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Traumatic brain injury survivors practice outreach, advocacy

Medical teams caring for accident victims are typically involved in an intense life-and-death battle, but they rarely see their patients after the critical phase. Taking turns to tell their stories, three traumatic brain injury survivors brought a personal touch to the 21st annual Hampton Roads Trauma Symposium sponsored by Riverside Medical Education on Friday.

In between presentations on acute care surgery and intensive care management of brain-injury patients, Will Rosser, Kyle Sargent and Debra Jones spoke eloquently — and with humor — of their experiences and the difficulties they encounter as survivors.

Each had a successful career before a car accident changed their lives in an instant. As a result, they all suffer ongoing deficits, both physical and psychological, which require their constant efforts to overcome.

"We usually see folks one to two years post-injury," says Alex Watson, program manager at Denbigh House in Newport News, a vocational rehab program run by the nonprofit Community Futures Foundation, where all three currently attend.

Part of their rehab involves outreach and teaching others awareness of the needs of survivors. Each emphasized the need for compassion and understanding in caregivers. "Work from your heart as well as your head," said Jones, a former Navy unit supervisor, who lives with her mother in Hampton. "I have trouble managing bills. I can't remember if I've paid them," she explained.

Each talked about the support of family and friends as essential not only in moving forward, but in reconstructing their pasts. "I can't remember any improvements. I rely on doctors and my family for their positive feedback. I can't make good comparisons. It's important for motivation," says Sargent, an MBA student when he was injured. Similarly, Rosser's daughter made a recording of the former engineer's incoherent speech soon after his accident; the babbling on the tape tells him the vast strides he has made.

Each has developed strategies to compensate for memory impairment. Rosser takes hundreds of photos a day and writes everything down. "I do it by repetition. It's really helpful," he says, recalling that pre-injury he could memorize a complicated schematic. "It's all about gadgets and assistive devices," says Sargent, who uses his iPhone to take notes and photos. Jones, too, relies on a series of notebooks, and constantly goes back to read her earlier writings.

While the trio appreciates the help and support they receive, the survivors all see a need for more support for caregivers and education for the community. "People didn't know what they were in for," says Sargent, who divorced after his 2005 accident. "Maybe they need to be counseled, not us."

Support groups

Brain injury support group: Last Wednesday of the month, 3:30-4:30 p.m., at Denbigh House, also known as the Brain Injury Club House, 12725 McManus Blvd., Suite 2-E, Newport News, w.communityfuturesva.org; call 757-833-7845 or 757-722-9881.

Brain injury support group: 2nd Thursday of the month, 10:30 a.m. to noon, at Riverside Walter Reed Hospital, 7519 Hospital Drive, Gloucester; call 804-725-2829.

Stroke support group: 1-2 p.m. 2nd Thursday of every month at Riverside Rehab Institute, 245 Chesapeake Ave., Newport News; 757-928-8327; 757-928-8335.

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