The Irony of Brain Injury
While some patients with a brain injury are able to return to work, others reveal how their often-normal appearance belies the lingering cognitive effects of brain injury.
Written By John Christensen
Photography By Gary Meek, Louie Favorite and Jeremy Wilburn
Returning to Work
Shepherd Center’s vocational rehabilitation program helps patients with a brain injury and their employers in the return-to-work process.
The first time Tim Grams saw Lamar Matthews-Webb after his accident, Lamar was in a wheelchair, unable to walk and barely able to talk. He was listless and despondent, not even a shadow of the Statesboro, Ga., firefighter Tim knew him to be.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Tim, the chief of the Statesboro Fire Department. “I honestly didn’t think we were gonna get him back. My first thought was, ‘He’ll never be able to come back to fightin’ fire.’”
That was in May 2011, shortly after Lamar sustained a traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident while in New Jersey. But over the next several months, the city, Tim and Lamar’s fellow firefighters went out of their way to support him. Tim and three other firefighters drove to New Jersey to help, and while Lamar was undergoing rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, his co-workers donated their sick time so he could continue to receive paychecks. They also paid for a wheelchair and hotel rooms, and constantly supported Lamar and his family.
The questions were: Would Lamar learn to walk again and process information and be fit enough to return to a job that demands a high level of fitness, clear thinking and the ability to act quickly? Could he be relied upon when his life and the lives of others were at risk?
Returning to work from a brain injury isn’t always an option, and it’s seldom easy even when it is possible. Debbie Page, a vocational rehabilitation case manager at the post-acute rehabilitation program Shepherd Pathways, says Shepherd Center is the only hospital she knows of that has a vocational rehabilitation program, which actually manages the patient’s return to work.
And it’s been remarkably successful. Of 267 recent Shepherd patients who were employed or in school before their brain injury, 128 returned to work or school within a year.
“We’ve been successful with police officers, firefighters, physicians, CEOs and almost any other occupation you can think of,” Page says.
In many cases, Shepherd Center therapists even accompanied clients back to work to help with their transition.
“Most people are left to work it out with their employers themselves,” Page says. “But it’s very difficult to get back to work without help. Employers don’t know what to do, and they are so relieved that someone is coordinating a person’s return to work.”
Lamar’s initial challenges included loss of strength in his legs, poor balance, slow reaction time, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Medication calmed him, and Shepherd’s therapists, he says, “inspired me to do so much work so I could have a full, normal life with my family and two active boys. They’re awesome. Their whole setup is awesome. I really appreciate what they did. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life to go from the active life of a firefighter to being almost helpless. I thought I would never return to work or be even close to where I am now. I am truly blessed.”
Lamar returned to work in spring 2012 beginning with a half-day of administrative duties. His schedule gradually increased until he was back working a full week, but not yet fighting fires. After a final visit to Shepherd Center, however, he was cleared to climb ladders and fight fires without restrictions. And shortly after his return, he and another firefighter rescued a man from a burning building.
“That made me feel good about my job,” he says. “I knew I was as good as before.”