Support Group Connects with Brain Injury Survivors

The Coalfield Progress,  MARCH 18, 2008

by JODI DEAL Staff Writer (Photos by RICHARD JESSEE)

Arney touching scar on head

Andrew Arney of Wise is shown here touching the scar from a major head trauma in 2003 that left him with brain damage.

Sherri touching trach scar

The scar from her tracheotomy is most people’s first clue that Sherri Collins of Coeburn has survived a brain injury. Once people notice the scar, they sometimes don’t know how to act, Collins says.

NORTON — At first glance, Sherri Collins, a bubbly, outspoken, 43-year-old mom, and Andrew Arney, a quiet 27-year-old who enjoys hunting and playing guitar, wouldn’t seem to have much in common.

But a connection is very apparent when Collins, of Coeburn, and Arney, of Wise, talk about the scars on their necks and bellies — some of the most visible remnants of brain injuries they almost didn’t survive.

For Collins, it was a ruptured aneurysm and complications in the surgery that followed that led to irreversible brain damage. For Arney, it was a four-wheeler accident that slung him head-first into a tree, with no helmet to cushion the blow.

Both Collins and Arney were given very little chance of even living through their ordeals, much less walking, talking or living a normal life again. Each were in comas for days, each faced months and years of tough rehabilitation, and each bear the scars of tracheotomies and
feeding tubes — Arney jokingly calls the feeding tube his “bullet hole in the side.”

And today, both bear very few noticeable effects of the injuries that nearly took their lives.

The two have forged a connection with each other and others like them who bear the scars of traumatic brain injuries, no matter how slight or severe. Both are active participants in a monthly survivors’ support group, where they are free to commiserate about the difficulties and
triumphs of life after brain injuries.

The group is moderated by Tracie Hall, the local case worker for Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia, a nonprofit organization that helps people who have brain injuries with everything from medical equipment to the emotional support.

Both had two motivations for speaking with a reporter about their injuries and lives during March, which is Brain Injury Awareness Month. They want to make sure that people who do have brain injuries know there’s help and support readily available. They also want people who don’t have brain injuries to know that despite their extraordinary experiences, they’re just normal folks.


Collins’ and Arney’s ordeals sound scary because they were scary — both have faced challenges that folks who haven’t endured brain injuries can’t imagine. But it doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent or need to be tiptoed around or talked down to.

When other people notice Arney and Collins’ scars or other after-effects of their traumatic brain injuries, they often don’t know how to behave, the two report.

“We’re not aliens from another planet,” said Collins.

Arney piped up to finish her sentence. “We’re miracles.”

Both reported difficulties returning to normal relationships with family, friends and the general public after recovering from their injuries.

Some accused Collins of trying to act more disabled than she really is, and her husband at the time of her injury 10 years ago halted divorce reconciliation efforts, saying he didn’t want to have a handicapped wife.

Arney had trouble re-learning about his relationships with family and friends, and found that only a few friends felt comfortable approaching

Arney’s left side is numb as a result of his injury. Sometimes, he lists to the side when he walks — it makes him look intoxicated, but is an honest side effect of brain damage. The same for Collins, who has limited use of her left side due to paralysis.

“It makes you feel weird. It makes people stare and think something’swrong with you,” Arney said.

But both try not to sweat the stares, questions and downright rude behavior they sometimes experience.

Accomplishments that may seem mundane to others, like successfully completing a driving test or learning to play a favorite song on the guitar, are triumphs that leave Arney feeling elated.

Achieving things the doctors said they’d never do again help Collins and Arney have something very positive to focus on and feel proud about.

Hall advises that every brain injury is different, leading to public confusion about how to act upon learning someone has survived such a life-altering experience. But the right way to handle it is simple — approach a survivor the same way you’d approach anyone else.

Tracie sitting at desk HELPING AND LEARNING

When the brain injury survivors who participate in the support group gather, they can share advice on how to deal with all of the effects of brain injuries — from questions and stares to headaches or other physical limitations.

“It’s kind of like a brotherhood,” said Arney, who becomes animated when talking about his shared experiences with Collins. That helps the survivors, who might otherwise feel isolated by some of their challenges, realize they’re not alone.

Meeting regularly on the second Thursday of each month, always in a conference room at Norton Community Hospital, provides structure and repetition — something absolutely essential for people with certain types of brain injuries that create memory problems, like Arney’s.

Meeting in a group helps survivors who are re-learning how to interact and talk to others, Hall pointed out, noting that she usually sits back and lets the survivors steer the conversation.

All survivors and their families are invited to meetings, not just folks who receive services from Hall’s organization, she stressed.

For more information, call Hall at 276/679-5001.

Sherri, Traci and Andrew talking about support group

Sherri Collins and Andrew Arney’s eyes come alive when they talk about brain injury-related experiences they have in common. Both love attending a brain injury survivors support group held monthly at Norton Community Hospital.

Brain Injury Services is non-profit, regional

The Coalfield Progress,  MARCH 18, 2008

by JODI DEAL Staff Writer

Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia is a private, non-profit 501(c)3 organization that specializes in providing assistance to people with brain injuries.

It was founded in November 2000 by Fran and Greg Rooker, Roanoke residents whose son suffered a major brain injury in 1996. The organization expanded to Wise County last year, establishing a satellite office in the former Hotel Norton.

The organization serves clients who range from just a few months old to 80 years of age, but the average age is about 37.

According to Norton Brain Injury Services case worker Tracie Hall, an estimated 16,000 individuals with brain injuries live in Southwest Virginia. According to the 2000 census, about 800 survivors live in Wise County alone.

Brain Injury Services specializes in helping people who have “acquired” brain injuries. That means that to receive case management services, a person must have documentation that their brain injury was acquired after birth, not as a result of a birth defect or degenerative disorder.

It doesn’t matter how long ago the injury occurred, Hall noted, just as long as it can be documented.

Causes of brain injuries include falls, automobile accidents, strokes, aneurysms, shaken baby syndrome, near drowning, accidental hanging, surgery complications, sports injuries, violence, heart attacks, gunshot wounds, meningitis and a wide variety of other disorders and traumas.

Healthcare providers, teachers, family members, friends or other care providers can refer clients to the organization. But people who have sustained brain injuries can also call and ask for help themselves.

For more information, call Hall at 276/679-5001, or visit the organization’s web site at


Website design & hosting provided by Ntelos