Healthy Living: Brain Injury Awareness Month sparks advocacy

3/23/2017 | Debbie Gardner

Category: March

Stacia Bissell
Reminder Publications submitted photo

Stacia Bissell knows firsthand how life can change in an instant. The career educator was on the fast track to become a middle school principal when she and a colleague decided to take a weekend bike ride to celebrate the successful end of the first week of school.

Something happened on the trail, the two bikes clicked and Bissell dumped, striking her head in the fall. Although she was wearing a helmet, the accident resulted in a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that cut short her career, and changed life as she knew it.

“I don’t really remember,” Bissell said of the accident. “I was told that my front tire nipped her back tire. I don’t remember anything for about 18 hours, because of post-concussive amnesia.”

That was September of 2011; the year Bissell became one of the nearly 2.5 million Americans that suffer some form of traumatic brain injury – from falls, strokes, asphyxiation incidents or other types of accidents – every year.

Bissell shared her story with Reminder Publications to help promote National Brain Injury Awareness Month, and the work she now does as a support group leader and spokesperson with the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts (BIA-MA). Her goal is to make others aware of what she calls a “silent epidemic” of people suffering the often life-changing aftereffects of mild to severe brain traumas.

“I know someone who was closing her minivan and got a TBI when the car door hit her head, someone else who [got one] when they hit their head on a doorjamb” Bissell said. “Someone in your circle, it will happen to.”

According to statistics provided by the BIA-MA, up to 15 percent of those who suffer even a mild head trauma may still be plagued by long-term aftereffects.

On March 22, BIA-MA representatives joined fellow brain injury advocates on Capitol Hill to promote TBI prevention programs and support for survivors. They urge brain injury survivors and their supporters to raise awareness in March by taking to social media using the hashtag #NotAloneinBrainInjury.

Speaking out for sufferers

“As a teacher, I taught well over 1,000 students. I didn’t know when students had concussions, that a head down might mean something was wrong,” Bissell said. She’s now working with a pediatrician in Pittsfield who specializes in treating children with concussions and the BIA-MA Western Regional Office  in Pittsfield to develop a pilot education program for  Berkshire educators.

Personally familiar with the long-term effects of brain injury, she also focuses her work on helping family, friends and the public recognize the effects of brain injury so they can offer support and understanding to those undergoing the healing process.

“I have a math degree, a master’s in education and had just started a new position at the middle school,” Bissell said. “For the first six months [after the accident], there was nothing I could recognize of my life. After eight months, I was told I could go back to work for three hours a day.”

She said the time limit was her neurologist’s way of letting her know how challenging simple things such as getting dressed and being on time might be for her at that point in her recovery.

“At 10:30 a.m., I would sit in my car exhausted,” Bissell said. Her still-healing brain had to work so hard to perform tasks she used to take for granted, it left her fatigued mentally and physically  “in such a tremendous way.” She spent her afternoons napping, and would take “four to five naps” on the weekend. But she continued to struggle. “It was something I needed, the familiarity of the job,” she said.

At the same time she was trying to reestablish some normalcy in her life through work, her personal life began falling apart. “I was losing my friends, my husband moved out and my family was skeptical. I was accused of faking it,” she said.

A traumatic brain injury, she explained, is like an earthquake in your life.

“Those near the epicenter feel the trauma immediately; for spouses, parents, children, the effect is great, then there are the employment issues – not working, not driving – and relationship issues arise,” Bissell said. “Studies aren’t exact on the divorce rates [after TBIs] but there are certainly some sad outcomes.”

According to a fact sheet on the BIA-MA website, brain injury survivors often experience issues with memory, mood swings, personality changes, cognitive function and movement, as well as other issues, all of which may be hard for family and friends to adjust to.

Bissell worked another two school years, but when the principal she had been with for years retired, the new administrator did not continue to provide  the kinds of accommodations that had allowed her to keep working. After three weeks, she gave up her teaching career.

Finding hope in advocacy

At the urging of friends, family and her speech pathologist, in 2014, Bissell reluctantly contacted BIA-MA and explained her situation. She found understanding in the support groups, help navigating the services she needed to continue healing and serendipitously, a new  direction.

At the 2015 Berkshire Legislative Breakfast she spoke publically for the first time about her experiences.That has led to multiple outreach opportunities as a speaker and TBI advocate, and most recently as an education consultant for BIA-MA’s concussion education program for schools.

“I am higher functioning than many survivors, I have a voice and I’m comfortable speaking [in crowds]”, she said. 

Today her advocacy work allows Bissell to continue to “teach” – but in a way that works with her new skill set. “I can prepare a speech with my laptop on my couch if I need to rest. I can’t do the 9 to 5 anymore, ” she said, acknowledging she’s finally accepted her doctor’s diagnosis that she was left permanently disabled by her injury. “I have two lives  – the old Stacia and this new one and they are not alike. But some things carried through.”

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