Determined to Teach Again
The long road back from brain injury.
by Alvin Robert Cunningham
A month after my near-fatal, one-car accident in early 1990, I first began to understand what had landed me in a large trauma hospital.
I had been too tired to drive back to my country home that night. Falling asleep at the wheel, I veered off the highway into a ravine and crashed into two trees. The impact broke my left ribs and hip. Doctors drilled a hole in my left shin bone and inserted a threaded bolt through it. They also arced heavy wire end-to-end to keep my leg positioned correctly while my hip was healing.
In addition, I received a closed-head injury; I could barely move my right leg or arm. I knew my name, but didn’t know where I lived. Though I didn’t understand what a closed-head injury was, I would eventually learn of its permanent, disabling effects.
After my mind started clearing, my loving family told me more about the accident. I’d regurgitated food into my left lung. The trauma doctors inserted a suction device into it and surgically placed a light in my chest cavity to help them see. For the next twelve days, my family didn’t know if I was going to live through the pneumonia that had developed.
Miraculously, I made it through. But the news that I’d missed my only daughter’s wedding pushed me into an abyss of guilt and despair.
I clearly remember that day in the hospital when I made an important decision. I realized I couldn’t undo what had happened, but I committed to claw my way up to where my life had been before. I took stock of myself: a 46-year-old married man with two grown children, a 21-year veteran teacher who had made a stupid, tragic mistake in driving judgment.
I vowed to be released from that hospital no matter what I needed to do or how much pain I needed to endure.
The rehabilitation department put me to the test. I was assigned to speech therapy to work on my memory loss and to vocational therapy to relearn my daily activities using my damaged right side.
But the physical therapy proved the most challenging. There I first heard grown men cry in pain. To mentally prepare myself for these sessions, I reached back into my memory to the painful times when I played football and served in the military.
I struggled to regain the muscle control lost while I lay in bed for a month; but with time and much effort, I progressed. Unlike other patients who returned to bed after their sessions, I pushed myself to stay up and strengthen my upper torso by pushing my wheelchair around the halls.
I soon received good news. With the support of my therapists and my good wife (a qualified certified nurse’s assistant), I convinced the rehabilitation board to release me from the hospital after a two-month stay. I was allowed to go home and continue my physical therapy at a nearby hospital until my hip was completely healed. But before we left, the head psychologist told me that I wouldn’t be able to teach again because of the stress. Later, I understood what he meant.
Reaching the goal
Going home was wonderful. It seemed I was one step closer to resuming my former life. I did well at physical therapy and I lifted weights at home.
Soon after, the orthopedic surgeon released me so I could put weight back on my hip. And my physical therapist said I didn’t need to use a cane. I could learn to walk on my own again.
I had reached my goal. I had been disconnected from all the doctors and hospitals. Though I’d accumulated plenty of paid sick days, I wanted to teach again. School officials were pleased when I called and cleared it with them to finish out May and the 1990 school year — just five months after the accident.
Now I could prove to myself and to everyone that I could come back — that I could handle it all on my own.
One day before returning to school, I started experiencing double vision. An ophthalmologist believed that the nerve in the eye had been stretched when the brain bounced against the opposite side of the skull during impact. So I started teaching that May with a cover over one lens of my glasses. In this way, I could function by focusing on one image.
After the doctors determined that my eyes would not correct themselves, I had prisms ground into my glasses, which solved the double vision. I managed to teach through the end of the 1990 school year without missing any work because of illness, but I was always fatigued from the stress and demands of the job.
I welcomed that summer vacation. I tried to mentally relax, to stretch my length of reading and concentration time, and to maintain a large yard and garden. But my brain injury handed me another surprise.
I started losing my balance. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but then it worsened. To find out what was happening to me, I joined the National Head Injury Foundation (now call the Brain Injury Association) and began learning about my new disability.
My family confirmed that my brain had swelled from the impact. The trauma team drilled a hole in my skull to relieve the pressure. Based on this information and what I was learning, I knew I was experiencing the effect of brain cells destroyed by the swelling.
I had to correct my balance problem! After a specialist confirmed that my inner ears were not damaged from the accident, I secured copies of my medical records from the hospital and met with a local neurologist-psychiatrist. On a CAT scan he showed me many scars on the left hemisphere of my brain, caused by bleeding.
This doctor confirmed that the cerebellum, which coordinates balance and equilibrium, had been damaged. No medication could help the problem. The only medicine he prescribed for head injury victims was for depression — something I would soon have to deal with.
The total effects of my brain injury became more that I could handle during the next full school year. Teaching in a public school was becoming much more demanding and stressful; new state and local mandates had to be met. Also, the attitude and behavior of most students were deteriorating. My stress level increased daily. I soon began experiencing mood swings that I had a difficult time controlling.
I found myself trying to counteract the constant pull of depression. Toward the end of the school year, the whole right side of my body went numb as if it were asleep, and my arm and leg felt as if they weighed 75 pounds.
I started getting sick to my stomach. The psychologist had known what he was talking about. I couldn’t take it. I finally admitted I needed help.
I realized then that I had reached an important crossroads in my life. My arrogant pride — which had always kept Christ and, what I used to call the weak “Bible,” at a distance — had now been torn away by my mental and physical suffering. So that night, in the privacy of my study, I knelt — a painful position.
Not being a person of prayer who’s used to the proper words, I could only make a tearful plea that Jesus Christ would come into my life and help me. I confessed that I was too weak to handle my life and asked if He could share His strength with me. At that moment, I felt a calmness and a sense of peace filling my body and mind.
I have continued to live in the faith and have learned what I didn’t understand before: that all those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior do not become weak, but become empowered by His words and teachings.
Some wonderful things have happened to me in recent years.
In 1992 I was honored by being named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. I have authored three children’s books and signed contracts with educational publishers for two more.
Brain injured/special education students in our district have found my experience a source of inspiration. Though the effects of my traumatic brain injury have worsened with age (I’m now 55 years old), thanks to God’s help, I haven’t missed a day of work since coming back from the accident. In June 2000 I will retire from teaching. I look forward to the joys that God has planned for my life.
Though I’ve accomplised more than the doctors dreamed, I’m not where I thought I would be. I’m better now than before the accident, thanks to Jesus Christ. With Him as my true strength, I cannot fail.