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Renée Schafer Horton: My life with a traumatic brain injury
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Renée Schafer Horton: My life with a traumatic brain injury

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, there were 129,750 automobile crashes Arizona during 2019 causing injury to 53,809 people. I was one of that number.

In a nano-second on an otherwise lovely Sunday afternoon, I sustained a traumatic brain injury. There are currently 45,000 Arizonans living with TBIs, according to the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona.

Next month is National Brain Injury Awareness month, and while statistics can sometimes shock people into awareness and action, I think personal stories often have deeper effect. So, here’s mine:

At 1 p.m. on October 13, 2019, I was cruising to my book club near the University of Arizona. Less than a mile from my Oro Valley home, a woman in her 80s with a large dog in her lap drove through a stop sign and into oncoming traffic.

Her small SUV collided with my much-smaller Honda, ricocheting me into a median and then a sign post. As the sign rushed toward me, I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is how it all ends.” I woke to an acrid odor and something wrapped around my face.

That something was my air bag, which possibly saved my life, but also knocked my grey matter to and fro in my skull.

Like most people with TBIs, I’ve endured chronic headaches, mental confusion, working memory issues, extreme cognitive fatigue and what medical professionals call “emotional liability” and I call “unpredictable crying jags.”

I also have vestibular and visual issues, super-sensitivity to light, sound, and movement, and difficulty with conversation. (Anyone familiar with my propensity to yammer may consider this latter symptom a blessing to the world, but I haven’t liked it so much.)

While I’m much better than I was in the first year of recovery, I’m only up to about 50% of my former mental capacity and endurance. My days are marked by limits I must abide so as not to regress in my sloth-like progress. As someone who always lived by the law of Just Say Yes both professionally and personally, it has been excruciating to have “I can’t” become a major part of my daily vocabulary.

For instance, I used to read dozens of online articles and two newspapers daily, as well at least one book a month. Now I can’t read more than one hour daily, and only in 10-minute snippets. (What? We have a new president?)

I used to host fun house parties; now I can’t be in a room with more than three other people without becoming nauseous.

I used to research and write a newspaper column in one six- to eight-hour session. That pace is laughable now. I can’t endure longer than 35 minutes of cognitive work at a time (up from 10 minutes four months ago, so, progress!) and only a handful of those sessions daily. Everything takes double or triple the time it used to.

Most importantly, I used to babysit my grandson weekly for a 10-hour shift and now I can’t be with him longer than 70 minutes without becoming terribly symptomatic. It has taken me 16 months to build up to that tolerance.

He turned 4 right before my wreck and that entire year with him vanished and as anyone who works with little ones knows, a child’s fourth year is when the brain is able to make permanent memories. I had planned on being remembered as the most fun person in his life, not the person who had to keep lying down “because Nana has a headache.”

He’s 5½ now, and while he still enjoys seeing me, our relationship is critically different. (I don’t, for instance, hang upside down on the monkey bars with him anymore.) I’m a visitor now, not the spare parent I was his first four years of life. This is by far my deepest loss and the thing about which I’m most angry when I recall the woman driving with her dog.

Cars are wonderful transportation options. They are also often life-destroying ones, usually because someone is driving too fast or too close or too distracted. All that nonsense about hands-free technologies being safe? Hogwash.

Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says vehicle “infotainment” dashboards — think hands-free phone calls and navigation maps — take drivers’ eyes off the road for an average of more than 40-seconds. Since taking your eyes off the road for more than two seconds doubles the risk for a car crash, you can see how 40 seconds would be problematic.

Next month, and in all the other months too when you’re out there driving that 4,000-pound hunk of metal, remember what happens when it collides with another hunk of metal — or worse, a cyclist or pedestrian. Victims’ lives are blown open and torn apart and like Humpty Dumpty, we’re not always able to be put back together again.

So, slow down, turn off your phone, give lots of space between yourself and other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, and for God’s sake, restrain your precious “fur baby” in the damn back seat.

Renée Schafer Horton is a regular op-ed contributor. Her past lives were in higher education, journalism and as CEO of a small country called Home, population six. Email her at

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