BRIGHT LIGHTS: Reaching out aids her own recovery from brain injury

The Boston Globe
December 28, 2008 Sunday

BYLINE: Megan McKee Globe Correspondent

SECTION: WEST; Pg. Reg1

LENGTH: 735 words

On March 11, 2002, a freak accident on an airport shuttle bus changed Peggi Robart’s life in an instant. A piece of ceiling or sign – Robart doesn’t know which, since she has no memory of what happened – came loose, hitting her in the head and knocking her unconscious.

Outwardly, everything appeared normal. There was no gaping head wound, no blood. Robart got on her plane and headed home.

“I went to work the next day and then it became apparent that I was not myself,” said Robart, a Newton resident who was an educator, lecturer and published author at the time of the accident.

What she soon discovered was that she had sustained a traumatic brain injury that divided her existence into “before” and uncharted “after.”

Since the accident, she has journeyed from feeling shell-shocked and in mourning to becoming an activist committed to helping other survivors of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, understand that their symptoms are real and that treatment is crucial.

But at first, she was mystified.

This woman who was a gourmet cook and hostess of lively dinner parties became a woman who couldn’t complete a sentence without significant stuttering. The familiar streets of Boston became a confusing maze. The routines, objects, and terrain of her life became unfamiliar. Her job, which had been central to her identity and pride, receded into her past.

“I’d get in the shower and ask, `What am I doing here?”‘ said Robart. “You write everything down. I had to put labels on all of my cupboards. … You go to the supermarket holding onto your list for dear life.”

Knowing she needed help, Robart started attending a support group run through the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, based in Westborough. This fall, she initiated and helped organize a TBI awareness event at the Newton Free Library aimed at reaching both legislators and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 20 percent of whom have experienced a traumatic brain injury during those conflicts, according to a study by the Center for Military Health Policy Research.

Of these veterans, half do not get treatment, said the report, leaving thousands of people dealing with debilitating symptoms as they try to integrate into life back home.

“Some are lucky enough to have understanding family members, but it’s common to find yourself without a job, or to lose your home, or having to downsize … many survivors end up breaking up and getting divorced from their partners,” said Barbara Webster, a TBI survivor who has been running support groups through the association since 1995. Reaching veterans is crucial, said Webster, since leading a functional life is dependent on support and treatment.

For the Newton event, Robart helped bring in Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff, who in 2006 sustained a TBI from a roadside bomb while reporting in Iraq. The audience of about 150 people included many veterans, as well as legislators such as US Representative Barney Frank.

Robart has also focused her outreach on healthcare providers by attending conferences and networking to let them know the full scope and treatment options for traumatic brain injuries, since many survivors report difficulties finding providers who adequately recognize and understand such injuries.

And her giving doesn’t end with TBI. For the third year, Robart organized her support group’s members to sponsor children in shelters during the December holidays. The yearly event begins with a luncheon during which Robart collects money. She then does all the toy shopping, and organizes a wrapping party the following week.

Although Robart may appear normal to the casual observer, everything she does requires extensive strategizing. And because her brain can’t sufficiently filter out visual and audio stimuli, a two-hour excursion – her average limit for public interaction – can leave her exhausted for hours afterward.

Robart sees her efforts as instrumental to her healing. Although she will never be equal to her “before” self – a fact she says she is at peace with – she has made significant strides, thanks to her support group involvement, therapies, and outreach. She no longer stutters, she needs fewer Post-it notes to carry on her life, and driving a car has become easier.

“Part of getting better is that I want to contribute, I like to help,” said Robart. “Apparently, TBI is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

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