Breaking the stereotypes of traumatic brain injury

In his own words, Kenny Stultz of Cedar Rapids shares the details of his personal journey since a serious accident in 2008:

Kenny Stulz with fiance Anne “Polly” Greene.

It’s amazing how things can change.

I have been a licensed real estate broker associate. I ran for city council in 2005. I have always been confident in myself and in my own ability to pursue my dreams and succeed. On Aug. 24, 2008, as owner and operator of my own tree service, I fell 40 feet to the ground while trimming limbs. I am now learning to live with a moderately severe traumatic brain injury, or TBI. My life has been changed forever.

After being airlifted to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, my treatment involved a coordinated effort among physicians specializing in rehabilitation, neurology, and surgery as well as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, psychologists, neuro-psychologists, social workers, and vocational counselors. I lost a kidney, my spleen and part of my liver. I remained in a medically induced coma for the better part of two months, and subsequently had to learn everything from speaking to driving, over again.

It has been two years since the accident; the journey is slow. Sometimes I laugh. When I feel like crying I cannot. I find myself alternating between frustration, anger, depression and extreme anxiety. Some people I have known my entire life are now uncomfortable with the “new” Kenny. They all but ignore me at social functions due to changes in my speech and motor skills. My confidence has been shaken and I have been humbled.

Like I said, it’s amazing how things can change.

Recently I have had the opportunity to become involved with the Midwest Advocacy Project, or MAP. We are a group that meets approximately once a month to pool our personal experiences, resources and information for a study being conducted by the Mayo Clinic in conjunction with The University of Iowa, on TBI. Three hundred people are taking part in this study throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.

It is our mission at MAP to provide information regarding TBI, with new advocacy programs, mentoring and support groups to those who are living with and adjusting to TBI, as well as their families, friends and acquaintances.  We are working to develop ways to educate the public, the medical community, insurance companies, case managers and government officials, including the Social Security Administration, about TBI, thereby eliminating the stereotypes and providing us with the means and support needed to live normal, happy lives.

Once you are considered “slow” you are labeled for the rest of your life.

You see, there is life “before” the accident and life “now.” We relate everything in terms of that mindset.  Yet we are not new people without an identity. We are not victims; we can be happy, we can go on. It is our goal to learn and to teach, to hold the hands of all parties involved with the TBI patient, including the patient themselves.

I’ll say it once again: It’s amazing how things can change.

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On Nov. 7, 2010, the Cedar Rapids Gazette chronicled my before and after journey with moderately severe traumatic brain injury. Since the injury I have a desire to help others understand TBI by sharing factual information. I believe this will begin to dissolve misconceptions and break down barriers that must be overcome in order to progress, be safe, and proceed with life.

Everyone is at greater risk then they may believe. No one is safe, and in reality may even be living with a traumatic brain injury that they may not even be aware of. Many simply remain in a perpetual state of denial. Perhaps they fear the stigma associated with such an injury, or simply cannot bear the thought that they may be grouped together with “those people.”  Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains: according to www.brainandspinalcord.org, as of 2007, 5.3 million Americans suffer from TBI on some level and education and acceptance is the first step to confronting the cause and affect head-on.

The Centers for Disease Control has offered a wealth of knowledge to the public regarding this major health issue. Activities that all of us participate in every day endanger us in ways we never think about. Some people have already been victims and are unaware that many of the behaviors or emotional changes they exhibit have to do with TBI. Many times psychiatric problems are blamed; medications are prescribed, yet problems snowball due to a lack of knowledge and awareness, resulting in the “band-aid on a bullet wound” effect.  Once again, the root problem simply perpetuates, causing victims and their loved ones ongoing pain and suffering.

According to the CDC, falls are the #1 reason for traumatic brain injury in the U.S. Falls are responsible for 35.2 percent of TBI in this country. Fifty percent of TBI in children up to 14 years of age are attributed to this, and 61 percent among adults over 65 have been victims of this as well. At 17.3 percent, motor vehicle/traffic crashes come in second. This category also includes the largest percentage of TBI-related deaths.

People who are struck by or against objects, such as colliding with a moving or a stationary object, come in third at 16.5 percent. This is the second leading cause of TBI in children fourteen and under, at 25 percent. Assault produced 10 percent of traumatic brain injury in the general population of the U.S.

Males tend to have a much higher rate of diagnosis, at 59 percent, not to mention the astronomical number of our people who have sustained injury due to blasts, shrapnel, etc., while fighting for our freedom.  Yet those suffering from TBI are often prevented from pursuing a fruitful, productive future because these facts are not known. These are the facts as far as I have been able to determine from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Yearly, 1.7 million Americans sustain traumatic brain injury
  • Of those, about 52,000 die
  • 275,000 are hospitalized
  • 1.365 million, or 80 percent, are treated and then released
  • The number not even seen or reported is unknown

We can all become educated, aware, and safe.  What I’ve had to say may seem repetitive; this is how my mind works now. They may seem pointless:  you are “always cautious and careful”, know what you are doing, and are strong. So was I. It may be uncomfortable to deal with. It is much more uncomfortable to sit in a corner alone in the midst of those you called friends.

I wish you safety, knowledge and many blessings.

–Fall 2011