In December 2001, my husband of 9 ½ years sustained a severe hypoxic/anoxic brain injury. At the time, we had a 7- year-old daughter and a 23- month-old son. Up to that point, we were like every typical family going with the flow of the ups and downs of daily life. The events of December 27, 2001, changed all our lives forever.
Following Jeff's injury, he has received exceptional care. Although frustrating at times with all of the red tape, we were fortunate that this was a worker's comp case, as they have approved care for Jeff that many aren't able to receive. He was fortunate to undergo two years of intensive rehab at a facility in California, however, due to the severity of his injury there hasn't been a lot of carryover, and now, because to the level of care needed, he resides in a care facility in Fresno. Jeff is 100% dependent on others for all activities of daily living. It may seem like there's not much more to say but that is far from the truth.
When Jeff sustained his brain injury, I lost my best friend, sounding board, dance partner, and comic relief. Our daughter lost a father that she loved more than anything. She was the apple of his eye and Jeff absolutely adored her. Our son lost the opportunity to know a father that loved his little boy more than the world. Our family and friends lost a brother, nephew, friend and comedian they all loved to hang out with. Jeff lost the ability to live his life like we all want to and take for granted. He is unable to remove an eyelash from his eyes, pick up or hug his children, and do the most mundane of tasks like brushing his teeth and combing his hair.
But it still doesn't end here. What we have gained is a look into the world of brain injury. No, it isn't always a pretty sight but it is one that so many live in and so many more haven't a clue exists. Jeff is not able to walk or talk, but he is able to laugh and cry. He has no problem letting you know he is upset, whether it is through yelling or a very familiar scowl. He will flash you a smile when he is happy that brings giggles from all who see it; mostly, because he couldn't do a lot of this for the first few years of his recovery.
We are only able to see each other about once a week since we do not live in the same town and I work, and take care of our very active children, preside over a brain injury foundation in Jeff's name, and a newly organized support group to help others dealing with the life changing effects of brain injury. Jeff comes home for visits with us and we travel frequently to see him. With some help, he plays Guitar Hero with his kids and we tell him about the happenings of a teenage daughter and 9-year-old son. Plans are in motion for our daughter's 8th grade graduation. Our daughter Gabbi wants him to be at her graduation but due to his condition, he can't. He can, however, attend the rehearsals and see his daughter getting ready for graduation. We try to incorporate life into all of our visits. Whether it is playing catch with Alex by placing a basket in Jeff's lap and letting Alex toss a Nerf ball to him or bringing him home to watch his daughter be baptized, where he began sobbing once the worship team began singing. Whenever someone asks if we think he knows what is going on, we can answer without hesitation, "Yes!"
Early on, during many of our walks and talks, Jeff's sister and I questioned, "What would people do if they didn't have family like Auntie M, experience, or advocacy through the worker's comp carrier, etc.?" I tend to be a "bulldog" when it comes to my husband's care and condition, especially in the beginning when we were still trying to take it all in. My husband's injury left me a single parent, an advocate for him and, now an advocate for others with brain injury. Jeff's injury has shown me that I am stronger than I thought I was when first presented with this change in life plans.
Together with family and friends, we started the Jeff Barnes Brain Injury Foundation in 2005. The idea behind the formation of the foundation was to provide advocacy for survivors, family members and others affected by brain injury, but also to educate the public and bring about awareness.
Our biggest and most successful form of education has been outreach through bicycle rodeos and visits to preschools. We have fit over 2,000 children with helmets in Tulare County. We, in conjunction with the Visalia Police Department, hold multiple bicycle rodeos each year. We were successful in procuring a grant through First 5 of Tulare County to purchase helmets and provide education to children under age 6. In June 2008, we began a brain injury support group in Visalia. Although the support group is facilitated by the foundation board, therapy staff from Kaweah Delta's Rehabilitation Hospital has joined in and a staff member attends each meeting. The support group meets monthly and alternates between sharing sessions and education. Our numbers have increased from two people to over 15 regular attendees.
As a young adult, I wanted to get involved in the community but didn't really know of the opportunities. Jeff's injury changed that for me. His brain injury has brought about involvement in so many different worthwhile charities and community events. Although the Jeff Barnes Brain Injury Foundation is still a smaller public charity in the Central Valley of California, I know that it is doing great things and will continue to do so because of the passion Jeff created in us. Our children have been able to see the good that can come from something so tragic and life changing and have become much more understanding and compassionate individuals. I have found that I have learned to be much more understanding of the person that begins to cry so easily, becomes frustrated over what I would consider something minor, or raises his voice when you tell him his paperwork is late. I know that everyone has a story. Everyone has a loss. You don't know where the person that raised his voice or the one that began to cry is going or where they just came from.
You don't know if they just received some horrible, life changing news. Jeff's injury has taught me so many lessons about compassion for others that can only be learned from something as significant as a brain injury.
For more information about the Jeff Barnes Brain Injury Foundation or the newly formed support group in Visalia, please contact Cheri Barnes at (559) 679-3702 or go the foundation website at www.jbarnesfoundation.org