Support group heals with laughter, friendship
A group gathers at the Spring Dell Center in La Plata each month to laugh, share stories and catch up on each other’s lives. This group has been joining together for almost 15 years and members have their sense of humor in common in addition to their history of brain trauma.
The Southern Maryland Brain Injury Support Group has been meeting since around 2001. Members trickle in and out due to health concerns or prior commitments but a solid core has remained for much of that time. The group meets the second Thursday of each month and during May’s meeting, about 10 individuals showed up – a mix of caregivers and survivors — to share their stories and welcome newcomers.
“We try to emphasize the support through helping each other,” Jerry Cushman, who suffered a life-altering injury about 15 years ago, said.
With his wife, and caregiver, Sheri, at his side, Cushman told his story of how his brain injury happened. While working at a meat warehouse, an accident led Cushman to fall 18 feet in the air onto his head. He was airlifted by a helicopter to a hospital and was in a comma for three weeks. After that, he said, simple things he used to do every day became not so simple anymore. Going back to work drained him of all his energy and he had problems remembering how to do simple tasks. He travels to Virginia to see a doctor every Thursday who told him not to “get stuck” in his injury.
“I let my injury hold me back,” Cushman said to the group as others nodded in affirmation.
“I’ve been here since the beginning and it makes you feel good to come here,” Andy Vandergrift, who was in a coma for over a month after being involved in a car accident in 1984, said to the group. “I love coming here.”
“It helps you to not feel sorry for yourself because you see others in the same, or worse, condition that you’re in,” Martha “Marty” Pride said, adding that after her 2008 car accident she learned how to “fake it,” by pretending to recognize people who knew her so as to not make them feel uncomfortable around her.
“My mother asked me how I was doing and when I started telling her she thought I was milking it,” Pride said, receiving nods from others in the room. “I thought, well if you didn’t really want to know, why did you ask?”
Those within the group speak the same language as far as medical terminology relating to their injuries, medications that are often prescribed to help, and commonalities in short term memory and the difficulties of life after a brain injury. The group hosts guest speakers on a variety of topics pertinent to their injuries and host social events such as picnics, parties and trips to D.C. to see a Washington National’s game or a play at The Kennedy Center.
“A lot of people don’t understand what you’re going through or how to deal with you,” said Jerry Roh, a caregiver with his wife Debbie for their daughter Traci, who also received her brain injury after a car accident.
Instead, the group seems to have found solace in humor and spend a great deal of the meeting laughing about their memory failures and the awkward comments others may make to them. Rather than feeling uncomfortable when they misspeak, or lose their train of thought, a friend is nearby to help out or crack a joke that turns the whole room into an uproar.
“We’ve become friends,” Pride said. “Other friends have fallen by the wayside, but these guys are here and they understand what’s going on. [Brain injuries are] very much a hidden injury. [Here] you don’t feel like you have to hide or put on a front.”
“Sometimes it’s all you need to talk it out and not keep it bottled inside you,” Roh said.
Mike Cadenhead had just finished his first semester of college at Prince George’s Community College when he was in a car accident in 1983 that left him blind, with a head injury and memory problems. He spent two years in the hospital and attends the monthly meetings with his parents, David and Carol.
Cheryl Loeffler was diagnosed with preeclampsia nine years ago when she was six months pregnant with her daughter. She delivered her daughter at six months and then suffered a stroke. Now, she says, even after nine years, she’s learning everything over again.
“What people don’t understand is we didn’t choose this to happen to ourselves,” Loeffler said of public perception. “It happened to us.”
As an encouraging reminder to himself and others, Cushman read from a notebook where he writes down ideas and thoughts he doesn’t want to forget.
“Get ahold of yourself,” Cushman read. “And do a little bit more each day.”
The Southern Maryland Brain Injury Support Group meets at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the Spring Dell Center, Inc., 6040 Radio Station Road in La Plata. For more information, contact Loeffler at email@example.com.
Martha “Marty” Pride, left front, Traci Roh, Debbie Roh, Sheri Cushman, Jerry Cushman, back right, Mike Cadenhead, Carol Cadenhead and Jerry Roh, are some of the caregivers and survivors who make up the Southern Maryland Brain Injury Support Group. The group meets on the second Thursday of each month at the Spring Dell Center in La Plata.