How I graduated from university after my TBI

BY: MARIA LISCIO

Out of nowhere things can change and make you feel as though everything you’ve worked so hard for doesn’t matter. That happened to me the summer before my last year of university when I was struck by a car, as a pedestrian, on my way to work.

I do not remember anything about what happened, other than leaving my house and then waking up in the hospital in an enormous amount of pain. I had severe traumatic brain injuries, including a concussion, brain bleeding and brain bruising.

Until this time, I always focused on achieving high grades in school. I pushed myself to excel in every course I took. I majored in psychology at Ryerson University with a full course load every year. Although it was challenging at times, I worked hard and landed on the dean’s list.

I did not realize the extent of my injuries until I returned home from the hospital. Doctors, social workers, family and friends, said I should take the year off school to recover. I was completely taken aback. I thought, “How could I possibly take the year off? This is my last year and I want to apply to masters programs in a few months!”

Empty University Lecture hall
PHOTO VIA PEXELS

School was one of the most important things in my life and I being told I shouldn’t go back threw me off guard.

I learned I had a mild cognitive impairment, which caused problems with focus, concentration, and writing. I noticed my writing difficulties right away, I spelled words incorrectly and my sentences didn’t make sense. I was devastated.

How could I go from being a straight A student, to not being able to spell words correctly?

Even after hearing everyone’s advice, I did not want to listen. I was determined to go back to school, maintain my high average and graduate on time, no matter what. And let me tell you, it was extremely hard.

I told all of my professors about my situation the first week of classes. They were all very understanding and told me if I ever needed extra time with an assignment or extra help, to let them know. During this time, I was still attending frequent doctor, therapist and specialist appointments. Trying to manage everything took a huge toll. I broke down many times and cried because I could not focus, I could not remember the topics I was studying, and my essays did not make sense.

Fortunately, my friends and family were always there for me during my struggles, helping me and making sure I was getting enough rest.

Woman studying with her head in her hands
PHOTO via PEXELS

Due to my injuries, my fatigue levels were very low.  I took a nap almost every day after school, before starting my homework, in fact, I scheduled them in. Without enough rest, I couldn’t focus and concentrate on what I needed to do.

However, there was one time in particular where I knew I had to persevere and prove myself. It was during one of my mandatory psychology classes, and the material was so different from the majority of my other classes. I was very confused, so I asked my professor for help. He tried to help me, however, he also told me that if I didn’t understand, I should drop the class.

I was furious! Drop the class? Not graduate this year? There was absolutely no way I was letting that happen! That comment made me realize that just because you don’t understand something, does not mean you should give up. I studied long hours, and, as always, I took naps when I needed to. I made sure I ate enough to fuel my body. I continued visiting my professors and asking for help, and I spent a tremendous amount of time working on essays.

I wanted to prove to myself and others that my brain injuries, and the struggles caused by them, do not define me and what I am able to do.  

Before my accident, I had worked part-time at a grocery store for almost six years. Initially after my accident, I did not work for three or four months so I could adequately recover. Then I tried going back to work but I could not manage it. I experienced extreme fatigue and dizziness from standing during my shifts. Even though it was unintentional, I also felt as though some people did not understand the extent of my brain injuries because they were not something anyone could physically see.

Working and being a student was something I could no longer do. I was trying so hard in school, and it was time consuming. I resigned my position to focus solely on my studies.

Through all of my battles, I managed to yet again get straight A’s. I have never been so proud of myself and what I was able to achieve, despite the circumstances. However, my most proud moment was achieving 90% in none other than, the psychology class I was told I should drop.

I graduated university that year, with honours, making the Dean’s List and most importantly making myself proud of this achievement.

I am now working for a health care clinic and I am still planning on applying to masters programs in the future. I continue to experience more fatigue than I am used too, and some difficulties in writing and focusing.

Even with these difficulties, I am going to try and preserve as best as I can.


Maria Liscio is an ABI survivor who is working towards a career in health care. She currently works at a health care clinic that assists many individuals with ABI. Maria uses her personal experience to connect with others facing life’s challenges, and strives to encourage positivity.  Follow her on Instagram at @maria.liscio.

 

 

 

 

BIST member Taylor Corstorphine: The power of positive thinking

By Melissa Myers

“I’m never discouraged.  I just keep going and keep moving.  I’m never down or sad”

Taylor Corstorphine: graphic design artist; brain injury survivor.

Taylor Corstorphine is in his last year of a three-year Graphic Design program at George Brown, and earned his way into the program by achieving a grade higher than 3.0 on a photography portfolio he created in his first year.  He created the portfolio in a course called Art Fundamentals.

He volunteered with the Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST) to create the poster for BIST’s 5km Run, Walk and Roll in September. Corstorphine says it is difficult to balance school and volunteer work, but he looks forward to more volunteer opportunities with BIST.

Taylor Corstorphine
Taylor Corstorphine. Photo by Melissa Myers

His interests at school and ambitions in graphic design include packaging and corporate design, which involves designing brand logos and product packages.  Working out, reading, golfing and watching movies are some of his hobbies.  Corstorphine loves to laugh and comedy is his favourite genre of movie.

In 2006, Corstorphine was hit by car while training for a Sporting Life 10 kilometre run with his high school gym class.  He was knocked unconscious from the impact and was then put on life support and put ino a drug-induced coma once an ambulance delivered him to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.  He says that doctors at St. Michael’s said he had a one per cent chance to live.

After two and a half weeks in a coma, Corstorphine was finally pulled out of it and found himself in the intensive care unit of the hospital.  Two months later he was transferred to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, where he stayed for six months.

Corstorphine had to re-learn how to walk, talk and eat properly.  At rehab, he partook in physiotherapy, speech language pathology and began attempting simple math, English and art practices.  He had to learn how to read and write again and, interestingly, he found himself more interested in art where he had preferred history and science beforehand.  In this way, Corstorphine said he had experienced a sort of revival and had become a new person.

He said he remembers his mom being there for him and spending a lot of time with him while he was in rehab.

“My mom dropped everything and went to the hospital,” said Corstorphine.  He said that his dad and sisters had a more difficult time accepting what had happened to him, but that his mom was and is really aware.

He said that a lot of friends came to visit him while he was in rehab, but that not all of them still visit with him.  It seems some people have moved on with their careers, but Corstorphine says a couple of friends stuck around and still accompany him to events around the city.

Although he has a great family supporting him and has been able to live a goal-oriented life, Corstorphine still copes with many challenges due his acquired brain injury.  For example, to stay successful at school he has to pace himself.

Corstorphine has made it through his program by taking four classes per semester instead of the usual six-course curriculum, making up the remaining classes in summer semesters.  Another way he paces himself at school is by strategizing his coffee intake and taking after-school naps.

“I drink coffee in the morning, and one in the afternoon,” he said.

At school, Corstorphine uses a smartpen to record classes and has help taking notes.  He utilizes several memory aid devices and also has a rehab support worker (RSW) who helps him to get off to a good start at the beginning of each semester.  He said that he has been writing a lot of things down lately to help him remember what is going on at school.

Corstorphine said that although his short-term memory has been affected, his long-term memory still remains intact.  He recalled his role on his soccer team before his accident.

“I was a ‘stopper’ (midfield/defensive player),” he said, mentioning that his head was his biggest asset as he used to stop the ball from entering his team’s defensive zone.  He said he still enjoys playing soccer with friends whenever he has the opportunity.

Corstorphine also mentioned he had taught younger students English as a Second Language, or ESL, to fulfill his mandatory high school volunteer hours before his accident.  He said he taught the students how to read and speak English at an elementary school downtown and that this volunteer position had been very rewarding for him.

Corstorphine seemed to have a very unique and positive outlook on life and didn’t want to focus on the way his daily life has been altered.  Instead, he pointed to his successes and the way he will use the skills he has learned.

“I’m always moving forward,” he said, “that’s my motto.”

Melissa Myers is a BIST Communications Commitee member and is working toward her Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. 

Back to School with TBI

By G. Ian Bowles

For many people with a traumatic brain injury, going back to school can be quite threatening: both personally and professionally.

My own brain injury happened three years after I finished my M.S. in geography. I had not intended to end my schooling when I had finished that degree, and I was not about to let my car accident impede my lifelong goal of education. But difficulties in memory and understanding make classes difficult: especially when we often expect ourselves to grasp things at a faster pace. pace that we often expect of ourselves.

Below are some of the principles that are recognized to help TBI survivors to return to class. For me, I was not only able to get back to school, but for several years I taught at the university level, south of the border.

Filling their minds with new ideas. ;Image: ;FreeDigitalPhotos.net;;

Filling their minds with new ideas. Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Challenges

Whether going back to high school, university or work-related classes, the thought of an intense, structured learning program can be intimidating. Often, learning new material is difficult for people with brain injuries, and school is nothing but new ideas. Fatigue can also be a problem, since many of us tire easily.

There is also a social perspective necessary for group projects or for getting help, and sometimes this can be beyond the reach of TBI survivors, according to the Tramautic Brain Injury Survival Guide written by Michigan-based Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr. Glen Johnson. But we can adapt to situations. Often it is fear of these situations that is our biggest obstacle.

Help is available

Usually, there will be some kind of assistance offered as a structured part of the school or university: it is just a matter of finding it, and qualifying , according to Brainline. This could involve some investment of time and energy before classes actually start, and during the term to keep the administration abreast of any difficulties.

Talk to those who are in charge; find out what’s possible and how to get involved. Sometimes it involves a letter from a doctor; sometimes help is based on individual situations and happenings. This is why it’s important to remember to tell them about difficulties, as they happen.

School strategies

There are many strategies that can be used to compensate for a brain injury. Studying is important: a lot of repetition rather than simply “cramming” for an exam. Start early and don’t leave things until the last minute.

Some people use multiple senses in studying: reading, writing, speaking and hearing. I’ve done this: simply rewriting my notes will help me to remember, even if I never look at those particular notes again.

Some people need breaks or extra time during an exam; such compensation is not difficult to achieve.

Worth the effort

Walking through the steps thus takes longer for TBI survivors, and we have to work harder: but our education is worth it. It should be noted that each person, and each injury, is different. Some strategies that work for some people will not work for others. What seem to be subtle variations in a method can mean the difference between success and failure.

So it’s important to keep trying. Although it’s easy to say, “don’t get frustrated”, this will often happen. It’s important to consciously move beyond frustration in order to achieve our goals. It might also take longer for a TBI survivor to achieve educational goals. Kelli Williams Gary describes how she was able to overcome the many difficulties associated with her condition: and most significantly, that it took several tries to actually complete her education. She started slow to get used to the process of retraining her brain, and eventually relearned study skills and was reintegrated into the school. She was able to build back slowly, and eventually completed her PhD in Occupational Therapy. It took her longer than the average person, but she was able to finish her degrees.

G. Ian Bowles, brain injury survivor and BIST Communications Committee Chair

For more strategies and tips for returning to school after a TBI, visit Duke Medicine and Brain Injury Hub