The Mighty Pen

BY: MARK KONING

I am a writer who happens to have a brain injury.

I am an ABI Survivor who is also a writer.

I am both.

Overall, I am a creative person, but my niche is writing. I love playing the role of storyteller and unravelling a tale of the imagination. I have written two fictional books and there are many short stories to my credit. I love the idea of creating different worlds or putting a spin on this one, coming up with characters and developing their depths.

A few years ago I decided to build my skills by taking a creative writing program, and while learning about building themes and expanding upon plots, my natural flair for scripting inventive narrative lead me to obtaining a diploma with honors.

My writing, so it seems, has also become somewhat inspirational to others, specifically my offerings toward brain injury advocacy. I was once convinced to start my own blog and in doing so it has guided me toward contributing to others (such as this one right here for BIST). The written word has also helped me in areas of my employment, both past and present, and it’s assisted in building a network of colleagues. But even more so, writing makes a significant impact on my life.

Through writing I not only get to share my experiences with brain injury, I get to learn, understand and become more aware. It teaches me as much as it might teach others. Writing about my viral brain infection when I was younger, scripting the story of the day my mom had her accident and suffered a head trauma, helped me get through the initial surrounding drama, and continues to allow me to see things a little more clearly. Writing also allows me to do something I find very difficul: communicate. I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t for writing I’d never talk, that wouldn’t be true, but I would be somewhat lost in life.

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Writing helps me deal with any depression I must face, as well as anxiety, frustration and even fear. It educates and motivates me on how stand up. I keep some of my writing to myself, some I share, some I write in story format (as I remember it) other stuff I scribble out in point form – in email, opinions, advice, in my journal, in a blog, in an article or a book.

Whether it is a pen in my hand, or more often a keyboard for my fingers, I have gained confidence and also found an outlet for my sanity. The mighty pen, for me, is a saving grace. It is my substitute for any needed medication or rehabilitation.

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Barbara de Catanzaro – “Coming to Be – Me!”

By Richard Haskell

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Barbara de Catanzaro

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The First 27 Years

Animals have always held a special place for Ottawa native and ABI survivor Barbara de Catanzaro. She began with an aquarium filed with guppies and Tetras. It wasn’t long before she had proven her capabilities of looking after the tiny aquatic creatures, and for her sixth birthday she was rewarded with a trip to the local humane society, where she was allowed to bring home a “mutt” she named Blackie.  By the time she was 10, her parents had acquired a “hobby” farm near Woodlawn, Ont., 40 km west of Ottawa, providing greater roaming space for other four-footed companions, including “Smokey”, a Shepherd, and “Barney”, a Springer Spaniel-Shepherd mix. There was also a bevy of farm cats. Barbara loved them all.

She began her post-secondary education at the University of Guelph, where she embarked upon a degree in science, agriculture and economics. After stints at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, she returned to Guelph to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. Further studies at Guelph resulted in a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Hotel and Food Administration ­- and from then on, her career in restaurant and hotel management took her to different parts of the world, including Montréal, to cities in Germany, and finally to England, where she worked for the prestigious Trusthouse Forte organization in Bath and later in Boxhill, Surrey.

 The Accident

After three years in Europe, Barbara decided to return home to Canada – succumbing to her “nesting instincts.” Her parents were no longer living together by that time,  so she decided to “head east” to the Maritimes, to visit a girl who had attended her high school and whose parents had retired to Gagetown, N.B. Through perusing the “rides available” ads in the local paper, she found someone who was conveniently heading in that direction in late December. Unknown to her, this would be a fateful journey, one which would alter her life forever.  Five days before Christmas, she and the driver were travelling on the Trans-Canada Highway near Petitcodiac, N.B. in a 1998 Oldsmobile when the car was hit head on by a drunk driver. The vehicle was totalled, and tragically, the driver of the car she was in was killed.

Rehabilitation – one step at a time

Miraculously, Barbara survived, but not without sustaining considerable trauma. She had suffered a “closed brain Injury”, one resulting from an external impact that doesn’t include a break in the skull. Closed head injuries usually involve swelling or bleeding within the skull, which may in turn lead to brain damage. She also had a Mylar fracture involving the upper left cheek and eye socket, causing the displacement of her left eye, resulting in a life-time of double vision requiring special glasses. Barbara was taken to a hospital in Fredericton   – the only one in the area at the time treating closed head injuries. There she remained in a coma for nine days, but it was three months before she was released. Upon regaining consciousness, she remembers feeling puzzlement as she looked out the window and wondered where she was.   She remembers her first attempts at walking and being very discouraged at having to think hard about putting her feet in motion. But she rationalized: “I’m here in public, don’t cry about it, just DO IT!”

By February, she was able to travel back to Ottawa, but upon her arrival, it was discovered all the beds in the hospital designated to rehabilitate brain injury survivors were filled. Barbara was fortunate that her mother was a registered nurse. Rather than being sent to a different facility, Barbara was taken to the family farm. There, she was treated by means of an in-home rehabilitation program in which she was visited by physio-’, speech-, and occupational- therapists on a weekly basis.

“Having a one-on-one relationship with my therapists and not having to wait for therapies allowed me to heal and begin the process of re-filing the emptied drawers of my brain’s ‘Filing-Cabinet-of-Knowledge’,” she says.  “I do not believe I lost any marbles but simply had them re-arranged.”

Learning to walk and talk again took  eight months, from  February to the following  September. Barbara discontinued speech and occupational therapy first, but continued on with physiotherapy for considerably longer. According to her, she trained with the zeal of an Olympic athlete – she was determined to make a recovery, and not be forced to “walk like a drunk.”

“I swore never again to take my body, and my ability to walk and talk, for granted,” she reflected at the time.

Barbara did learn to walk and talk again, and although her short-term memory suffered, her long-term memory stayed intact.

Life Since Then

By September, 1991, Barbara was able to move into her own apartment in Ottawa’s west end, where she began the long process of putting her life back together. A big plus was having parents and supportive friends close at hand who were able to guide her during this early stage of her new life.  It wasn’t long before she was directing her energy and positive outlook into a variety of volunteer activities with numerous organizations. Since 1994, she’s been involved with the Brain Injury Mentoring Program at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Ottawa, where she has offered her assistance to the Physiotherapy Department, demonstrating what she had learned herself in physiology and rehabilitation. For four years, she was a physiotherapy assistant with Neurogym Technologies Inc, where she volunteered her skills as a “Motion Analysis Specialist” and for six years, she also gave her time as a caregiver at the Elizabeth Bruyère Health Centre.

Among the most interesting – and most recent – of her endeavours are those with Windreach Farm, where she donates her time as a self-proclaimed “farm- hand”. Located in Ashburn, Ont., Windreach was founded by cerebral palsy survivor Sandy Mitchell in 1989, and was originally set up to accommodate the needs of those with a wide variety of disabilities. Having spent many of her formative years on a farm , it seemed a natural step for Barbara to offer her services to such a worthwhile undertaking – and it’s also her good fortune that the property is only a 20 minute drive from  home. Thus far, her duties there have involved the training of animals, including what she refers to as “The Cuddly Bunny Project.”  In this capacity, she is currently “taming” six rabbits with the ultimate goal that they grow better accustomed to being handled by humans. All her observations are being carefully logged in a scientific manner. Barbara is also involved in sheep-herd training– a skill not as easy as it sounds, for among other things, it involves gaining the confidence of the sheep-dog, a Puli named “Obee.” Barbara is currently contemplating applying for a paid position with Windreach, and has a long-term goal of becoming a certified animal behaviourist.

Restaurant and hotel manager, ABI survivor and animal therapist – Barbara de Catanzaro has worn many hats over the course of her lifetime.  At this point, it would seem that her life has come full circle, having spent several of her formative years on a farm, to now helping out at Windreach. She proudly claims:

You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

She has nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to be given a second chance, and for the many friendships she’s made through BIST. Yet she disagrees with the label “disabled persons,” far greatly preferring the designation of “people of different abilities.” Her positive attitude and forward thinking have allowed her to accomplish much in the last 22 years – and there’s still more to come.

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. 

When hoping turns to coping: A BIST member’s story

Susan Green suffered an acquired brain injury 38 years ago. This is her story of her ups and downs, and now mostly ups, following the car crash that altered her life.

My brain injury occurred on August 17, 1974.   It was amazing, if I can use a three syllable word for something which changed me and took a bunch of my talents away.

It was 38 years ago; it was seconds in which the damage was incurred.

On the day of my accident, I was being driven from McGill University in Montreal, where I was going to attend school in September.  I lived in Connecticut, and my elder sister Daina was a McGill student. We dropped her off in Vermont and my friend from high school, James was driving my golden Nash Rambler, for which I had paid $100, and I was stretched out in the back.  It was raining hard and the slick streets were quite treacherous. We got hit, and I was in a coma for one month.  The point of impact was very near my head.

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After they airlifted me to Albany Medical Center, everyone was so worried. My mother comforted me, stroked me and washed my clothing; and my father drove up from where he was a professor in New Haven, CT. He often played the guitar and banjo, and spoke reassuring words to me.

My friends from home heard about my situation and sporadically hitch-hiked up to see me.  My most dear friends travelled to visit me: John Peterson, who would come and see me and always got on the bed to hold me; and my partner and best girlfriend Corinne Smith, who lived across the fence from us and with whom I often baked cookies.

It was amazing that part of my family of which I knew little was regrouping. Such warmth and such amazing caring.  It is almost unbelievable how much care my family and friends gave me.

Yet it was difficult to tolerate many visitors.  They spoke too quickly and ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed’ over me.  I did not like or want their condolences, nor the noise that they brought.   I surely couldn’t verbalize it, but quite soon, I wanted them out of my personal space!

My doctors continued to monitor me quite closely.  But what luck I had!  I was treated with such incredible care.  After some weeks and months, though I am not sure exactly how long it took, I would learn to walk again through the physical therapy.

But my rehabilitation was arduous and painful.  I was still furious, speechless, and disorganized.  I tore my hair, I bit the sheets, I screamed for a long time, until I was wasted and I lulled myself to sleep.  I was so filled with anger and hopelessness.

As I recall, I always liked to roll my wheel chair, with my non-paralyzed foot, to the infants’ nursery.  No one would look for me there and I was so pacified by my silent companions.  When found, I was wheeled into my own dwellings, the bars on my bed were lifted and I would scream and cry.   Quickly I would fall asleep from all of the muscular exertion.

The accident had left me unable to walk or speak.  All windows of communication seemed to have been slammed shut.

Upon release from the hospital, my family found a half-way house called New Haven Halfway House.  The people running the Halfway House were freeing and nice. We did our chores.  I helped out by working in the New Haven Food Co-op, organizing shelves and buying the food that the Half Way House required.  I was “learning how” to take care of myself.  Even though I was in such a condition, I was very satisfied.

As time passed, the word hoping turned to coping.  Perhaps the tonic of repetition started to catch on.  Although I still was pretty angry, I realized that the motions I was performing were those which I performed in similar situations.  My speech was getting more accurate and more understandable.  During all this time of ‘healing’, a lot of energy was being absorbed by my bursts of striving and then falling back into a reposeful sleep.

I have lived with my brain injury for thirty-eight years of renewal and reconstruction.  Since that time, even though I can only see clearly though one eye, I am getting by.  From being speechless and fighting like hell to rekindle the wicks into understandable speech.  I paint, try to play the 5-string banjo, sing and am very grateful for all of these ‘little’ things. There have of course, been incredible times of panic and screaming and not being able to ‘get it together’  but I feel for the most part good and talented.

Susan Green, brain injury survivor and BIST member.

Photo illustration courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

The road to recovery: A BIST member’s story

Deborah Daniel was skiing at Big White in Kelowna, B.C. on Christmas Day last year when she lost control and skied off the side of the mountain. This is her Q&A about her experiences and challenges as she continues to recover from her accident.

Deborah Daniel on the slopes the day before her accident.
BIST: How did you sustain your brain injury?

On my last run of the day on a baby/intermediate hill (I was not a great skier) I lost control and skied off the side of the mountain. I landed six to 10 feet below but was not knocked unconscious. My right leg hit a tree and I started calling for help. Luckily help came quickly. I was not wearing a helmet, because no one ever told me to; I thought that was for real beginners and those who snowboard. It makes me feel silly to think about it in hindsight as I am a health-care professional.

I was lucky that my head only hit the ground and not a tree. The people who rescued me said that had I landed a couple of feet to the left or right, I would probably have been dead.

I went to the infirmary and hospital later that night. I had no symptoms of a concussion, my memory was intact and no scans or tests were performed.

I left with some painkillers and a wrapped knee because I had sprained my MCL (which I found out later). Throughout the next couple of days I had some minor headaches, but they said that was normal.

It wasn’t until  weeks after the injury that the symptoms started. It started with nausea — consistent nausea. At first I thought that perhaps I had the flu, or an inner-ear infection. But it then progressed to severe dizziness and exhaustion. I was sitting in a business meeting about four weeks after the accident and the room started spinning and I had to hold on to the walls to not fall over.

This time I went to the hospital and they did a CT scan – normal, thank goodness. Four weeks post-accident they finally did diagnose me with post-concussion symptoms and referred me to a concussion clinic with some regular meds – gravol and advil for the symptoms. There was nothing else they could do.

BIST: Can you describe your rehabilitation process?

Sleep. Sleep. And sleep. That was the first two-to-four weeks after the accident – sleeping. The health-care professionals I was speaking to then told me light exercise was important to my rehabilitation and that I needed to walk every day. I did that, and then tried to not take naps during the day unless I absolutely had to, to prepare to make it through a work day when I went back.

The other part of my rehabilitation was to try to do my previous activities slowly (such as trying beginner yoga again) and if symptoms came on, then I had to stop. And this is what I have continued to do for three months.

I try to walk a longer distance to and from the subway for my daily exercise, I try not to take naps unless needed, I try to sleep the same amount and pattern daily (this is the hardest) and try to do light exercise and get back into my old routine. This has also helped with the depression I felt after the accident – I felt useless, sick and that I was going to be like this forever.

However, even after three months, there is still a long way to go, especially with the motion sickness, but I am hoping I will be back to normal in another couple of months.

BIST: What were some of the challenges you faced right after your injury?

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Brain injury and intimacy: A gay perspective

G. Ian Bowles was 37 and living in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2001 when his vehicle hydroplaned during a thunderstorm. He slammed sideways into a bridge support and was in coma for six weeks. When he woke up six weeks later, he says he was first confused about where he was, then unsure if his orientation had changed. Was he still gay or had the brain injury somehow altered him? This is his story of life after brain injury and how he and his partner Tim maintained their relationship.

Brain injuries can be extremely difficult for family relationships, especially with regards to spouses or partners. It is one thing when accidents happen and a sibling or child changes in the emotional or cognitive realm. But when that happens to a spouse, it can be devastating. A relationship once built on experience and memory potentially loses much of  its foundation. Commitment and long-term love are suddenly much more important than reciprocated affection and immediate enjoyment.

Such concerns can be even more pronounced if the injured person is gay.

My accident happened in the American South, in Arkansas, where I had moved a year prior. When I woke from my six-week coma, one of the first questions that I was asked was where I thought I was. The last place I remembered was being at school, in Pennsylvania, which turned out to be two years earlier. When they started trying to convince me of my location, I thought it was a joke. When they didn’t give up, I thought it was a conspiracy. I remembered that I had been starting to “come out” before the accident. As a gay man, why would I move to Arkansas, of all places? Then snatches of memory started coming back, including the memories of the gay community in the state and my partner. Slowly it dawned on me that they were telling the truth.

Ian Bowles with partner Tim.

When I was first told about my accident and brain injury, I wondered if there had been any effect on my orientation.

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A great adventure: A BIST member’s story

Sarah Briggs was a nationally-ranked skier competing at an elite level when a crash on a hill in Quebec altered the course of her life.  In the second of two winter-activity themed stories by BIST members living with the affects of acquired brain injury, Sarah shares her inspirational story about her road to recovery.

Photo by rchughtai/Flickr


I can say things will get better, but the truth is that they only get better up to a certain point, after which you learn to live with the “new” you.  Do your best, try not to compare yourself to others, your journey is your own to follow and a great adventure

– Sarah Briggs.

I sustained my injury at the age of 19, on January 13, 1994 in a downhill ski race at Mont. Saint Anne Resort in Quebec.  Travelling at the approximate speed of 100-120km an hour with almost flawless technique, I was poised to win the race or at least finish in the top 3. Then, one of my ski bindings released in a rough section of the course.

The next part happened so fast that I only have vague recollections, and rely mostly on what was told to me by others who were watching the fall. The hill drops dramatically immediately following where I had lost my first ski, a section of the course called “the gun barrel”.  My other ski popped off and shot approximately thirty feet in the air, or so I’m told, and I basically did a face plant in the snow, sliding down the entire steep pitch on my face, finally coming to a complete stop at the bottom when the incline flattens out.  I was wearing a helmet but no face guard.

According to a coach who was watching in that section, I stood up, so they all thought I was fine. But then I sat back down again.

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