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.
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
“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 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.