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Original photo by Lily Borror

Living With Traumatic Brain Injury

Name: Ella Spicketts

Major: Double Majoring Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology

Hometown: Jenison, MI

    Ever since I was in high school, I have always been interested in the ways that the brain affects our lives and provides us with many abilities that make us different from many other species on earth. The brain contains and sustains one of the things I consider to be the most precious treasure that humans can have, that is memory. Considering the huge impact that the brain has on human lives, it has been a huge part of my journey in the neuroscience field to understand and learn of many experiences that people have had with their brain. It was truly my pleasure and great opportunity to interview Ella Spickets, a student at Michigan State who was driving back to Grand Rapids on August 19, 2020 to celebrate her birthday with family as she was the last car in a 6 vehicle pile-up. Someone had switched lanes and hit a car that was in their blind spot and the rest was just a domino effect.  Ella states that there was no way for her to avoid it.  She got hit at around 70 miles an hour, then spun out of control into the other lanes on the freeway.  On impact, all airbags deployed and she hit her head on them as that happened. She was declared to have suffered  a minor concussion as she was very coherent and had many tests come back normal. She was told that she was extremely lucky and told to take it easy for a while, and then she was sent home.  It wasn’t until two weeks later when Ella started getting migraines daily, and would have days where she would have no memory of what she had actually done throughout the day.  In October, she was diagnosed with a mild brain injury. The opportunity to interview Ella Spicketts, a fellow Michigan State Student and fellow Alpha Xi Delta sorority sister, has been a true blessing as I have seen her put forth a lot of work in the courses that are extremely difficult and still participate in many extracurricular activities. 


What was your life like before the Brain Injury?( Goals, aspirations, lifestyle, day to day routine)  

Before the accident, I was extremely active.  I was working two jobs, taking summer classes, and raising my puppy- Piper.  I felt like I was Superwoman with all that I was doing.  I would run 2 miles in the morning then go to work until 4, and work my other job that night as a personal care assistant if scheduled.  I planned on going to PA school after undergrad, and potentially specialize in neuro-oncology.


What is your life like now after  the Brain Injury?( Goals, aspirations, lifestyle, day to day routine)

My days now are filled with vision, speech and physical therapy.  I require much more sleep than I did before the accident and often need to nap throughout the day to deal with the migraines.  Even on days where I don’t have in person therapy appointments I still have to complete my at home “workouts” to keep up with the progress I’ve made.  I chose to stay full time with school, although it takes a lot more attention and time to complete school work.  I use a special software that reads my notes to me since divided attention is something still difficult for me.  My days are less fast paced, and I’ve had to learn to let go of some of the expectations I had for myself and instead focus on doing my best and how that aligns with my goals with therapy.  I still plan on going to PA school, however I may now take a gap year before applying.


What did you and your family do after the event and how did it impact your family life and relationships?   

My family was extremely supportive, and pushed me to get answers for the symptoms I was experiencing after the accident, pre-diagnosis.  They handle me on my bad days and are my personal cheerleaders on the good days. My parents are constantly reminding me of how far I’ve come since that day.  My brain injury really affected how I perceive situations and that has made it difficult in relationships since I definitely have become more irritable and quick to respond (even though my processing speed is greatly slowed down).  They have been patient with me and know that not everything I say I mean.


How was the recovery process like and how did it impact your mental health, esteem, and school?  

 The recovery process is long, and it’s been hard.  Being a college student and not being able to be in places where all the excitement is can be isolating. For example, I wasn’t able to drive for 5 months. I went from doing everything myself  to completely relying on others to make it to my appointments, etc.  I was never the person to ask for help, I was independent and that was something I was extremely proud of.  So having to ask for help doing simple things like loading the dishwasher because my fine motor skills were compromised was hard. I would get so frustrated doing household tasks that I’d just give up and isolate myself.  In the beginning, I absolutely didn’t know my limits at all.  I would go into situations that would trigger migraines and other symptoms and be so angry when I would have to leave.  It’s frustrating when your body won’t let you do things that were so easy for you before, especially when they made you happy.   Now that I’m learning my limits my mental health has been better.  I think the diagnosis also was a bit devastating for me.  It felt like a set back, hearing the word brain injury, and then being told everything you can’t do all at once is overwhelming.  Luckily, MSU has specific resources within the disability office for students with brain injuries and that has made being a student much easier, and I’m lucky to have friends that support me without pushing me to do things that I’m not ready to yet.


What has been one of the most affected things after your injury? How have you been able to handle it?  

My social life looks very different than it did before the accident.  If I am able to spend time with friends, it’s not at a party or in an area with lots of stimulation and the time we spend together is shorter.  Even small amounts of interaction require a lot of energy from me.  Spending time with friends for me looks more like what other college students/young adults would do on their own as a way of relaxing after a long day.  Things like yoga or cooking dinner together is how I still socialize within my limitations.


Do you think the trauma shaped and rewired you and your brains? If so, How ?

I definitely think it has.  I still get very anxious when in a car.  I tend to look everywhere and at everything when someone else is driving. Making sure they’re not following too close.  Loud noises also terrify me.  When the accident occurred, my car horn got stuck and went on forever.  If I hear someone honk outside, from my apartment I still get jumpy. In the first few weeks after the accident, I would wake up in the middle of the night if I heard a car start outside and not be able to get back to sleep.


What is one thing that you are currently working on improving and how are you working towards that ?

Being patient with myself.  I’ve had to let go of a lot of the superficial expectations I had before.  However, I still get frustrated when I can’t do something that was part of my normal routine previously.  I still am not able to run without getting a migraine.  I’m working on building my endurance and tolerance for high intensity movements like running.  I try to hike at least once a week to somewhat replicate that but in a lower impact form, and hopefully that leads to being able to run soon.


What are the positive takeaways you have gotten from the experience? 

I’ve gotten to see first hand what rehabilitating a brain injury looks like, studying neuroscience and going through this myself has really taught me a lot about the field I plan on entering.  Going into medicine I hope that I’ll be able to diagnose possible brain injuries closer to the date of trauma in my future patients.   


What have you learned about yourself after the experience?

That I can do hard things, even if I don’t want to. Or if they disrupt the plans I had.  I was very rigid in my routine before the accident and it has definitely helped me learn to go with the flow based on how I’m feeling on a given day.  I don’t feel as pressured to have to do everything on my own and that asking for help can be a sign of strength as well.  I’ve learned that disruptions in my daily life aren’t the end of the world, and that these changes can often be a lot better than what I had planned.


Do you have any advice or tips for people struggling with creating a new lifestyle and routine after a traumatic brain injury?

Be patient, and listen to what your body is telling you.  You don’t have to push yourself to 110% all the time to be a successful person.

Daniela Bondekwe is a sophomore at Michigan State University majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Film Studies and Italian. She enjoys hiking, making videos, trying different foods at different cities, and astrology.
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