Brain injury survivor helps others cope

By: E’LOUISE ONDASH – North County Times

Here is what Heidi Lerner of Encinitas, CA wants you to know about people who suffer brain injuries: Survivors do not lose their intelligence, but their brain functions “get all tied up in knots. The information processing is slowed,” explained Lerner, a head injury survivor.“They may have trouble with communication and may seem confused, but they know exactly what they want to say. They understand perfectly but can’t respond adequately, so they usually are misunderstood.”

Seventeen years ago this week, Lerner lay in a coma with severe head injuries following a car accident in Mississippi. She had been traveling cross-country from California to Florida, where she was living at the time. When she awoke, Lerner had her work cut out for her. Like the other 5.3 million Americans living with disabilities caused by traumatic brain injuries, she had to deal with memory and attention problems, anger management and impulsiveness, for starters.

“I was sensitive to light, had problems recognizing words, organizational difficulties, depression and mood swings,” said Lerner, 42. “I had trouble initiating things and got overwhelmed easily. I became apathetic and tired easily. When you ask me how long it took to recover, that assumes that I went back to how I was before, but my whole world changed. I came out a different person.”

Despite the litany of obstacles, Lerner returned to school six years after her accident to learn how “to help others with brain injuries to become more independent.”The thing that helped me the most in my recovery was putting myself through school,” she said. “I call this academic rehabilitation. Putting myself through the act of studying, besides the course work, is how I learned what is needed to help a brain injury survivor academically.” Lerner persisted and earned a master’s degree in special education specifically for brain injury survivors. She is greatly needed because the numbers continue to grow. “These days, brain injury occurs around the world in quite a variety of circumstances–sports events, motor vehicle accidents, terrorist attacks and war,” Lerner said.

According to the International Brain Injury Association, head injury is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. Twenty percent to 30 percent of the soldiers returning from Iraq have traumatic brain injuries. In all, more than 2 percent of this country’s population is living with the consequences of brain injury. Today, Lerner leads a brain injury support group at Sharp Rehab in San Diego, CA.

To further the understanding of people with brain injuries, Lerner has written a book of poetry “Gray Matters Brain Injury: The Inside Perspective,” that offers “an introspective and sometimes humorous view of what it is like to suffer a near fatal blow to the head and live with its complications. “In a nutshell, she added, “it is unfair, unreasonable and disrespectful to determine for a survivor what he or she is capable of. It is up to that individual. Motivation and self-determination can work miracles.”

Gray Matters Brain Injury: The Inside Perspective Heidi Lerner

Imagine this: the sun’s shining and you’re crossing at the light. Out of nowhere, a car comes racing through the red light and…WHACK! You go flying through the air and land on the sidewalk. Your head hits the concrete. Immediately, you go into a comatose state… When you come to, what are things like? What are YOU like? Have you ever thought of such things?

Silent Epidemic

What would it be like to have a brain injury? Such a dilemma it is for brain injury survivors that others simply don’t have a clue, what they are going through. They don’t comprehend the devastation or how comprehensive the affects are in a survivor’s every day world. This lack of awareness is a strong factor that drives survivors further and further into isolation; this silence makes life hell for brain injury survivors. This is what motivated Heidi in writing Gray Matters.

The goal of Gray Matters is to give its readers the sense of what it is like to walk in the shoes of a brain injury survivor. Heidi completed her Masters degree in Special Education, specifically for brain injury and she felt the need to communicate the knowledge that she obtained. She expresses a way that anyone can understand it! Though she does present a professional understanding of brain injury, you don’t need a medical vocabulary to grasp what she expresses. Gray Matters is a book of poetry; the understanding you gain from her writing is personal, it is not just cognitive information.

The author touches on serious issues, but not in a distressing tone. She believes that laughter can be an expression of “emotional medicine”. The aim is to help survivors see objectively the problems they’re going through and glimpse the lighter side of these otherwise troublesome issues. Such insight and humor can cause attitudes to adjust, leading to acceptance and a better coping with problems brought about by brain injury.

The chapters of the book address the topics of Brain Injury, the Sequelae (i.e. meaning symptoms of injury), Rehabilitation and The Brain. Sequelae is a particularly educational chapter where there are poems that describe many of the symptoms of brain injury. The last chapters are on the topics of Academic Rehab, Recreational Therapy (i.e. how the ocean served therapeutic for the author) and the healing of Peer Support.

Audience of Gray Matters

The target audience is multi-faceted. The primary aim is to educate those personally affected by injury to the brain. This includes survivors, their friends and family members as well as caregivers and other therapeutic professionals. The aim is to be an intellectual, psychological and emotional support. The secondary purpose is to educate the general community about what it’s like to have an insult and compromise to the brain, our master organ, for those who have been spared the drama of brain injury.

In a review in the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, Marie Lasater states “Gray Matters will give survivors of TBI hope and reassurance that they are not alone in their rehabilitation process. It will help family members understand the thought process of the brain-injured patient. It will also guide the health care provider in giving optimal rehabilitative care.”

Silent Epidemic

Lets break the curse of silence! You need to know on the inside What it’s like to walk in my shoes.

Pick up my book, Listen to my rhyme, I’ll have you captivated in no time!

This is a call to awareness… Pass on the word of what you hear We are breaking the silence Thanks to your receptive ear.

Enter and you can feel. IT’S OK TO CARE, Because empathy heals! We’re paving the way for knowledge, We are the pioneers…

Gray Matters!


Heidi Lerner Gray Matters Brain Injury Coach Published Author Support Group Facilitator