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Joanne Susi

"My life is separated into before and after. Before, I was a Senior Clinical Research Associate assisting in clinical trails with CAP working with Dana Farber, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, and others in Cancer research. Now I am a survivor and lucky to be alive". Read Kristin's story

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David Hanington

It all began one beautiful June day three years ago...

It all began one beautiful June day three years ago. David and Cheryl were riding with a group of motorcyclists to a music festival in New Hampshire when a deer ran in front of them. When David braked quickly, the motorcycle skidded out of control and went off the road. Cheryl escaped without life-threatening injuries, but David suffered a severe head injury and stopped breathing.

A nurse, traveling behind the motorcycles, stopped and helped stabilize him until the EMTs arrived. “We still don’t know who she was – maybe a guardian angel.” So began David’s journey of good fortune.

David was life-flighted to Maine Medical Center where he remained in a coma for a month. During that time, Cheryl and other family members stayed by his side, playing music that David had performed for the past 30 years. David’s doctor felt this music – David’s passion – might help David regain consciousness and recover from his injuries, and it did.

“I turned around to look at him and he was mouthing the words to ‘Don’t Think Twice’ by Bob Dylan. I couldn’t believe it,” says Cheryl who then brought David’s guitar to the hospital as music was clearly going to be an integral part of recovery.

“One thing I realized is how much of a difference the people with you make,” says David. “Friends and family were with me every day, and it didn’t stop in rehab or when I got home. They kept coming – during the good times and hard times. Their loyalty never wavered.”

“Part of the reason so many stuck by us is that neither of us was ever angry. It was an awful thing to have happen, but it did. We still had a life left to live and we wanted to enjoy it,” says Cheryl.

“People said to me all the time: ‘It must be hard for you.’ They knew there was a lot of extra effort going into David’s recovery. My answer was: “I’m just so grateful to be walking this walk and to have us both still here because I would not be whole without David in my life.”

In early July, David was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and progressed so well that he was discharged on July 31. “I gave my full effort. I gave everything I had,” says David. “I never had the attitude that I was only going to get half better.”

David joined BIA-MA’s Milford Support group where he “enjoyed his interactions with other survivors who understood his struggles to recovery.

“Attending the Milford Brain Injury Support Group has proven to be an excellent vehicle to understand what it is like to live with this life altering injury,” says Cheryl. “As a caregiver, I am always interested to hear what others may be doing to help their loved ones. The group leader, Denise Simoneau, regularly provides helpful resources.”

Throughout the ordeal Cheryl and David’s employers were supportive and held their jobs for them – allowing David to recover and Cheryl to work with him on a daily basis. They played card games, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and more. “If I asked him to try something, no matter how difficult, he’d do his best, and would go back to it day after day,” says Cheryl.

“I was looking for anything that I could do to move the recovery along. I knew at some point it would plateau, but I did not want that to happen until it absolutely had to,” says Cheryl. At one point he had trouble finding the right words and Cheryl would say “You know this, David. It’s in there. Think. What is it?” David says her strategy helped him make new pathways in his brain.

David also had to regain his physical strength and stamina to return to work full-time. He started out doing small things, taking short walks and doing small jobs in the yard. As he got his strength back, he joined a health club. David remembers that during his first assessment with his trainer he fell over doing a squat. It was going to be hard work getting back his physical strength. David started his day at 6:30 a.m. and kept a routine as if he were working. “Exercise was huge to my recovery; the more you exercise the more energy you have. You have to be active to recover.”

Prior to his accident, David could play his guitar and sing for two or three hours, all from memory. “I had to relearn everything.” But perseverance is in David’s nature, and in August 2010, David returned to New Hampshire with his guitar in hand. He performed publicly for the first time since his accident and received a standing ovation.

In the fall of 2010, two years after his accident, David returned to his full-time job at a regional technical high school. “I taught for eighteen years before the accident. I didn’t have to learn a whole new set of skills to return to work. I was lucky,” he says.

“I have to handle things differently now, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It just means it’s going to involve more work, more thinking. You need to realize it’s not going to be like it was before. You are different, not necessarily worse, just different.”

With a smile he concludes: “This side of the dirt is a good place.”

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