• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Long Distance Mom: Head Injury



The worst-case scenario if you are a long distance parent is that a medical emergency will happen when you aren’t home to comfort and treat your injured child. This scenario happened to me, only it wasn’t my child who was injured. It was me.

April 1, 2009



The worst-case scenario if you are a long distance parent is that a medical emergency will happen when you aren’t home to comfort and treat your injured child. This scenario happened to me, only it wasn’t my child who was injured. It was me.

I had just moved to Chicago to work as a department chair a month earlier. I decided to go for a bike ride in the city, couldn’t find my helmet and went biking anyway. This excursion was the only time in recent memory that I can recall NOT wearing a bike helmet when riding on public streets. (Of course, my ‘short-term’ memory is damaged now, so I can’t be positive about this fact.) I always make my children wear bike helmets, and I wear one as a model. But my children were not with me on this unlucky day.

Less than a mile away from a state park I was run over while crossing an intersection, or rather, a motorcycle ran into me, knocked me off my bike, and I landed on my head. An anxious month of hospitalization followed, filled with morphine, blood clots, and cognitive incoherence on my part. When I was conscious I would confuse my academic occupation with the hospital doctors’ because my father would come into my room and call me “Dr. Coffman” just to make me feel ‘better,’ he said. I thought that I worked professionally with my medical doctors since they were called “Dr” as well.

I have very few memories about that first month in the hospital. The drugs and the brain injury resulted in ‘short term’ memory loss. I put short-term in quotes because my memory loss seems more like a decade of memory, not just two to three years. When I regained consciousness in the hospital I believed that I had just given birth to my daughter and wanted to see her and other newborns.

Two hospitals and several surgeries later — I was released. I did not see my children for five weeks until they finally flew up to visit me. I could not drive a car since I could not make perceptual sense of motion. I suffered from vertigo, facial paralysis and was not very steady on my feet. I needed a chair in the shower. Needless to say, my family was all a bit traumatized by my accident. This kind of trauma takes years to dissipate, both physically and psychologically. And, like rehabilitation, there are no shortcuts to recovery.

Fairly quickly, though, I regained a sense that I was a film professor, and, in the humanities at least, we tend to face our traumas rather directly. As part of my rehab, the therapists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago stuck a camera in my hands and told me to figure out how to use it again. (I had forgotten what the specific buttons did, but not the general concepts of cinematography.) Fortunately for me, RIC is the top-ranked brain injury center in the country. Their therapists allowed me to film other patients, my van driver, and my own recovery process. Then the therapists let me bring my children in to do rehab with me and we filmed those moments as well.

I became my own research project.

My first trip after my accident was to visit my children in their home state. I brought a camera with me and went to Terry Schiavo’s ‘protest’ campout, which happened to be close by. The protesters were upset that Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed in the hospital following her husband’s wishes, but against her parents. After my own hospital experiences, I felt compelled to talk with people about it. I walked up to the Schiavo protesters, told them that I had been on a breathing tube a month earlier and then asked if I could interview them. Most of them said yes.

My children participated in my rehab from their first visit. They were patient with my loss of memory and spatial disabilities. They both said that the image that ‘freaked’ them out the most was my newly shorn hair. We were all scared that I would re-injure myself (as many head injury patients do) or that I could not take care of my children alone. My faculty were also patient with me, and I could not have remained an administrator without extremely competent and generous staff support.

Luckily, I found my head injury experience fascinating. I was too happy to be alive to be upset about it. The therapists had warned my family (but not my faculty) that head injury patients often suffer from extreme mood swings and bouts of anger. I never did. (This probably means that the left side of my brain was more injured than the right.) I started obsessively reading about the field of neuroscience and memory studies. I believe, and I do not think it is just because of my accident, that what we are learning in neuroscience will change the academy forever. I’m sorry that it took a brain injury for me to understand just how intricate and complex our brain matter is.

There are new journals popping up every year on neurological issues across the disciplines. One of the most popular TED talks (Inspired talks by the world's leading thinkers and doers) is delivered by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who suffered a stroke and was able to gain important new insights into the brain as a result.

AWP had a whole panel on Brain Power and “neurological dilemmas” that writers have experienced and written about this year. The New York Times and other national media are carrying more stories about traumatic brain injuries — Natasha Richardson’s tragic death, college football injuries, or the undiagnosed tragedy of Gulf War veterans with head injuries. In “Preparing for an Influx” Doug Lederman writes about the claim at a recent meeting on the rising number of college student veterans that at least 20% of student veterans may suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. These numbers may be low for a variety of reasons. Universities should be prepared to meet the needs of brain-injured students.

Four months after my accident I resumed being a department chair with a new faculty at a new university. It took every ounce of strength I had to be a competent administrator, to prepare new course preps, to continue my rehab exercises and then to visit my children on the weekends.

One of the things that I learned while in rehab was to acknowledge my disability and to let people, including my students, know about it. Then, I had to learn to be OK with asking others for help. I was surprised initially to discover the degree to which people — my children, my students -- enjoyed helping me when I would ask them for help with directions or had to relearn their names for every class.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask young people for their help. Four years later, I’m still asking for it, and they are still giving. It doesn’t seem like they will stop…


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