Head Trauma Survivors Reach Out

Syracuse Herald-Journal (NY)

December 10, 1996



By Lori Duffy

Charles Serway shook his head as best he could when he learned his sister was proud that he had shopped alone.

“Huh,” Serway said. He stared at the floor as he grabbed a nearby chair for support. “You do something as little as shopping, and they’re proud of you.”

Memories often cloud successes for Serway and his friends at the David Clark Learning Center in Liverpool. Serway, 26, suffered a brain injury in a car accident five years ago.

He remembers the days when shopping was simple. Something he didn’t have to think about.

No big deal.

Now, his sister is proud because he checked out an electric wheelchair by himself and maneuvered it around a grocery store. He shrugged, his head slightly cocked in its usual position.

“It took me years just to walk,” after his injury, Serway said. “You can’t be afraid. It’s hard.”

While Serway and other people with brain injuries sometimes look or act like people born with mental or physical disabilities, they are different. Their minds still carry bits and pieces of memories of the people they used to be.

That’s why the center is so important, said Serway and others who attended a support group meeting. The center, which was created with a $75,000 state grant, opened last year in a refurbished warehouse at 900 Old Liverpool Road. Grants and private donations keep it going.

The center is a place where people with brain injuries meet others who are like them. It is a place where they are accepted – a place where they are not afraid to make mistakes. It is a place where they can make new friends.

“I lost all my friends except one,” said Patricia Thompson, who fell into a coma after a car crash in 1990 at 21 years old. “All the other people I know just wouldn’t come around. Maybe they thought I was contagious.”

The center’s name honors David Clark, a rehabilitation professional at St. Camillus Health and Rehabilitation Center who was known for helping brain trauma victims re-integrate into their communities. He died in 1993.

The center has a computer lab and offers lessons in computers, art, yoga and other disciplines. It is run by Onondaga County Transitional Living Services, but people from all agencies that serve brain-injured people participate on its advisory board.

Laura Serway was drawn to the center by her brother’s needs. Her brother lives with her and works for the family business, designing kitchens on computer. Thompson’s mother, Rita Thompson, also volunteers.

Program Director Joanne Scandale joined the center in August as one of two paid, full-time employees. She has worked with brain-injured people since she graduated from college in 1980.

IN RECENT YEARS, medical advances both at the scenes of accidents and in emergency rooms have improved the chances of survival for people with brain injuries, Scandale said. That creates a whole new population with special needs.

“People who come here have gone through rehab,” Scandale said. “They need to find their place. They need to find out what they can do.”

David Stewart spent a year, two months and eight days recovering from a coma at New Medico head trauma facility in Cortland after a truck accident six years ago. But that wasn’t enough, he said.

The words still came at him too fast when people talked to him. He couldn’t remember things. He was easily confused. The landlord of his Auburn apartment building grew frustrated with him, he said.

His greatest setback came when he tried to return to his job hanging plasterboard and suffered a seizure. He didn’t know where to turn for help beyond rehabilitation until his mother found out about the new center, he said.

“I had forgotten so much. I don’t know if it’s forgotten or just stuck in my head,” Stewart said. “I come here because it helps me get back to the way I was before.”

AT THE NEW CENTER, Stewart tests his mental limits. He is both a volunteer maintenance worker and a client. His favorite activity is the support groups, which meet Tuesdays and Thursdays.

His brain-injured friends are more patient with him than other people he encounters. So are the volunteers and employees.

“People with brain injuries are really compassionate with each other,” Scandale said. “They know what they’re going through. The pain. They’re going through so much.”

That patience helped Stewart build a bench that now sits outside the building, providing people with a place to rest while they wait for the center to open. The bench took him months to complete.

He first built it upside-down. Stewart had to tear it apart and put it back together again, but no one seemed to mind, he said.

Stewart returns the patience and compassion during the support group sessions. On a recent Tuesday, Stewart, Thompson and Serway shared their thoughts with people who depend on wheelchairs and talk only with slurs and intense physical effort.

They enforced group rules that forbid people from cutting each other off. They encouraged a young man who couldn’t talk and could barely move his body to give a thumbs up for an answer.

They teased a 21-year-old man who was injured in a sledding accident at age 5. They listened intently to the stories of Bill, who was injured by noxious fumes at work; and Mark, who was run over by a forklift.

Serway told the group he sees changes in himself since he joined the center. “I got much more social here. I was anti-social,” he said.

FOR THOMPSON, the center helps her feel busy and productive while she looks for work. She tried to return to her job at L. & J.G. Stickley Inc. furniture in Manlius, but a tour of the plant persuaded her to give up that dream.

The noise was too great for her hearing aids to filter. People she knew at the factory seemed uncomfortable when they saw her, she said. She is waiting for word on a job delivering meals in a nursing home. A professional job coach will have to accompany her if she gets the job.

“Oh, I hope I get it,” she told the group.

Thompson still forgets things often and thoughts come slowly to her mind, but her friends at Clark remind her that she is lucky to be alive. Most said their recoveries have strengthened their faith in God.

“They thought I was going to be in a vegetative state. That I would always have to be told what to do. I don’t know why they have to assume these things, tell my mother this,” Thompson said. “Seeing me walk, they said it was a miracle.”