Acquired Brain Injury, or ABI is when there is damage to the brain by any number of causes such as physical force (traumatic brain injury, TBI), insufficient blood supply, exposer to a toxic substance, congenital disorders, problems at birth, or decreased oxygen (hypoxia) to name a few.
Image from Pate Rehabilitation
My experience with ABI was caused by cerebral hypoxia; a decreased or insufficient amount of oxygen getting to the brain. In my case the hypoxia was a result of sepsis induced ARDS (Acute Repertory Distress Syndrome) brought on by bi-lateral pneumonia. Mechanical ventilation was required in order to get oxygen to my organs. I remained on a ventilator, in a drug induced coma for about 2 weeks.
Prior to being brought out of the coma Dr.’s told my family to be prepared for what at the time was an unknown level of brain injury. As recovery progressed and I could go home it became clear that there were effects of ABI that would prevent me from continuing with my normal work. I experienced symptoms such as:
- Changed interests
- Word recognition issues
- Lack of Coordination
- Inability to concentrate with external noises
- Confusion and agitation in crowded and/or loud settings
- Problems with dates and times
- Lack of ability to focus on subjects for long periods of time
- Slowed reading comprehension
- Short term memory loss
- Inability to “think quick”
- Changed personality
I felt like I was wired differently than before I became ill. I had to figure out how to retrain my brain!
Prior to my ABI I worked in a management role. My job required me to be able to create, maintain and comprehend budgets, understand and implement legal documents, create complex schedules and think quickly on my feet. None of which was I prepared to do successfully immediately following my illness.
I now found it difficult to read through a paragraph in a book and often needed to reread it 2-3 times before comprehending what I was reading. I would confuse words in conversations; for example, referring to a lawnmower as a vacuum cleaner and I struggled focusing when there was more than one conversation taking place around me. I had difficulties planning and keeping dates straight…nine years later, I might occasionally still struggle with that, ask my husband!
Working with ABI requires patience and practice. I found comfort in being busy and doing things with my hands. I needed to figure out how to exercise my brain in a way that was rewarding and practical and not at all abstract. Believe it or not, baking helped. I started (with a lot of help and guidance from family) a small in home cookie baking/decorating business. You might wonder how baking cookies could possibly help my brain regain the ability to think strategically, recall information and sharpen math skills.
The first step was reading through many recipes. The value in this was learning to focus on reading a document with very specific steps. I needed to make note of the differences between various recipes and learn the cause and effect that each ingredient had on the end product. Then I needed to create the dough by following specific steps, being sure to follow the order of ingredients. The reward in this was obviously-a tasty cookie! More importantly, I was training my brain to concentrate, comprehend and reason.
Once I could reliably and consistently follow instructions, I needed to add math skills. How many cookies could I roll out of one batch of dough. Given that number, how many batches of dough did I need to make to fulfill an order of, for example, 5 dozen 3.5” cookies. This was a very practical, visual and hands-on method for me to exercise what at the time was difficult math/reasoning skills. Skills that previously would have come easily to me.
Scheduling orders=Strategic Planning
Believe it or not, there are many steps involved in completing an order. It starts with making the dough, chilling it, rolling and baking, cooling and decorating, drying, packaging and delivery. Depending on the detail of the cookie design the decorating itself can be 2-4 steps. The type of delivery, whether hand delivered or shipped, adds another layer of complexity to the scheduling. Add to that multiple orders running at the same time and there is quite a bit of strategic planning and scheduling involved.
Biking= Refueling the brain
A huge part of my successful recovery was a new-found interest in biking. The cardiovascular workout provided from biking long distances had and continues to have a way of clearing the mind of the cobwebs by pumping blood and oxygen directly to the brain. Exercising my brain with mathematics, strategic planning and comprehension was tiring and biking had a way of waking it back up and re-energizing it. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225186/
Retraining your brain is like working a new muscle group. When you first start the process your muscles are weak. There is a lot of resistance and you are limited in how much you can accomplish. Over time, with practice, patience, gained muscle memory and persistence you become more and more capable. It’s similar with your brain.
It is described well by Paul King, Computational Neuroscientist, Entrepreneur
“Like a muscle, using the brain makes it stronger...the brain is a pattern organizing machine. A "stronger brain" is one that is creative, cognitively flexible, and able to reason efficiently while making few mistakes…this comes from exposing the brain as a system to new experiences and new information.”
I am fortunate that my ABI was relatively mild and I was near 100% within a year. I certainly cannot speak to other people’s experiences especially those with much more severe ABI. Each case is very different. For me, being able to relearn skills in a calm, quiet and safe environment was key as was being creative and hands on in my retraining process. Although it has now been 9 years since my experience with ABI, starting with Hallam 2 years ago was my first jump back into a job outside of the bakery. I could not have picked a more welcoming family to be a part of.
About the author
I joined Hallam-ICS as the Office Manager in 2015. I bring with me 14+ years of property management and office management skills, 18 years of Mom expertise and 7 years of owning a bakery and creating tasty works of edible cookie art. I have a passion for cycling in my spare time.
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Hallam-ICS is an engineering and automation company that designs MEP systems for facilities and plants, engineers control and automation solutions, and ensures safety and regulatory compliance through arc flash studies, commissioning, and validation. Our offices are located in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and North Carolina and our projects take us world-wide.