Linda was just 18 years old and working at a local fast food restaurant when a construction worker’s high-powered nail gun accidentally dislodged a nail that went through an adjoining wall, pierced her skull and damaged her brain.
Injury to the brain can result in physical, cognitive and behavioral changes that can require short term to lifelong treatment.
Linda is one of hundreds of local survivors with traumatic brain injury (TBI) who are members of the Commack-based Head Injury Association (HIA), the largest provider of services for those with TBI in New York State. The HIA provides a wide variety of services and activities including at-home residential support and services, and operates six residential group homes and two day programs.
Overseeing the entire organization, which includes more than 200 employees who provide care in Nassau and Suffolk, 24/7, is CEO Liz Giordano.
The HIA was founded by two Long Island families who met in a South Carolina group home while caring for their brain injured sons. They wondered why their children couldn’t be in a New York-based facility closer to home. Together they founded the HIA and opened the first day program and group home for survivors of TBI on Long Island. Their sons, who are now approaching middle age, still go to the HIA day program as they have for more than 20 years.
There are almost as many ways to cause damage to your brain as there are to recognize its extraordinary capabilities, and a visit to the HIA facility makes you realize how precious life is. There are about 2 million TBIs occurring each year in the US, mostly from motor vehicle accidents, falls, assaults and sporting accidents, and sadly, TBI is also a big consequence of going to war.
“Everyone here has a story. There are interesting and successful people here who are survivors. These are people who are born healthy and well, and in one minute, everything changes,” Liz says.
Liz gave me a tour of the facilities and she was greeted with hugs and kisses from virtually every survivor. Liz is more than just their leader, she is also their biggest advocate.
The HIA can mean the difference between leading a productive life and simply existing with a sustained disability. Every day about 75 TBI survivors are transported to the Clubhouse day program to socialize, play games, create art and do other activities. They also receive counseling to help gain independence and design their life plan.
As Liz and I made our way through the different classes and activities that are available to Clubhouse members, I had the pleasure of meeting several survivors and staff members like Ansel, a car accident survivor and the HIA choir leader whose singers perform at schools and other facilities. Working alongside the staff, the Clubhouse program is run by members, for members. “You don’t see anything wrong,” Liz observes of the blending of the staff and survivors.
“I found that the survivors we have here are so courageous and brave and [I realize] how lucky we are. I don’t know that I would have the courage that they have,” Liz says.
“The mission of this agency is so unique. This program is a social model. It gives you a life similar to activities if it (TBI) didn’t happen to you. They get companionship and friendship here. They understand each other and it gives them an opportunity to socialize with their peers.”
These are skills that healthy people take for granted. But the survivors who are thriving at the HIA are fortunate ones. They are not languishing in an assisted living facility or Alzheimer’s ward, they are encouraged to reconnect with their friends and peers and society. Unfortunately, there are no vacancies at the HIA and there is an ever-growing waiting list for admittance to the program.
As Liz took me across the street to visit Bridges, their sister facility for survivors who require a more structured environment, she grabbed my hand as a car passed a little too closely, a reaction to her personal knowledge of the damage a vehicle can do to a person and their brain.
As the advancement of medical technology helps more and more accident victims become survivors, this silent epidemic will continue to put a strain on the HIA’s already stretched resources. Liz’s goal is to open two new residential homes and to expand their programs to include children and the elderly. According to Liz, many young people reside in nursing homes because of the housing shortage. “That’s my vision and goal. [Each age group] learns differently and they have different needs,” she says.
As I left Liz’s office, I said a prayer for the survivors who are on the HIA waiting list that they may one day share in the joy that the Clubhouse and Bridges brings to others.
For more information go to www.lihia.org, e-mail Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 631-543-2245.
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