewiring-your-brain/  There is also a great book our doctor recommended on Amazon called Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook by Michael H. Moskowitz M.D.  http://a.co/78gQp26 

I recommend it for you caregivers as well. Your lives are just as important, and your mental health equally so. No one deserves to be unhappy or unfulfilled. Do this bit of work and you will be rewarded. Seriously, what do you have to lose?  That is also one of the helpful things for me on the darker days that still happen but fortunately not as often in a week. I work on something that brings me purposeful joy like dancing or being outside.

I haven’t written much in this blog in two years.  Life has been super busy in the past two years and my mind hasn’t wanted to dig into the deep cathartic emotional topics. In the past two years we have been on a really good path. I became a caregiver to my elderly aunt, and having her close by and getting to spend time with her has been a joy for me. She has the most can-do attitude better than most people my age. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind and she is sharp as a tack. She honestly is one of my role models.

I really have been focusing on mindfulness, which is a huge complement to neuroplasticity. http://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/

Basically you reframe your thoughts on what you’re dealing with. Instead of saying,”Sigh..I have to drive us to the VA today and deal with a lot of painful bureaucracy,” I try to think of it as,”I am lucky my husband is here in my life. I get to hold his hand and walk through the VA today with him. Let’s see what we can accomplish.” The focus on a more positive aspect really helps. I will even put on a cute outfit, just to make him smile.

Those that know me personally know I am a dark, sarcastic and very skeptical thinker. Kind of like an artist/scientist hybrid. A mathematically challenged scientist. Some of my favorite memes deal with Skinner’s cat.  Alright, back to the original concept of mindfulness.  You can go on YouTube and find a lot of free stuff. This is really fantastic. There even are mindfulness concept coloring books. Feel free to share your Skinner memes with me though, they truly crack me up.

You have to have humor in your life as that makes it all bearable.

 

 

 

 

PLIGHT

If you have made it this far, you are wondering what in the heck this subject heading is about. Sure, I made it obscure, but after the past half of a year of watching my husband and seeing what is going on with his health, I had to comment.

After six years of living with a limb salvage patient suffering with pancytopenia and a hot mess combo of more.., I have noticed a pattern of good days and bad. Like most people dealing with chronic pain, they can present better to friends and family for a few days and then after that, their resources are gone and boom! Mic drop.  Nothing left, just bed or couch-bound.

Six years of using a cane on his dominant arm to compensate for his bad leg when it collapses when he walks has taken a toll. It’s so sore it keeps him awake and uncomfortable past the pain relief he uses for his back and limb salvage in his leg.  The twisting way he has to walk when he doesn’t wear the uncomfortable brace lurches his hip in a way they aren’t meant to twist. Degeneration is happening.

He has tried cortisone in his shoulder joint and it was as if he got shot up with water. I have had them in the past for my own health issues and they provided help, but for some reason my shoulder has been resistant to any sort of change too.

On a positive note, I had RF Ablation on both of my hips over 5 months ago and the deep bone pain is gone. I wish I could get my husband to try it as I hardly have to use any sort of Tylenol or anything to help with the aches! To me, it is as if I had received a gift from God.

The past few years have made me very aware of my health and how much I need to take care of myself for the rest of my family. If you were suffering from anything, wouldn’t you get it taken care of or try to get yourself in as best of a way of feeling better as you could? Why would you want to make your family suffer in watching you endure constant suffering?? There are other things that can be done to help chronic pain such as RF Ablation. It has helped me so much. I see reports all of the time about HBOT (Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy) and how much it helps physical and mental issues. Also, there is a new shot that goes in the Ganglion nerve in the neck that helps reduce the symptoms of PTSD right away.

When do you stop researching as a caregiver and when do you push and how do you know the difference? I recognize it as poking a literal bear. Make a recommendation and then gingerly tap dance back to my corner.

So what do you do?? Any of you veteran caregivers of veterans have any advice?

My man got blown up in Afghanistan and all I got is this crummy case of secondary PTSD and severe insomnia. Give me your free stuff.

My spouse got blown up in Afghanistan and all

I got is this crummy case of secondary PTSD and severe insomnia.

Forget the T-shirt! Give me your free stuff.

Let me bleed your non-profit dry. America owes us.

Six years ago we were newbies to the whole wounded veteran community. There were barely any resources out there on the Internet and as soon as Facebook really got going, it seems there was a new resource page added weekly. Somehow, I kept being automatically added to these groups. As soon as I would look at one, it was only a matter of a day or two before someone logged in with the question,”My husband got blown up in the war so is there an agency out there that will pay for our move?”  “We need a slab poured for our RV. Can so and so help with that?” Since when is an RV an emergency, a necessity, or something that requires others to assist you with?

Really? You didn’t foresee a move coming up in your family’s financial future? So why wouldn’t you start budgeting and saving money from the time you found out that you needed to leave your area? I get that emergencies/family issues happen. However, here are some of the others I have seen. “I need new tires on my SUV. Is there an org that can help with that?” “My veteran has PTSD, he needs a new chair that provides massage. Is there an org out there who can hook us up with that?” Or even better yet, “We need a new bed. Can someone buy us a Sleep Number bed?” I have heard women say that “America owes us. He sacrificed his life and got hurt, he deserves..xyz.” The sacrifice our military makes for our nation is not anything I would disagree with. However, at what point does personal accountability start and laziness end?

So if a massage chair fixes PTSD, what does a platinum-covered Japanese-manufactured and Tiffany’s logo-branded marital aid do for secondary PTSD and the rest of the issues caregivers suffer from? I want one of those!

What happened to personal accountability? We have a lot of medical bills that Tricare/Medicare don’t cover. We pay them ourselves, in addition to all of the other bills grown ups face in life such as new tires, house repairs and utility issues, car issues.. etc. You name it. Just paid $1700 worth of car insurance for six months. Yes, bills are horrible, but they are a part of daily life whether you are a veteran, a caregiver, a Leprechaun, or a Mummer. Bills exist and sadly, we all have to pay bills.

When you own a home, there is always something that needs to be repaired. Cars always need maintenance. If you can’t afford your car payments and your home payments and you are driving a fancy SUV and living in a fancy big home, you might need to switch to a Hyundai and move somewhere more affordable. Live within your means, people!  If money is tight and you only have one child, do you really think you can afford two more?

Non-profits are not there to supplement your income. Some are there to help you in a crisis, such as a short-term issue like the time of which you don’t get paid when you convert from active military to VA disability payments. It takes a good month and a half for that to switch over. When you know you are getting retired, start squirreling money away to help cover that gap. Be proactive, not reactive. Credit cards are not real income. If you use credit and you can’t pay it off, you are living under false financial pretenses. .

I don’t see many caregivers just wanting support and answers about health/medical/benefit questions, but more on material requests. What happened to helping each other out and giving advice and helping someone navigate through the bureaucracy we all have to tangle with? Many are in need of respite and retreats to have a bit of recharge time to themselves. Why not share the information when you hear of things?  What can you give me for free has become the mantra of many. Not what have I learned that I can share, but “gimme gimme gimme.”

My family and I were very fortunate in the kind things that some groups have done for us in the past, however we did not seek out those things.  Having a combat wounded veteran does not entitle you to spend all of his benefits and then look around for more which comes from either donors or tax payers. Entitlement is the plague of our nation.

grabbing hand

To Salvage or not to salvage? How to deal with Limb Salvage

Five years ago, he awoke in a hospital bed, groggy with morphine and other pain killers used when his femur was blasted open in three places. The force of the blast he survived reverberated throughout his whole body. This creates wounds and issues that most people don’t survive. Ten years ago if this had happened, I would be writing about entirely different topics. I am very thankful.

He heard a group of doctors and nurses talking amongst themselves in Landshtul, Germany. I am very thankful for their quick care and action on trying to keep him full of blood. He had to have 15 units of blood between leaving Ghazni, arriving at Bagrum Airforce Base, and making it to Germany. They did not think they would have time to get us there in time to see us alive as it takes a bit of time to rush civilians overseas. However, God was on our side and got him back to San Antonio, Texas to Brooke Army Medical Center.

Back to the groggy soldier in the hospital room. Todd was hovering between hazy dreams, nightmares, and consciousness. He saw the group of people chatting in the corner and all of a sudden one of them yelled,”Hey Sarge, can you move your foot at all?” Todd was able to barely move two toes. They yelled,”Ok, you get to keep your leg.” Todd says that was definitely a conversation he was glad to be awake for.

Fast forward five years from there, and he has titanium from his right knee to his right hip. They call it a “Limb Salvage,” when they can save a limb, even though operating on it a bunch and keeping it can create a hellish world of pain. When your injuries are above the knee, and in his place all the way up to his hip, his chance for a prosthetic that would work is pretty null. To have to sit without upper thighs to cushion your tail bone would be so much pain. Most people don’t realize that once you have one amputation, there are many revisions required for your stump to fit into a socket, which is then placed inside neoprene, foam, and other cushioning agents before the hardware is fitted.

What muscle he has left in his thigh is full of Heterotopic Ossification, which is bone growth that the body shoots out during traumatic injuries. It creates spiky bone growths in between the muscle and bone surface, so if Todd sits at something that hits his leg mid thigh, such as a bistro or bar stool, it causes major pain as if a million needles were shooting into his leg. This is also something amputees can suffer from as well. You can see this on your soldier’s X-ray as it looks like a ghostly cloud around the bone. Kind of eerie looking.

When I see him hurting, which is never ending, I wish they removed the leg, but I know from seeing other guys with the same issue who have opted for salvage to amputation, they aren’t doing much better. The femur damage to his bone marrow has caused a blood disorder called Pancytopenia, which means he has too many of one type of white blood cells, too little of another, and just to make it interesting, his reds fluctuate too. For the most part, this only scares me when its flu season or when there are nasty coughing people in the waiting room as his levels change constantly and that makes the difference of energy or no energy, on top of the lack of energy issues from pain, Traumatic Brain Injury and the lack of sleep that the nightmares cause. However, we make a go of things and on good days we are team kick ass. On the not so good days, we plan for low key events.

This is not a piece to share gloom and doom, but to educate– I want to share some resources and ideas on how to deal with it. Elevation is key as his lymphatic system was destroyed. Getting the limb elevated up to 20 degrees- as long as its above the level of his chest will help drain the excess fluid out of the limb, which helps. As the day goes on, it fills up and gets more painful for him. Giving your spouse adequate time for that helps.

If you are active duty and in the Warrior Transition Unit, contact your Nurse Case Manager about a chair that reclines to zero gravity. This will help a ton! They will get Tricare’s Wounded Warrior segment to approve it. It is by Goldentech (made in America) and we got ours and it comes with an electric recliner so it won’t jar his injured back or leg. We also got their durable medical goods department to get him a new bed, also by Goldentech that is made out of similar to a temperopedic. No pressure on his limb and he can elevate the foot and head of his bed. Even can turn him into a cranky veteran taco, if I feel inclined to mess with him. 🙂

If you are dealing with the VA, contact your Case Manager and if you don’t know who that is, call your generic VA 800 number in your area and ask. Provide the warriors name, last four digits and they can provide you with the name and number of who that person is. The Case Manager is your advocate to line your veteran up with the specialists and services you need. Most likely their durable goods department would get something like that for you there. I don’t know. Ours we got from Tricare are still good. However you can get a recumbent bicycle from the VA from durable goods. I strongly recommend that. Just because your veteran is hurt, they still need to find a way to get some cardio and burn off some rage.

Also, the independence fund will provide your warrior with a track chair or zoomability cart. You need to check it out and apply, its free for them as long as your VA disability shows mobility impairment. Easy to provide. You can see it at www.independencefund.org.

My husband has had leg braces made by Prosthetics at the Temple, Texas VA and at the Center For the Intrepid in Fort Sam, Texas, He received his first brace, the IEFO which is a cool looking carbon fiber rigid brace that goes from below the knee and goes even into his foot bed. The goal of this particular one is to stop the motion of his ankle (ironically the only good joint left in that leg) and his calf. He has no articulating ability on moving his foot. However, if he isn’t super tired in his good leg, it’s good for inclement weather as there is no machinery. It is hard to get shoes to fit that as the footbed makes it so huge we have to buy two pairs of shoes to fit it! The second brace we got is the Otterbock Sensor Walk brace which was made via the Hanger Clinic in Round Rock Texas. Same place that made the cool tail prosthetic for that movie Dolphin Tale.

This brace is bad ass- has bionic sensors under his footbed that communicate with the knee gears in it to detect where is gait breaks down. One of the coolest things I have ever seen. However the gear sticks out so far on the right side, finding pants that cover it is difficult, haven’t found any yet. I think I am going to have to cut the seams out along the gear. Todd doesn’t really want it to show so people don’t stare, but the whirring sound of the bionic gears make them look so at this point, who cares. I will stare them back down!! It made me cry the first time I saw him wear it as he walked almost like his pre-injury walk. The VA’s Prosthetic department will help you find shoes that fit any leg brace they fabricate for you. Ours gave him a nice pair of dress shoes and a pair of sneakers. Awesome!

Limitations in this also is the brace goes way up his femur so it presses on his scar tissue after a while. The battery packs can run out without notice, so you must have a back up. Learned this the hard way on our vacation. LOL. So bring two braces with you!! Our bedroom looks like a brace factory as we can’t fit them in our tiny closet, but oh well. No one lives in that part of the house. I want him to have easy access to his legs. We also bought an AC adapter you can plug into the car’s power outlet and charge it while we are on road trips. Efficiency!

So, bottom line- get your veteran physical therapy to strengthen their core muscles, back, thighs and arms. This is mandatory. No matter if they are amputees or limb salvage, they will depend on those muscles more than the average person. Pain management is important too. Get them to a specific pain management doctor. Supplements such as Vitamin D3, Magnesium, and B12 tend to be depleted in people suffering from chronic pain. His doctor has him on that and please check with yours before you take them. Also, allowing time in a day to elevate is a necessity. Hard to do on a day of non-stop doctor appointments, but on a day of just being home, its critical. Heating pads help when its an old injury.

More than This

lipsense lipsMany of us were in the middle of doing something with our careers as independent women before dealing with major catastrophes in our lives such as an IED blast in our life. Pretty much a giant bomb went off in mine not only in terms of how it hurt my husband, but how it disrupted our life. However, there were positive things that came out of it.

What were you doing? What were you in the midst of? What are things you want to do once you feel that things are a bit more even keel? What are some of the criteria you use on your life for that “even keel?” Is it a winding down of medical practitioner visits? Not so many visits to the VA? One hospitalization a year vs 6? Is it him and you now sleeping more at night? (If so, I am very happy for both of you!) I would love to hear what it is that constitutes smooth sailing for you.

I was talking to my counselor a few months ago and she asked me something I hadn’t thought of in a long time. “What were you doing before your husband got hurt and what would you like to do or do differently when things get as close to normal for you?” I think it was a good fifteen minutes before I could answer her. I hadn’t really thought about it in so long. I had left it behind during the grief part of everything. So what do I like doing? What are things that drive ME? What were things I was good at? I had forgotten the idea of me along the way.

I was at a retreat with an amazing group almost two years ago called Courage Beyond and one of the exercises we got to do was painting. I had forgotten how much I truly love watching the color play on the canvas. What fun it was to mix colors and create my own palette. Kind of like how I have always enjoyed playing with makeup and hair, but went to college for Journalism and Broadcast instead. Anyone that knows me sees my love for color, retro fashions, and the old glamour pin-up looks from the 50’s. You can check out my page here:
href=”http://www.senegence.com/beautythatlasts”>

I have been thinking. I love belly dancing, painting, burlesque, writing and so much more. How do I pick something and narrow it down? One advantage of all of the changes in our life is that I was saved from my boring job at a large computer company and pursuing my MBA. I was one course in it and had earned a B before Todd got hurt. One course that made me think “why do I care about capitol management and why is it so damn boring?” I had no desire to manage people and deal with HR issues. I had no desire to be someone’s sales monkey anymore. Selling lots of hardware and seeing very little commission or anything in return.

For the past few years I have been ballet dancing and belly dancing. I love dancing. It is in my blood and I feel so happy and calm and like my old self when I do it. It is one of the best forms of exercise I know and something I can do for hours without it feeling as boring as being on a treadmill. I did the Shimmy Mob a year ago and got to perform with a bunch of women to benefit an agency that helped victims of domestic violence. It was empowering and fun and something I will do again.

I used to sell Artistry makeup when we did Amway back in the early ’90’s. I really enjoyed doing make overs for women and watching them be happy with their reflections. When I was younger, I used to do some modeling and learned a lot about techniques and different cosmetic lines. I used to buy a lip color called LipSense from my friend whose aunt sold it. It was amazing as I could dance and it would stay put. Of course, my favorite color is Blu Red. It looks like a Hollywood lip color the stars of the 50’s used. As a dancer, I got hooked on it.

I decided last summer to sell it myself for a few reasons. One being it was a lot easier having direct access to and the rest of the amazing product line and two, I miss having a job that pays me a real salary. I miss having my own business. This was a compromise. I get to play with colors and see women happy with themselves instead of tearing themselves down. So, it was a step I made to do something fun for me. It does not involve anything wounded. Nothing military. Nothing manly. Nothing predictable. Nothing medical. It is all fun. It is work, but fun.

Something that reminds me that I was a woman who had her own career, her own life before some idiot terrorist blew up life as I knew it. The blast is NOT who we are as a family. It is something that seriously was one of the worst things ever, but honestly it made us grow together as a family, as a couple and made me grow and mature as a wife and mother. I refuse to be defined by something that is no longer. It has been four years since this tragic event happened.

I choose to honor the people lost by living the life I have left. Enjoying my days with my family. Making the most of the time I have with my husband. Basking in the glow of his good days and treasuring the wonderful friends I have made during this major change in my life. This is not a blog piece about my makeup line, but a piece I felt like writing as it deals with change. Change for yourself. Change to make you feel more like you. How to get yourself back. Sure, our service members were wounded, but they are our men. Our husbands, lovers, fathers…so many roles they play in life just like we do. I have been focusing on ways to encourage him to make changes in his life as I have done with mine. At the end of the day, we are husband and wife and parents of a wonderful son.

Not victims. Not over. Not lost.

More changes ahead. Stay tuned!

Got Stimulants?

pinup imageI was chatting on facebook with a mutual wife of a wounded service member. We were talking about what sort of substances one might get find themselves hooked on in our caregiver lifestyle of never enough sleep and always so much to do.

Here are the top ten, the caveat is this is for humorous purposes only. Addictions are nothing to laugh at, unless your addiction is to a really strange fetish like parakeet feet and then I am going to totally have a belly laugh at you and your parakeet. Poor, sad parakeet.

If you really find that you do have some sort of substance abuse issue with any of these substances, contact your local mental health provider as there are many ways to clean yourself up.

So, without further adieu, here are the top ten most likely to be over used stimulants available to us in the USA.

1. Coffee
2. Sodas whether diet or regular, the caffeine is the same
3. Energy Drinks – I used to depend on Sugar Free Red Bull to get me back and forth safely on the long drives to Ft. Sam Houston and back to Taylor and back to FSH again. My weekends would rack up 500 miles. I never wanted to drive tired with precious cargo in the car such as our son. So, sugar free red bull, twix, chips, and other things to perk me up were frequent passengers.
4. Energy Shots
5. Spark and other safe vitamin concoctions designed to perk you up using high amounts of B vitamins and such.
6. Herbal concoctions such as Ma Huang, aka Epehedra, Ripped Fuel, or Xenadrine
7. Wellbutrin – I have heard some people take this prescribed antidepressant because it tends to perk them up. Messing with your brain chemistry is never advocated. Seizures, worse depression, all sorts of crap could go down for you and your quest to find energy.
8. Amphetamines- if you are overweight and your doctor is old school, you might be getting prescribed these. Warning- speed kills. If you are taking these from a purchase off of a street corner pharmacist, you will find yourself arrested if these aren’t legally prescribed. You will get so strung out you might neglect your kids, your dog, and your wounded warrior. Bad, bad caregiver!
9. Cocaine- illegal, bad, horrible stuff and very much going to get you arrested if you use it. Not to mention bad for parenting! Also, that constant sniff and bugging out coke addicts do is very annoying. Blow your damn nose already!
10. When cocaine and amphetamines can’t do the trick, some junkies just go right for Crystal Meth. Although I can perceive the bonus of tweaking around and being awake for days, I am really attached to my healthy, pretty teeth and my skin. I have noticed how people that use speed and meth and other illicit narcotics tend to age faster than an average person. It really makes the face look horrible.

So, what can you do in a healthy manner to give you some energy that will not get you arrested, keep your health, teeth and sanity in check?
You can exercise. Get outside. The recharging of your D vitamins is very important. Vitamin D3 is super important for pain management (good for your wounded buddy, too) and you can only get it by taking a supplement or getting out in the son. Many of us (moi included) run a bit short on this. Tricare will cover labs to check this. It is amazing to me how much energy I feel from getting out with my pup on the leash. It is energizing. I use the time to clear my head, do some deep breathing, and focus on my pace and the dog and what he is investigating. Just getting out of your home can make you feel happier. Get a friend to meet you at a park and you have double the energy. Seriously. It is one of my favorite things to do.

Alive Day

So, how does one celebrate an Alive Date? Especially when the warrior refuses?

In our situation, my husband Todd was wounded on 10/16/2009 in Afghanistan. He almost did not make it to Landshtul, let alone back to US soil. It was our fifteen year wedding anniversary when I received the phone call from Red Cross that he had been injured. It was10/15/2009 in Texas when I received the call while I was at work. I could not believe it.

During the blast that almost killed him, he lost two of his good friends. It has been four years, but once the end of September hits, the intensity and frequency of his nightmares increase, his mood gets more tense, and he takes on a more rigid mentality with our son and I. There are memorial fund raisers every year in October that honor one of his friends in Texas. However, Todd will never forget his friends as they died the day he lost his life as the way it used to be. He will never work as a Chemist again, a daily reminder as he fights to retain cognitive function due to the moderate Traumatic Brain Injury that renders him with frequent debilitating headaches that leave him panting and remove his voluntary muscle function. Out of the many changes that have been made to his body and mind, the mental changes are the ones that almost are worse. He wants more than anything to be able to do what he spent years of his life pursuing. The physical pain that rocks his limb salvage in his right femur and hip as well as the injury to his back keep him from being comfortable. His blood chemistry is always wrong. He never has enough white blood cells and out of what he has, there are too many of one type and not enough of another.  Sleep is never enough or without nightmares.

He is never without physical pain. Despite of these changes, there are many reasons to celebrate him being alive.

Even though he does not celebrate the fact he was spared, when he had so many catastrophic injuries at once and lost more blood at once than people typically ever survive from, he is still holding my hand. He has some long term memories. Some of them have disappeared, but he sometimes surprises me and will bring something up from earlier parts of our life together. 

Analytically, he can handle the complex math like Calculus and Physics – stuff I was never able to take in high school or college. I am so thankful for him because I could never help our teenaged son with homework in those subjects. It has been Todd. Even if it takes him longer than he harshly judges himself to recall a formula or a theory, he can still do it. He can still put music on my iPod and surprise me with a romantic song. He can hold me in his arms and make me feel safe. He loves me more than anything and can express it verbally. I have friends who have husbands who are unable to vocally communicate or hold them. Once he really surprised me by slow dancing with me at his sister’s wedding. I never expected him to put himself out there like that. I knew what a physical and emotional sacrifice it was for him to do that in front of all of those strangers and family.

 I feel like I have won the lottery. I thank God every day for sparing his life as our son and I benefit from him being in it daily. Our son and I celebrate it together. We call it the,”Yay, Todd was brought back to us day.” We hug him and tell him how grateful we are to have him in our lives. We tell him how we are thinking of his friends that have died and their families.

Remembering that day is bittersweet for him. Battling survivor’s guilt continually keeps him in a constant state of regret of what he could have done differently to save his friends. There was nothing that could have been done. Honoring him and reminding him of the good things he contributes to in our lives is something we do to help reinforce the goodness of him being alive.  We have been discussing renewing our wedding vows and perhaps celebrating them on an entirely different month and date. The anniversary just hasn’t been properly focused on like it should for the past four years. To me, it needs to be treasured, celebrated, and is something to be proud of. This year makes the NINETEENTH one! How many civilian couples make it to nineteen years without any of the added stressors of deployments or catastrophic injury? You better believe I am proud and so is he. This year is going to be one of the best ones ever. Image

Home Depot Foundation renovation project

Back in October, I was at a Wounded Warrior Project event for wives of wounded service members in Utah. They were an amazing bunch of wives. I was in my bedroom one night sleepily checking Facebook as I am part of a few closed pages that serve as resources for other caregivers of wounded veterans and wanted to make sure there wasn’t anyone in my own Austin area group needing critical help.

I saw the post from Heroesnightout.org mentioning a Home Depot Foundation project and that you had to log into the ap on Facebook and vote for them. So, like I do for most of their posts as they are an amazing non-profit that is local to me, I forwarded it on publicly and said,”Please vote for Heroes Night Out.” This voting had been going on for a few weeks, and Heroes Night Out was in a close tie off with Amvets. About an hour or two later, I get a call from the Co-founder, Wes Pierce who tells me that if HNO gets picked as the winner, they are nominating Todd and I to get the prize so we can get our home up to code.

I couldn’t believe it. I said, well, all we need is a riding mower for Todd and a shed to store it in as Todd tries to mow with a push mower and he just can’t do it and like most men, he won’t let me do it, nor will he let our fully capable son do it.

The very last night I was in Utah, it was the end of the contest. I could see that Amvets (also a great organization), was leading. I published a thank you concession post to Facebook and thanked all of the people near and far who voted for us to win. It was astonishing at all of the support from people we did not know. It put tears in my eyes to see how much people support their veterans.

I get another call from Wes, telling me that second place winners get $5k and I thought, “Sweet!!! There is the riding mower and the shed!” I was thrilled. At breakfast, one of my new friends, Taryn Esco (also a fun-loving sass like myself) said,”Tara, I think you won.” I did not believe her as she was smiling in a way that looked like she was kidding. It turns out she was right! The voting was so close and furious that the ap crashed and the Home Depot Foundation awarded the prize to both Amvets Ohio and Heroes Night Out! It was incredible as I did not expect that at all.

I called my husband and was so excited I’m sure I spoke in a tone only dogs could hear and in his typical stoic, calm way (sounds like Eeyore due to his brain injury) he said,”Yes, I know we won. Mrs. Gray told me at band practice early this morning.” I was ready to jump through the ceiling at the thought of $25K worth of home improvements! He was going to take a nap. Isn’t that funny!

Heroes Night Out held a big meeting and press conference with staff from the Home Depot Foundation’s office. They met us and shook our hands and it was incredible. They had so many people there ready to help and pick up a hammer. This was in November and our project was scheduled to begin in January, but we did not get rolling until February because the people putting this together are good and were still working other projects around ours. Let me tell you, we have a beautiful, modern kitchen in which I can have a toaster and a coffee maker on at the same time without blowing a fuse! I also have a nice beautiful central AC and heating system thanks to the awesome guys at Allgood Heating and Air.

It took about three months for the project to be completed. During that time, Heroes Night Out parked their RV in front of our home so Todd had somewhere to go and put his legs up when he was getting fatigued from helping with the projects. It also gave me a temporary kitchen to cook from while ours was being remodeled. It was a huge help.

This was a lengthy project as gutting of our home was needed. The roof where it connected to our wall studs had to be reinforced. There were things not so right that the expert eyes of Bill Bratrud caught. Our home is old, had suffered water and mold and did not have any existing central air conditioning. It had yucky paneling on most of the walls that was moldy. This seriously wrecked havoc on our allergies and asthma for my son and I. Allgood had to do the plumbing and a group of terrific electricians who volunteered from Dell Computer’s Facilities group took care of updating the electrical so we could handle the needs of a beautiful AC unit.

I met Michael Reichert, Manager of Home Depot Pflugerville, Jonathon Sprinkle with Integrity Constructive Solutions, LLC, the Contractor who created the plans for the entire remodel, Bill Bratrud, of Home Depot, who became our main project manager and Faeydra Shworm, of Home Depot, Pflugerville (she is the master behind kitchen planning). http://austincustomremodeling.com/

Jonathon called me and said can we come over and show you the plans? I said sure! The drawing he showed me was amazing. It was our old kitchen that had the clothes washing machine next to its 1950’s Imperial gas stove that was very temperamental. It even showed recessed lighting, dry-walled ceilings, walls, and brand new beautiful cupboards. It looked like the kitchen of a grown-up as everything matched. The people who put our initial kitchen together used whatever scrap cupboards they have so it was a hodgepodge of yuck. We had a roof leak years back while Todd was deployed and I couldn’t repair the asbestos ceiling tiles and they had turned colors and molded during the years. All of that is gone! Jonathon even installed granite counter tops, which was beyond my expectations.

I have beautiful new, reliable and well-insulated appliances. It is amazing how well my new GE Oven works! It is gas, but has the convection in it. It is amazing not having to take hours to bake something as this is new and works like a dream!

More than 2 people can be in my kitchen now, vs before where there was no floor space, certainly no counter space for more than one person to work in there at a time. Now my son can do his chores while I prepare meals. Yay! We even have brand new, energy-efficient windows. No more using a can or a ruler to hold the open windows open like we did with our old windows! These are beautiful. Todd can walk in with his cane and have room to stand in front of the fridge or in front of the counter to grab something to eat and not have any problems.

The Home Depot team put a new shed together in two days! It is really nice and they painted it and put a ramp on it so Todd could drive his riding mower into the shed after he mows the lawn. It was really amazing how fast they put that together.

Home Depot provided most of the volunteer labor and most products needed for all of the projects. Todd, Liam and I are eternally grateful to all of you who contributed to the renovation of our home. It is such an improvement to our daily quality of life. To all of the people who helped with the new shed and the home labor, we can not thank you enough. Our remodel is beautiful and we are amazed that this newly redesigned home is ours.

If you are a veteran in need of repairs to your home, contact your local veterans service organization as they have to contact the Home Depot Foundation on your behalf.

Wow, so you are forgetful just like me now.

He was a genius, one of those people that can understand the intricacies of Physics, the mathematical/science tango of Chemistry and yet grasp the beauty of a sonnet.  Four years ago, he was almost killed by an IED in Afghanistan. He flew 45 feet from the Humvee he was gunning from, and landed on his back with all of his gear, his Kevlar, and the roof of the Humvee on his chest and femur.

If anyone understands what the brain is like in the skull, its like an egg. There is the Dura, which covers the brain and in between the skull and the gray matter it exists to act like a shock absorber. The flight and impact of all that weight on my husband’s brain caused bleeding in between the Dura and the gray matter. We are lucky, there was nothing damaging the skull itself, the brain did not get lacerated, and the bleed has dissipated.

Picture the classic CPS coroner’s report for Shaken Baby Syndrome- basically a baby is shaken so hard either the brain injures itself against the other side of the skull or the brain stem is snapped during the abuse. Either way, its fatal usually for a baby.

Our service members are coming home with a very similar type of injury, My husband did.

When people see my husband, they can tell he has been through the mill. He walks with a severe limp from having his right leg salvaged from the blast. He has a bad back now from the blast and for the way his body lurches against his joints when he walks. It is not the walk of someone with a bad brain injury and that I am thankful for.

When I saw him in the hospital and he was able to speak and recall things from the past, I remember thinking whew.. thank God. He was on a serious amount of pain medications as his femur required many many surgeries for him to keep it.

Sure, we knew from the initial inpatient exams he had from the Traumatic Brain Injury team that he did have some delays in his working memory and processing (your short term memory that recalls phone numbers, quick instructions, etc.) We had many doctors say,”Welcome to my world. You now have to use sticky notes and make reminders for yourself.”

Is it really the same world when you lose IQ points due to the damage? No, not at all. You can be well spoken and still suffer a serious brain injury. There are many ways TBIs can impact the way you think, remember, feel, react to external stress, and your energy level.  My husband thankfully was a highly intelligent man before the blast. He did lose 25 IQ points. He still is analytically intelligent, and can grasp the science and math he did before. It takes him longer to figure it out, but his smarts are there.

For the average person, losing 25 IQ points would make you almost on the Down’s Syndrome scale or low retardation level of intelligence. It would be very substantial for you. The Army and the VA do not really acknowledge this. We had one Speech Therapist, Cora Madetzke, at the Temple, Texas VA acknowledge the loss to Todd. Her empathy and sympathy meant the world to us. She put some things together to help Todd work on his processing skills, his attention, and focus as his brain damage also caused some hearing loss.

I strongly recommend that you give your injured veteran or family member a good year and a good year off of a good portion of pain medicines as then you will really see what sort of residual damage and issues they will have. Some research claims that if you don’t work with the brain within the first year of the injury, it won’t help. I don’t believe that at all as it has been four years, and I do see gradual improvements in my husband.

What are the impacts of his Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury? Well, for starters the energy level has decreased a lot. He can not multitask at all. Some of the symptoms of PTSD and TBI overlap and magnify. If you want to get him mad, start talking to him while he is listening to his program on his laptop or trying to read a book. He can not read a line of a page and remember it two minutes later. He used to have a near-photographic memory and it really frustrates him to be in the middle of a story and he starts cursing because he forgot a name of a buddy, or a name of a scientific process, etc.

One of the worst things he suffers from the brain injury besides the inability to remember the things he wants to at will, are the headaches he suffers from. He gets them out of nowhere and they hit him square behind the eye. They hit him almost like a migraine in terms of the dehibilitation, but they don’t last for more than 45 minutes at the most. However, once he gets one he gets around 15-20 more that day.

Thank goodness for his neurologist we took him to at the Headache Clinic at Scott and White as they recommended an Alphastim for him. If you aren’t familiar with that and you suffer from headaches, TBI, and PTSD, you need to get one. Check out the link at alpha-stim.org. It is really incredible when you read the trials. It has helped Todd significantly. He used to get headaches at least 6 times a week. On a good week, it is down to 4 times a week. When he gets the headaches, he can’t open his eyes or control his voluntary muscle function. If he was drinking water before it hits, he chokes on it. Smells make him nauseated easily, even when not having the headaches. Perfumes he used to like really bother him now. 

When we drive to the VA in Temple from Taylor, most of the time he is so tired because he doesn’t sleep well still and the brain injury can cause fatigue. As soon as the car motor turns on, he is asleep in his chair. I see his feet moving, his right hand moving as if he is driving or being a TC in his sleep.

I have found some good brain resources along the way. If you are a veteran with a combat-related TBI, go to avbi.org as they will provide you with one free year of Lumosity, which is a great website for helping your brain. Non-TBI people can benefit from it as well.  AVBI also does provide you with neat cards and dogtags which you can write down your medical information so if you are in an accident you can list your TBI condition as well as the meds you take.

When you see someone you know has a brain injury, do NOT complete their sentences for them. Unless they ask you to help them search for a word. It is rude to do that without being asked by the patient. Do not act like you have the same problem, because you do NOT.

People in the community do not see my husband’s brain injury right away. He hides it pretty well. However, I had to impart some etiquette as I have seen people say some pretty damn insensitive things to him.

March was Brain Injury month, so please educate yourself on what you can do to help your family member adjust to their new life with changes to their brain. It is not easy, but time, acceptance of how their mind and processes have changed will make it so they can accept new ways of doing things to trigger their memories. Just remember to breathe and not get mad when you are asked the same thing over again or watch the same movie again. 🙂

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Liam

Liam

Driving the XB – getting to do a night driving adventure

So, it has been really shocking to my core that I am no longer the parent of a boy, but a young man. I know, duh, he is fifteen, but I still get asked for ID when I go purchase the rare adult beverage every so often. I don’t feel like I am 42, but here I am.

It seems as though one day I looked at him and still saw him looking around twelve years old and now, he is fifteen going on 24. He will sometimes roll his eyes, tip his head to the side and say,”Mom…um, that wasn’t your best pun.” I can remember when all I had to say was the word marble or balls, or eyeball and he would go into fits of laughter. Sure, that was when he was little. Now he has matured into an even-keeled, intelligent, caring, and driven young man.

He has thrived during the many struggles of living with a father who has severe PTSD and a brain injury. Watching someone live in chronic pain and experience the constant frustrations that living with physical challenges can really bring out the crabby moods, to say it mildly. Together we worked out ways to kind of warn each other as to what kind of day was he having so Liam would know what to not say as you never want to trigger someone already in a bad mood by bringing up something you know would cause more volatility such as talking about politics. He also knew to offer things of comfort, such as Todd’s favorite Mountain Dew and Pop-Tarts, his breakfast of champions. He once dubbed Todd a “Punk Rock Soldier Teacher Chemist,” which made him smile a lot. That has been a name that sticks.

He used to go to creeks and take water samples and look at them under microscopes. Having a former Chemistry and Physics teacher for a dad really was helpful for him as he always had a quest for knowledge. He still enjoys his father telling him about different experiments and theories in the subject of what Liam learned that day in school.

My son is always willing to help someone that needs it. He enjoys being a Boy Scout. He never says no when I ask him something. Now, if it is chore related and I am annoyed that he forgets and I get crabby, I get the standard eye roll and he still does it. I really am lucky. I know I sound like I am bragging, but I am not. I am just very grateful for my blessings and I just have to share this.

Sixteen years ago when Todd and I were still in the first few years of our marriage and we decided to have a baby, it was the best decision I ever made. Tonight, my “baby” and I drove to HEB Grocery Store. He was the driver. It was a lot of fun.

So, what is the message besides we are blessed to have an awesome son? That you need to think of all the good things you have in your life, especially in regards to your family. If something is not going well, invest the time to improve that relationship. Plan a fun day with your family and get outside and play!