It was Superbowl Sunday of 2007, and Karen Cadle of Jackson, Miss., was lighting a stack of firewood in her fireplace to stay warm on a chilly winter night. Little did Karen know that the logs had been sprayed with cyanide poisoning a few hours earlier. Nor did she ever guess that lighting the match would cause a traumatic brain injury and change her life irrevocably. But within minutes of starting the fire, Karen could tell that something was seriously wrong.
“Twenty minutes later, I could tell I was having a severe allergic reaction,” Karen recalls. “The next day, I went to the doctor with a high fever and raw throat and sinuses.”
As it turned out, the toxic fumes that Karen inhaled damaged her sinuses, throat, lungs and brain, completely wiping out her short-term memory and logic function.
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“Before, I was a high-functioning, high IQ, senior-level executive. I was proficient at math and logic,” Karen says. “The accident shut it all down.”
No longer able to perform at an optimal level, Karen was forced to give up her 23-year career in the hospitality industry. “This was one of the most challenging parts for me,” she says. “My career was, in many ways, my life.”
In the aftermath of her traumatic brain injury, Karen grappled with feelings of loneliness, powerlessness and frustration as she struggled to accept her new identity. “I wasn’t able to verbally communicate—I couldn’t read for a prolonged period. Anything I wanted to express wouldn’t come out right,” Karen says. “For years, it highly impacted my ability to communicate and to do and remember things.”
Since her accident, Karen has seen slight improvements in her cognitive functioning. But she’s still coming to terms with her loss of independence. “That’s been hard for me,” she admits. “I rely a lot on help from others and need assistance on basic tasks. I’m still learning to live with all of the limitations I have now.”
Since then, “I’ve found ways to adapt,” Karen says. “My brain just can’t process verbal input and reading like it used to, so I’ve learned to rely on visual imagery rather than words.” For example, rather than writing up grocery lists, Karen will put an item on the kitchen counter when she runs out of it to remind herself to buy more.
Following a traumatic brain injury, the physical and financial strain on a family can be horrific. In Karen’s case, she was without family members to take care of her, which made recovery almost impossible. “I didn’t have a support network,” she says.
To make matters worse, Karen experienced a great deal of discrimination and cruelty following her brain injury. Neighbors in her condominium complex, not understanding the nature of brain injuries, misinterpreted Karen’s unusual behavior as mental illness and began to spread nasty rumors about her condition.
“Here I was, suddenly rambling and acting differently. But when I tried to explain to people what had happened to me, they looked at me and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’” Karen says. “Because they weren’t able to see any physical signs of brain injury—no bandages, my head wasn’t wrapped—they just assumed I was mentally ill.”
“It was so hurtful,” Karen adds. “I felt isolated.” It was with her miraculous strength and courage—and the support of the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi—that Karen prevailed through her hardship.
“The hardest part was not having a strong support system—nobody there to check on me,” Karen says. “It wasn’t until I found the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi that I had people who were pulling for me.”
Now, as an advocate and educator for the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi, a non-profit that promotes brain injury prevention, awareness, treatment and education, Karen hopes to facilitate a dialogue about an issue that is often misunderstood or misdiagnosed.
According to Lee Jenkins, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi, brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults, and Mississippi ranks third in the country in numbers of brain injuries. “The general public is not aware of the hardships and struggles associated with brain injury until they or someone they know or love sustains one,” he says. “Karen’s story is compelling and unique but so are the others. Everyone’s experience is different because everyone’s brain is different.”
Serving as a brain injury advocate has been an incredibly instrumental factor in Karen’s recovery process. By giving back to others, Karen is beginning to discover a purpose for herself again.
“It’s about making the most of your tragic situation. When you emerge from a horrific, traumatic experience and are given an opportunity to educate others who are dealing with the same sort of experience, it tends to lessen your own pain,” Karen explains. “You no longer focus on what you can’t do anymore…you start focusing on what you can do.”
Karen has turned to photography as a creative outlet for expressing emotion. In her stunning photographs of pristine lake and nature scenes, which were included in the Brain Injury Association’s “Art of Recovery” exhibit, Karen brings awareness to the issue of brain and spinal cord injuries. “I want to inspire hope in other brain injury patients. I want to prevent anyone from going through what I did,” she says.
Karen hopes that her work with the Brain Injury Association can foster a little bit more kindness and compassion among members of society. Says Karen: “I think it’s important to educate the public that people like me may be cognitively challenged, but we’re not ignorant. Don’t write people off. Recognize that everyone has value.”
She adds:” If only we could all remember our shared humanness and practice more compassion on a day-to-day basis. You never know what a kind word, a gentle smile, a word of encouragement can do to somebody.”