Getting Up Again

A dream life becomes a nightmare.

by Amy Rockford-Hale as told to Ann Peachman

A pivotal event is one that defines everything before and after it. A chance meeting, a phone call, a quick decision can be a turning point. You look back and say, “On that day, everything changed.”

For me, it was the day I fell on the way to work.

I was experiencing a period of stability in my life — welcome after several years of turmoil. In my early twenties my mother died of cancer, leaving an enormous gap. I survived a disastrous first marriage that emotionally bruised me.

Now happily married with two young children, I worked as a licensed practical nurse at St. Lawrence Hospital in Michigan. This was the life I’d dreamed of living during the years of turbulence.

Fall

As I hurried through the parking lot on that February day, my thoughts focused on getting to work on time, and I failed to notice a large patch of ice. I flew through the air and landed on the back of my head.

I lay unconscious for several minutes. When help arrived, I was taken to the emergency room, and x-rays were ordered. I was diagnosed with a concussion, given the usual outcomes to watch for, and sent home to recover.

Alarming changes

Recovery, however, was not a simple matter.

For the first several days, I felt as though I were wrapped in cotton wool. Everything seemed unclear and confusing, but I considered it lingering shock from the jolt to my system. As time passed, several alarming changes became evident.

The most frightening was memory and processing difficulties. I became confused with details once well known to me. I sat down to watch a game of volleyball on TV with my son, only to discover it was soccer. While reading fairy tales to my daughter, I couldn’t keep the simplest characters straight. Information like “I have an appointment at 2:00” created incredible stress because I didn’t know what that meant. I constantly mixed up time and seasons.

Husband’s help

My husband worked nights, and I began experiencing anxiety attacks that escalated as the day passed. I told the children, “Phone Daddy. I need him right now.”

Darrel supported and helped me and tried to understand what was happening inside me, when often I didn’t understand myself. I got angry with him because he couldn’t fix me. One night, in an irrational fit of frustration, I said, “I hope when you’re old, nobody will listen to you or help you!”

Diagnosis

After a frustrating fifteen months, two days of testing confirmed my diagnosis of traumatic brain injury (TBI), also called post-concussion syndrome. The testing revealed that I had severe damage in various areas of cognition and processing.

Darrel was devastated and frightened by the results, but for me, they were almost comforting: They confirmed what I already knew.

Acting normal

When I met people who hadn’t seen me recently, they didn’t perceive anything wrong. I looked normal, and I put tremendous effort into acting normal. They said, “You had a fall, didn’t you? Well, you look good.”

I smiled and nodded, but inside I screamed, I’m dying in here!

Insurance and children

Because my injury occurred at work, I had to deal with insurance companies. I couldn’t work for many months, and I received harassing phone calls from agents who tried to prove that I was faking my illness and playing the system.

I worried about the effect on my children. I sobbed when I read my daughter’s journal from the third grade: “Being alone with my mom is like being all alone.”

Turning point

A turning point came when I was led to a doctor who understood my problem and became my champion. She convinced the insurance companies that my condition was real and serious, and the phone calls stopped. She told me, “Amy, you need to give yourself time to heal.”

The recovery from TBI is varied. Some people never recover, some make a slow and partial recovery, and some return to full function. By July 1996, I was well enough to work again and landed a job at the Michigan State Student Health Center.

I enjoyed the variety of the work and the students, but after several years, I began stagnating. I couldn’t go any farther as an LPN. It felt like a job; I wanted a career.

Challenge and failure

In 2003 I heard about a long-distance program that seemed to provide the answer for me. It consisted of completing several units in a computerized testing center, then a grueling three-day performance nursing exam. At the end of it, I would have my RN degree.

I did well in the units, but when it came time for testing, the stress of having my every move watched and my every decision questioned caused me to fail three times. It devastated me not only emotionally but also financially, as my husband was unemployed and the course cost thousands.

Exploring options

In exploring other options, I discovered Lansing Community College’s fast track program to upgrade to RN status. This seemed like a good option, so I entered. Besides school, I worked four days a week to keep us afloat financially.

In the final unit, I struggled with the complex information because of the challenges I still faced since my brain injury. We had grown close as a class, and it shattered me to drop out. But I knew I needed help.

Spiritual strides

I learned more than nursing at this time. As a teen, I had come to a personal faith in Jesus as my Savior, and that faith had been tested many times through the trauma of my early twenties. As I coped with failure as an adult, I learned that God remained with me, no matter the outcome.

I prayed repeatedly, “Just let me pass!” But even when I didn’t, it didn’t mean that God wasn’t listening or that He didn’t care. I knew He was in control, that He loved me, and that He was using these experiences in my life.

Improved results

After I prayed for direction, God led me to Disability Services, which arranged for me to have a reader for my next exam. God also provided a wonderful pastor’s wife to fulfill that role. I completed the exam in a quiet room, with the reader, and took as much time as I needed.

My results improved dramatically: I scored 87 percent! However, because of my previous failures, I needed 94 percent to complete the course.

My instructor remarked, “You did so well. I wish you had pursued this method earlier in the course.” So did I. But I knew God wasn’t finished. I prayed again, and the next step became clear.

Second effort

Though frightening and humbling, I returned to Disability Services to plead my case. I chronicled all the steps I had taken to get where I was that day — one exam away from receiving my RN degree. Disability Services talked to the Nursing Department, and discussions went back and forth for weeks. They didn’t know what to do with me, as they had never faced a situation like mine. I cried as another class graduated without me.

Finally word came: I could rewrite the final exam with a reader.

Fulfilled desires

In January 2007 God gave me the desires of my heart, and I became Amy Rockford-Hale, registered nurse.

Today I work with the Hospice of Lansing as a nurse case manager, helping patients with end-of-life issues. I do physical assessments and pain management and provide support to families. And every day I thank God.

That February day, a fall changed my life. I have learned that some of God’s greatest lessons are learned not in the falling but in the getting up again . . . and again.


Jack and Jill Suffer From Traumatic Brain Injury