On August 29, 2002, at 4:05 p.m., I got a call that changed my world an instant. I was told that my son, an Air Force tactical pilot, had been found unconscious at the bottom of a ski hill in New Zealand — 7000 miles away. I dropped everything and flew to New Zealand.
When I arrived at the hospital, I found him in a coma, and the doctors told me that he would be a vegetable for the rest of his life due to the severe traumatic brain injury he had suffered.
For three weeks, I slept only six hours every other day, and spent the rest of the time sitting with my unconscious son, holding his hand and talking to him. Most of my meals consisted of the massive muffins sold at the little store on the first floor of the hospital. It was convenient, and allowed me to stay by his side. One day, we were told that the Air Force had arranged to bring my son back to the United States, to the Palo Alto VA Hospital Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit. By then, he was no longer in a coma, but he still slept most of the day. He could hardly speak and had little control over his body. But when I came to the hospital the day after we returned to the US, he was sitting up in a wheelchair, with his eyes wide open. When he saw me, he gave his award-winning smile. My first thought was, “Not a vegetable: check.” I had no idea that we were just at the beginning of an arduous journey — but I’m his mother, and mothers are made for long journeys.
My son remained a patient for another month, re-learning how to walk, talk, dress, and feed himself. During that time, I lived in a hotel suite with a small kitchen. However, I was eating fast food and convenient snacks while looking after him. I was gaining weight, getting no exercise, and little sleep. My health was beginning to deteriorate, but I continued to ignore my own needs because my son’s were paramount.
As the hospital was about to discharge him to move onto rehabilitation, I was informed that he did not qualify to attend the intensive eight-month outpatient program because we didn’t live in the area. I immediately found an apartment and rented it for the duration so that he could qualify. Finding that apartment began the new journey of healing for both my son and me.
Not only did he need the routine during rehab, but I was also exhausted, and needed to start prioritizing my well-being as well. I had stopped caring for my own mental and physical health, and knew that although I was busy all of the time, I had to carve out some time to take care of myself. I felt guilty thinking about my own well-being when taking care of my son, but I knew that to be there for him, I had to be healthy.
Every morning, after I dropped my son off at rehab, I started going to the gym for an hour. When I returned to the apartment, I developed a meal plan for dinner, and went directly to the store to pick up groceries. In the early afternoon, I picked up my son, and we went home to spend time together, and then had our dinner at the same time each evening. This became our weekday routine from October until May.
As the routine unfolded, I found myself having more energy and more patience. I needed more patience to deal with the frustration that rose when my son’s recovery appeared to stall. I became more present, ready, willing and able to care for my son. The daily exercise and eating well aided both my physical and mental health. Within a few months, I was stronger and more fit, both mentally and physically. I was even more present and able to assist my son throughout his entire journey, which took nearly ten years.
When you are at the beginning of a journey, there is no predictor about how long the journey will take. Taking care of yourself may seem selfish at first, but it’s your greatest gift.
By the way, my son fully recovered. If you met him today, you’d never know he had suffered a traumatic brain injury, much less recovered beyond the first prognosis of being a vegetable for life. And today, we are both healthy and strong.
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