"Never Give Up..."
The look on 20-year-old Katie Michelle Atchue's face is almost always a smile. Katie suffered an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) hemorrhage when she was eight years old. The condition, which is present at birth, happens when arteries in the brain connect directly to veins without the necessary capillaries between them. This incident occurs in less than 1% of the population, and the results can be devastating.
Katie lost her abilities to speak and eat, her short term memory was affected, and she sometimes finds it difficult to focus. "I had to learn how to walk all over again, how to hold my head up by myself and how to use my communication device," says Katie. "I had to learn to do a lot of things again."
Katie, who was a walking, talking child until third grade, now uses a walker to aid with balance and a DynaVox machine to help her communicate. She also communicates through sign spelling with her family and teachers at the Cotting School in Lexington. The Cotting School serves individuals with moderate to severe disabilities.
"When she started there, she was just beginning to be able to walk again," says Katie's mother Joan Atchue. "She had no means of communication at all."
Katie's DynaVox, which has pages of programmed phrases and pictures, is very similar to a tablet with its touch screen and computer memory. It also helps Katie with her short-term memory issues by reminding her when she needs to do certain things throughout her day.
Katie, who understands most everything that is spoken to her, uses a social service dog in public. "When Katie goes out, people, especially small children, stare at her because they see her using her DynaVox to talk and a walker," says Joan. "Katie's dog, Cabot, helps make her more approachable in public."
Part of Katie's school work puts her in the community to work a couple days a week for a few hours at a time. When Katie worked at Buddy Dog Humane Society, Cabot inspired her to make 15 dog beds to donate to the dogs there. After folks at the Cotting School saw her work, they asked her to make 25 more pillows for the holiday fair. Katie donated all of her pillows and this year made aprons for all of her classmates. "Sewing is my favorite hobby," says Katie.
Katie also volunteers one day a week at the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts where she learned about the PALS program. PALS is a recreational and socialization program that matches brain injury survivors, ages 16 and older, with volunteers who have similar interests. Katie has two PALS—Jessica and Caroline—who scrapbook, sew, play board games and go to the movies with her.
"Jessica likes to do some of the things Katie likes, and Caroline had an AVM, so on some level, she knows what Katie went through," says Joan. "I'm amazed at how well they relate to Katie who is so thrilled to be able to spend time with these women. They don't realize the impact this has had on her."
"I love the PALS program because I get to hang out with other people my age," says Katie. "It's nice to hang out with people who realize that even if some people have a brain injury, they are pretty much the same."
Katie advises other brain injury survivors to join the PALS program to make friends with others who have similar interests.
Her best advice? "Never Give Up."