My arrival at Coastline Community College  was just the first surprise.   The college is a minimalist, modern concrete and steel structure, at once compact, but also open and spacious.  The architecture draws your attention toward an elevated view.  If this were not a community college, it might be a 21st century cathedral.  

But other surprises ahead were also to point to an elevated perspective: a view of human struggle and resilience.  My new friend, Scott, invited me to join him at a conference offered as part of the brain injury program held at Coastline.  Coastline is a small school nestled in a residential area overlooking the ocean in Newport Beach California.  My friend Scott and three other graduates, Bill, Michael, and  John were part of a panel to speak to current students of the program and their family members. 

I arrived early.   I found Scott and two of his co-panelists in a small conference room waiting for their time to participate.  Scott insisted I join his friends as they waited.  We chatted a bit, mostly about attitude.  While each man’s story was different, I noted one dominate outlook:  each viewed his brain injury as a gift.  Oh certainly, a surprise gift, one definitely not packaged in pleasant circumstances, but valued.  I got the feeling each had re-calibrated his world-view:  he was here to help other people.  Each sought to translate his loss into a gain, not only for himself, but for other brain injured persons and their families.  Each had reached a place of optimism and gratitude.  I didn’t hear one complaint during our chat, during their panel discussion, or at the lunch we shared afterwards.  Finally, one of the instructors opened the door, and informed us we needed to make our way to the conference.  The panel was about to begin. 

Another surprise:  each of the panelists spoke easily without notes or prompts.  Each was organized, articulate, positive, inspiring and intelligent.  Each shared useful information with a sincere attitude of wanting to help.  I remembered some of my own lame presentations.   Secretly, I felt something between shame and guilt.  It was time to step up my game. 

Bill, Michael, John and Scott told their stories in turn, and each answered questions.  Somewhere in the presentations I realized these stories were more than stories of brain injury.  They were stories about the human condition:  that we each eventually lose our powers, sometimes suddenly.  We are born into struggle, but we are also endowed with an extraordinary capacity to live heroically. 

To set the stage, none of the four speakers was glum.  Each displayed a wonderful sense of humor, finding a way to laugh at some of their struggles and set-backs.  Of course, it wasn’t always so.  But now, to have a good measure of happiness, was itself a powerful message. 

The first panelist to speak was Bill, about age 45, a former CEO in the media and entertainment industries.  He still had a warm and friendly smile, and yes, just being around him awhile, you felt like you’d gladly give him your company to run.  His very presence communicated acceptance, but also leadership.   He explained that he had suffered an aortic rupture.  Laughing he said, “my plumbing burst.”  In a cascade of decline, he suffered both blood loss to the brain and a stroke, causing permanent loss of brain function.  Typical of Bill, he was instrumental in forming and advancing the program’s alumni association.  The Association seeks to reach out to other “graduates” to help them continue the process of their recovery.  He was now writing a book, and was about half through, describing various coping and prospering strategies for brain injured people.  He shared one example:  Whenever you can, write to your doctor for follow up information.  Under HIPPA, the doctor must document a reply.  It’s a good way to get free follow up care, he told the new students. 

Michael, also in his 40s, spoke next.  He explained that one night he went to his job as a physical therapist, and awoke a week later in an ICU unit, with a six inch laceration to his skull.  “To this day, I do not know what happened,” he said.  Michael, of the four, was the most overtly religious, speaking several times of how God had provided him with a new life, and a new purpose.  His purpose was to use his brain injury recovery as an example to others to inspire them to never give up.  “I am still a very goal oriented,” he declared.  “My injury did not change that.”   He pointed out that giving and receiving support not only addresses the needs of the brain injured person, but makes everyday life better for everyone. 

John, of the four, had not been with us during our early chat, but had arrived at the meeting location just a few moments before it began.  John was a tall, slender, dignified looking man probably in his mid to late 50s.  He had worked as a computer software engineer before his accident.  “I still do some of that,” he noted.  The problem, he said, was that he had lost his ability at logic, a skill “sort of important to my work,” he added, also smiling.   His brain had been irreparably damaged in a 2001 car accident on Laguna Canyon Road in the pre-dawn hours when he crashed his vehicle into a tree.  He had completed the program in 2006.  He shared an unusual fact: “I and my wife have been married now for 30 years.”  He pointed out that brain injury victims generally have a 90% divorce rate.  He had children in college now, he said.  “I spend my time at home as a student loan specialist.  If any of you want some help with that, see me,” he laughed. 

Finally, my friend Scott spoke. Scott is in his late 30s or early 40s.  He uses a cane, but he is trim, and even muscular.  His head is shaven, showing a web of surgical scaring.  His face is lively, with a strong jaw, and high checks.  I first met Scott last year.   I am a writer, and was with my writing group in a local Irvine, California coffee house.  Our writing sessions ended, and as I walked by Scott’s table, he reached out to ask me a question.  He had overheard us talking about our writing, and wondered if I could help him a moment with a blog article.   Thus began our friendship. 

When you see Scott,  you sense that the brain injury did not distort his essential character.  He remains a dynamic and motivated person with a positive outlook.  Yes, brain injury affects personality, but core strengths remain.  When I observe Scott, I sense that the “gift” of his injury brings forth the resolve and compassion that were always there.   As Scott explains: when he was a high powered business consultant, he was too busy to do all the wonderful things he now can do.  He writes, maintaining a blog for brain injured people and family members.  He serves on charities.  He has an active speaking schedule.  He assists other brain injured persons and their families.   

Scott began his talk by explaining that his brain injury was the result of a cancerous tumor removed surgically, followed by aggressive chemotherapy and physical rehabilitation.  He shared his joy at starting the Coastline Program some years ago because he finally met people “who got it.”  They understood his invisible losses of memory, speaking, organizing, planning, writing, dressing, eating, and other daily living skills.   He shared that early in his recovery, he would spend two hours just to write four sentences in an email.  He joked about the “Access” system, the county transportation provided to disabled persons, that picks up and drops off, by pre-scheduling.  All the panelists agreed, it usually takes 4 hours to get anywhere, two hours each direction, “even if the location is next door,” Scott laughed. 

The instructor asked Scott to speak to the problem of how the injury affects motivation.  Even though her question had clinical validity, Scott would have none of it.  “For me, it was never a matter of motivation.  For me, it was exhaustion.”  Scott explained that sometimes the fatigue was insurmountable despite his drive to progress in his recovery.  He laughed, asking if his instructor remembered him falling asleep in class.  “It wasn’t your fault,” he seemed to say.  Scott used the motivation question to focus on attitude.  “For me, it wasn’t: is the glass half empty or half full.  I was just glad to be able to hold the glass until my arm became too tired.” 

The panel’s time was ending, and the speakers had all managed to stay within their time limits, The instructor called the panel to a close.  Scott, Michael, Bill, and I, together with Scott’s mother, and Wendy.  Wendy is Scott’s friend from Elementary School, and now serves as his blog article editor.

  The six of us went to the second level of the building, onto a beautiful spacious terrace overlooking a seaside reserve behind the College. Not another soul was around. It was a stunning view, and a warm spring day.  We sat there a while, joking about various things, and enjoying the simple but glorious moments of life together. 

Later, Scott, Wendy, Scott’s mom, Bill and I went out to lunch, to share still more of the goodness we can all bring to one another.  Scott bought lunch, and we parted laughing and hugging.  Now, looking back, I do not feel I was  in the presence of “disabled” persons.  Strangely, I felt I was the “disabled” one.   I felt that I had been too reserved with others, and too often playing it safe.  Maybe, I thought, it was not too late for me, with all my limitations, to lead a heroic life of gratitude and service.

To see a sampling of Scott’s writing, go to Scott’s Blog: Beyond Injury.

(c) FXP 2013