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Living with a 'borrowed brain'

By Lindsay Corley, CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lindsay Corley suffered a concussion during a car crash last year
  • The concussion has affected her memory, speech, reading ability
  • Corley has chronic migraines and says some tasks are remain difficult

Editor's note: Lindsay Corley is an assignment editor for CNN.

(CNN) -- Imagine waking up one morning to find you can't remember the most simple of tasks -- things like brushing your teeth, combing your hair or even feeding the dog are suddenly major obstacles.

For a year, this has been my life. I have been in recovery from a significant concussion. I am not in the NFL nor do I play contact sports. I am 28, and on February 19, 2012, I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Kentucky state trooper later said it was the fastest snowstorm she had ever seen hit the area as whiteout conditions from a freak blizzard rendered roads treacherous within minutes.

I was traveling on a highway in the Blue Ridge Mountains when my car hit a patch of black ice, skidded across three lanes of traffic and crashed into a median. I walked away from the accident thankful -- thinking I was fine. But a week later, the real injuries crept in.

I was nauseous. I couldn't sleep. My mind felt foggy; every sound hurt, and every ray of light pierced my eyesight.

A friend encouraged me to go to the doctor because she suspected I had a concussion. I mistakenly thought concussions only happened to people who lose consciousness.

When I was finally diagnosed, I resisted my doctor's order to rest my brain. I felt it would get better if I could push through the pain.

I was wrong. I couldn't even follow conversations -- I would just blurt out comments that I never meant to speak aloud. I was living with a brain on delay.

At first my only reprieve was music. I had always enjoyed music, but now it was a concrete, tangible object. For hours, I would just lie in bed and listen. I couldn't stand rock music anymore; it felt like nails on a chalkboard. But the jazz melodies of Billie Holiday and the lush symphonies of Beethoven were like a visceral experience for me. It felt like I was really hearing music for the first time.

And yet I will never forget that feeling of utter devastation as I gazed into my computer screen. I was a journalist, a graduate student, and a writer, but I could not read a basic declarative sentence. The words just didn't make sense to me. My brain wanted to read in the direction up to down instead of left to right.

Overnight, my life became a series of doctor's appointments, therapies and medical procedures. Most concussions heal within a month of the injury, but mine didn't. Even worse, my doctors had few answers as to why. Dr. Wendy Wright, a neurologist who has not been involved in my care, said the medical field is still evolving in treating mild traumatic brain injuries such as concussions. She said they often do not show up on standard medical tests such as MRIs.

As each day passed and I didn't get better, a fear began to grow. How would I take care of myself? What would my future look like? I feared asking for help, being a burden to others and failing to meet expectations. I hated how this "borrowed" brain made me feel -- weak, dependent and vulnerable.

My sense of balance and coordination were lost. Things that had been second nature were now challenging tasks. Friends had to help me with everything -- from driving to typing e-mails to cleaning my room. My roommate put a rule in place that I couldn't cook while she was gone because I couldn't be trusted to remember to turn off the stove.

Life is fragile. A single moment can change your life in ways you never imagined. So much of my identity was wrapped up in my ability to perform. My brain injury forced me to ask the question -- who am I, if not for my capacity to succeed?

We live in a society that values doing, but I had to learn to find peace in being. I was only able to finish graduate school on time because of friends who volunteered to type my term papers as I verbally relayed the information. At work, I completed tasks with the help of co-workers.

I have come an incredibly long way. Doctors say I am now at 85%, yet each day I am also confronted with a sense of loss. It turns out this borrowed brain is actually my new one. My doctors do not know how much more I will recover. I live with chronic migraines, and some tasks, such as reading books or focusing on conversations, are still extremely difficult.

I am undergoing neuropsychological testing, which gives a more complete picture of brain functions such as memory and attention. Yet without a picture of how I was before my accident, doctors may not be able to create a clear picture of how I have been affected.

Overcoming a concussion is like waking up from a dream. The person I was before the accident is gone, and I am still trying to settle into my new identity. This fall, I hope to begin a residency as a hospital chaplain. My injury has given me a deeper sense of compassion, especially for people in pain.

Though I cannot say it has been an easy journey, I can say this with all certainty: This past year I have been given the gift of perspective, and for that I am thankful.

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