Dr. Deborah Brandon: Overcoming Brain Injury and Placing a New Value on Life

 If you had a choice to live in a world of pastels or a world of bright colors which one would you choose? The answer seems obvious, but the important thing to keep in mind is how you get to that life of bright colors. Dr. Deborah Brandon describes her experience as a brain injury survivor by saying, “I used to live my life in pastels, and now it’s not just bright colors but vibrant bright colors.” Before her brain injury she saw the world in pastels, but after her surgeries Deb is living life passionately, observing everything, and seeing the world in bright, vibrant colors.
Deb as she likes to be called, a professor in the math department here at Carnegie Mellon University, presented a lecture on Tuesday titled “Brain Injury From Two Perspectives.” I attended Deb’s presentation and interviewed her afterward.
In her lecture Deb conveyed the patient perspective of having a brain injury. Deb is a survivor of cavernous angiomas, or as she calls the condition, “bloody brain.” Cavernous angiomas are thinly walled vessels that are filled with stagnant blood and occur in the brain. The severity of this condition depends on the size and location of the angiomas.  
March 2007 was an intense and emotional time for Deb as she underwent three surgeries to remove the three life threatening angiomas out of the many in her brain. Four years later she is still living with angiomas that are monitored and symptoms that have changed her life, but she is optimistic, passionate and humorous.
Just by looking at Deb you would have no idea that she has been affected by a brain injury, but it has left her with many neurological symptoms that have forever changed her lifestyle. However, as she says, “[there have been] plenty of losses but huge, huge gains… I can’t even tell you how wonderful the gains are.” These gains have altered Deb’s perspective on life.
One of the largest gains for her is living life more passionately. Deb explains that she always liked teaching but since her brain injury she loves it. Now she truly believes she can make a difference. Deb became a teacher because she “grew up in academia and it seemed natural” to her. After her surgery, teaching has become much more of a passion for her.
A struggle for Deb was learning how to ask for help from other people, but in the long run this has led to stronger personal connections with people and increased self-awareness. Deb refers to some of her losses with humor. For example, though she does not have good balance and cannot pass a sobriety test she says with a laugh that she has a “note from my neurologist that says I’m not drunk.” It is impressive that she has been able to spin her losses into gains.
 Deb is a fascinating woman with many intriguing hobbies such as weaving, writing, and Dragon boating. For those that do not know, Dragon boating is a competitive race where teams crowd into large narrow boats and paddle their way across a river. Deb has been participating in Dragon boating for eight years. She emphasized her passion for the sport when she said, “It always comes back to Dragon boating, sorry.” This comment shows that Deb doesn’t focus on her injuries but revolves around her passions instead.
Deb is also a creative non-fiction writer and is currently working on a book about brain injuries. As a reader and writer Deb truly believes that we have an “obligation to tell our stories.” For her this means talking about her brain injury and what she went through. This mentality encouraged her to give this presentation and others like it, to raise awareness and to give hope to those who have suffered other brain injuries. She is a selfless woman who gives these captivating presentations for the benefit of others.
Deb’s experience gave her a chance that most people don’t get in their lifetime: to relearn how to live. She likened her post surgical experiences to a child learning for the first time but with the knowledge of mistakes not to make and the awareness of how truly amazing it is that you are learning. After surgery Deb had to cope with a loss of balance, memory loss, exhaustion, and overloading. She has come up with effective solutions for each set back. Deb travels with a cane or as she said, “leans nonchalantly against walls” to help with her balance. To remember important dates and things to do she writes everything down in a planner. Due to the exhaustion Deb knows that she can only teach one class a day and can no longer attend conferences. Overloading is when there is too much stimuli and the brain cannot process it efficiently. This is a large problem for Deb but she understands that to prevent it she cannot listen to the radio while driving or even go to the grocery store because of all the distractions that are there.
In the lecture Deb repeated the phrase “I want to live” several times and added, “I have to decide what I can and can’t do. I have to pick my battles.” As a brain injury survivor Deb is determined to lead a fulfilling life and follow her passions. Deb’s words are motivational; everyone should live as if it was their second chance to experience life and to fill every day with the things that they love most.