‘If she wakes up, she won’t be normal.’ I was alive, but in a coma. Only time would tell.’: Brain injury survivor details sobriety journey, ‘There’s a purpose in it all’

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“No, I don’t think everything happens for a reason. Despite that, through it all, the good, bad, and the extremely hard things I have gone through, I have been able to find the purpose. I have been able to change my mindset to not wonder, ‘Why this? Why now?’ and reframe it all to, ‘What is this teaching me or showing me?’

Let’s start at the very beginning when I found out I was pregnant. I was married at the time. We weren’t actively trying for a baby, but it happened. I was ecstatic. I had a perfect pregnancy, no morning sickness, and no complications. I felt so lucky for such an easy pregnancy–or so I thought.

It was about 9 p.m. on May 12, 2005, and I had just gone to dinner. After dinner, my husband got home and I didn’t feel my baby moving, which was not normal. He usually moved like crazy. They say sometimes as you approach your due date, the baby slows down. I called my doctor and they advised me to lay down and do the movement test, counting each time I felt movement. An hour went by and I had felt maybe one or two movements. I was supposed to feel ten or twelve in that hour. They advised me to go to the hospital and get checked. So we went. We checked in, they hooked me up to monitors and then sent my husband home to get my stuff and car seat. I would be staying the night.

As the nurse called the doctor in, the baby’s heart rate began to decelerate. The doctor arrived and wanted to take me in and have a c-section right away. I was scared of giving birth. That’s secretly what I wanted anyway, so I was okay with it. The doctor said, ‘The baby needs to come out.’

My husband barely arrived back, was dressed in operating room gear, and then I was off to have a baby. The c-section went quickly, but the baby’s umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around his neck multiple times. The doctor told us he would not have lived through the night. I was lucky I came in. This experience would not be the first time where something felt wrong. I listened to my feelings, and my son’s life would be saved because of it.

Courtesy of Jessy Munch

2 days after we were home, I was a wreck. My new baby, Jaxson, would not sleep and would not stop crying. I thought to myself, ‘This cannot be normal.’ I took him to urgent care. They did an X-ray and the doctor came in. He said the X-ray showed some concern. Then he told me I needed to get my son to the ER right away. He even asked if I could drive because it would be faster for me to get him there than to wait for an ambulance. I was really worried. Everything was happening so fast. He said the doctors there could do more testing. I really had no idea what was really happening and how serious it was.

I pulled into the ER and when I went to get baby Jaxson out from the back seat, he had thrown up all over the front of himself. His throw-up was dark and smelled horrible. I checked into the hospital, and we were taken right back to a room in the pediatric ER. It was there the tech started putting tubes down his throat. My husband was at work at the time, and as soon as he heard the news, he rushed over.

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When my husband arrived, the doctors took us aside to talk to us. They told us Jaxson had a ‘malrotated bowel with a volvulus.’ All I knew was it was serious. The doctor was taking him to emergency surgery up in the NICU and gave us four possible outcomes:

1) She would be able to go in and untwist the bowel and monitor him, 2) She would get in there, untwist them, and have to remove bowel if it was dead and then close him back up, 3) She would get in there, untwist his bowels, and if any were dead, remove them and give him an ileostomy if she could not reattach his bowels so they had time to heal, or 4) Worst case, she would get in there and untwist them but if too much had died and were not viable, she would not be able to save him and he wouldn’t make it.

What an intro to motherhood. My baby’s life was in danger. I was so scared. We were in the family waiting room of NICU when the doctor arrived hours later and gave us the news. A large portion of Jaxson’s small intestines were dead. She removed 4 inches. She was not sure if the parts where she cut them would survive, so she gave him a colostomy bag (where his intestines come out onto his stomach and he would defecate onto his stomach into a bag).

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Her hope was to watch him and hopefully be able to reattach his intestines at a later date. While we did not get the worst-case scenario, it was still bad. It was unknown what kind of future he would have, but he was alive. Jax was in the NICU from May until July that year. Eventually, they were able to reattach his intestines. In his short life so far, he had two major surgeries. He also had a G tube to be fed directly into his stomach.

Life was far from easy for all of us. I spent every day at the NICU, I went home every night without a baby, home to an apartment with all of our untouched baby stuff, but no baby. It was so hard. Looking back now, I can see living through such a hard thing made me develop patterns of drinking I hadn’t had before. Back then, I started drinking to take my mind off of going home every night without Jaxson. While my son was in the NICU, I would stop at the bar on the way home and drink my feelings away. I started to drink to avoid the feelings of worry and sorrow of having a sick child. I wanted to avoid going home to an apartment with constant reminders of this. I justified it by way of the NICU hours—you could only stay until 9 p.m., while everyone was going to the bar, so why would I go home?

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In October, just a few months after getting home from the NICU, we would be admitted to the local children’s hospital. Jaxson’s GI doctor admitted him for ‘failure to thrive.’ He constantly threw up what he ate, he was only allowed to have predigested formula, and he had to eat small amounts at a time but he could not keep it down. While we were there, there was a resident who saw him daily that was obsessed with my son’s head. I found this strange at the time, but he finally got an MRI due to his concerns. That resident was rightfully concerned. We then met with a neurosurgeon.

My son had hydrocephalus and a Chiari malformation. His first cervical spine and skull were pressed together, narrowing the spinal canal. This didn’t allow his cerebral spinal fluid to drain, causing hydrocephalus. He needed yet another surgery. This one was to go in and take out part of his cervical spine and make the foramen magnum of his skull larger. He had that surgery, spent time in the pediatric ICU after, and then we went back to the regular pediatric floor. I did not know then, but I do now, a Chiari malformation is a brain injury.

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Jaxson had a lot of speech and language issues. He went to speech therapy when he was 3 years old. Once he went to kindergarten, he was on a full individualized education plan (IEP). His illnesses as a child really put him back in his learning and understanding. He had regular doctor’s appointments for the first few years too. This was just our life. This was normal. We didn’t ever have it easy; difficulty became our new normal. I avoided facing my feelings by always being busy. I didn’t sit still or sit with anything.

Because being in the hospital was our new normal, I realized I wanted to stay in that environment. I applied to the same ER I had taken Jaxson to as a Health Unit Coordinator. I got the job and I was so grateful and excited. I started taking nursing classes at the local community college. It was hard. I never graduated high school and only had my GED, so I was definitely behind in a lot of my classes. I look back and wonder if getting this job and going to school was another way to avoid the hard things happening in my life or because this was normal to me, not to be home with my son a lot and at the hospital. At least I wasn’t at the bar. I was doing something ‘healthy,’ but I did not have to be going to school and working, I wanted to. So I did.

My husband also worked a lot. He was the provider, but it really didn’t work for me. We bought our first house, I went to school and worked, my son would go to the daycare at my community college. But my husband and I ended up separating, and I moved out.

I finally graduated from community college with an Associate Degree and started to go to Portland State University. My son was about 3 at this time. I was not happy, but I kept reminding myself this was my choice. I became obsessed with working out, I stopped eating regularly and started drinking regularly. I was a broke college student and single mom, trying to pay bills and go to school full-time. I was only working on call in the ER, but then got a job at another hospital 3 days a week for a steady income. When I did not have my son, I was studying or at the bar. I was a mess.

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I somehow managed to get through college and get two bachelor’s degrees, one in community health education, and one in health sciences, but I never got into nursing school. I decided to become a Health Educator. I taught sex ed for a few years, which I loved, and I did harm reduction which I also loved. Both were super meaningful to me as my mom was a teen mom and my brother had gone through heroin addiction. (I am happy to report he has been sober for over 10 years!)

After all of this, I ended up getting back with my husband and we attended counseling for a year, but in the end, we got divorced. He is an amazing man and father. He was just not the man for me. We were together for 15 years and married almost 10. I am so thankful for him, his time, and for my son. There were just things I needed I was not able to get from him. We were more like friends. I needed to feel more.

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I got remarried 3 years ago on August 26, 2017, but not without more difficulty. Before we got married, my husband had drinking problems, as did I. During and after my divorce from my first husband, my drinking problems only got worse and out of control. I didn’t think I had a problem but looking back, I can see I did. In a particularly bad accident. I broke my back and was life-flighted from the Oregon Dunes to a hospital in Portland. My boyfriend at the time, now-husband, was too drunk to be there.

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In another accident, I rolled my Toyota FJ at a weekend at the beach with a bunch of girls. We had all been drinking. I totaled my vehicle and my dad had to pick me up 3 hours away. The event that finally had me reach my rock bottom with drinking was the weekend before I got sober. I took a bunch of friends to the beach at a family beach home. I went to the beach to drink and got a DUI leaving the beach and arrested. This was my wake-up call.

My fiancé would not pick me up from jail. He was starting his new job the next day, so my dad picked me up, once again from a drunken mistake. I went through diversion and counseling and I got a lawyer so the DUI would not be on my record. That cost us about 10k, but it cost us a lot more than money. There I was, a mom, a college graduate with a pretty good job, promoting health and wellness. Yet I was drinking and driving. That is not who I wanted to be. It made me disappointed in myself. I decided to never touch alcohol again. Despite this, I am so glad it happened. It was the wake-up call I needed and I am so grateful I never hurt anyone.

When I got remarried, my husband and I were both sober and it was amazing. We went on an amazing 2-week honeymoon, and we did not need alcohol to have fun.

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That winter, I started racing motocross which was always a dream of mine. It was so fun, and I was pretty decent at it. In January of 2018, I spent 3 weeks in Thailand and rode street bikes along the Mae Hong Son loop and dirt bikes up Doi Suthep. We went to Boston in April for my husband’s birthday and a Red Sox Game. We went to Alaska and did an RV road trip the year before, all sober. We had so much fun traveling, but once again, our family had more difficulties.

Courtesy of Jessy Munch
Courtesy of Jessy Munch

A few days after my son’s 13th birthday, on May 16, 2018, I had a bad day at work so I left work early, skipped the gym, and met some friends at the motocross track an hour away. Little did I know, this would be the last time I ever rode a motorcycle.

I was riding the track and I went over a jump and did not land. I fell to the ground and the person riding behind me ran over my neck after I slammed to the ground. Luckily, I had a great helmet on. From there, I was taken to the local trauma hospital.

My husband got a call from my phone. He answered, ‘Hey babe,’ but it was my friend, Zack, on the phone, telling him I had a bad wreck and was at the hospital. My husband left my son’s baseball game to drive an hour away to the hospital. He said it was the worst drive of his life. He had no idea what to expect, he just knew it was bad. He got there, was greeted by nurses and a social worker, and taken into a small room. He was told I was alive but in a coma. I had a subdural hematoma, subarachnoid hemorrhage, severe traumatic brain injury, diffuse axonal injury, a broken jaw, and a torn carotid artery. They did not know what would happen, only time would tell. I was intubated and in a coma unable to breathe on my own.

Courtesy of Jessy Munch
Courtesy of Jessy Munch

My husband was told I might not ever wake up and if I did, the odds were not good I would ever be able to talk and be ‘normal’ again. Only 10% of people with a Diffuse Axonal ever wake up and come beyond a comatose state. I am in that 10%. I have had a miraculous recovery. I am not who I once was, but I am alive, walking, talking, and here. Even though I recovered, every day is a struggle. Every day is something new, no two days are the same just like no two brain injuries are the same.

I can understand my son like I never had before with my brain injury. I can see the similarities we have now, and I can understand him so much more. I am so much more empathetic. I feel this is my purpose. I am overwhelmed daily, which he also struggles with. I am very structured and can’t do much on the fly anymore, and neither can he. He is so structured. He will barely go to his dad’s if it’s my day, even if we have decided to switch days.

Courtesy of Jessy Munch

To this day, I struggle with my memory, a lot of it was wiped out and my short-term memory is nonexistent, but I have learned lots of tools and strategies to help support it. My neck is still stiff from being run over and my left arm and leg are still numb from my stroke-like symptoms. I struggle with words, numbers, and communicating but I can still write, and prefer to communicate through writing.

I don’t really remember the details of my education and certifications as a health educator. My energy is my biggest struggle. I wake up tired and am exhausted all day every day. I have a lot of vision changes and struggle with vision generally. I have a hard time understanding things, and many days struggle being a mom. I can’t do what I once did. My brain was severely damaged and my IQ and understanding suffered. I probably won’t go back to doing what I used to do, but I am good at finding things I can do now and that work for me. Basically, I just have to accept a lot of things, keep trying, never give up, and never say I can’t do something. I don’t know until I try.

I like to think there is a purpose in it all. Of course, I wish it never happened, but it did and I can find so much purpose in it. I can understand my son in a whole different way. Because I stopped drinking, the doctors told my husband a huge part of my outcome was due to being healthy and not drinking. Taking care of myself for the few years I did by eating right, exercising regularly, and finding gratitude daily really did save my life.

I think of this as how life happened for me, not to me. I am who I am today because of my experiences. I don’t regret a single thing, yes I wish I did a lot of things differently, but I didn’t. The point is I learned through them. I changed things that negatively impacted me. I live each day the best I can and I am proud of myself for going through it all and coming out of it who I am today.”

Courtesy of Jessy Munch

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessy Munch from Oregon. You can follow her journey on Instagram or her blog. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘I got the text, ‘Lex, we had an accident, but I don’t want to worry you.’ My son was the baby who literally fell onto his head accidentally.’: Mom to become NICU nurse after miracle baby survives traumatic brain injury

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‘Mommy deserves a treat.’ Drinking two bottles of wine a night was my norm. I felt like I was failing at life.’: Sober mom shares recovery journey, ‘Let’s show our kids sobriety’

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