Return to Productive Activity After a Brain Injury

On May 1, 2015, a panel of three brain injury survivors told their stories of injury, rehabilitation, and recovery in a session entitled “Returning to Productive Activity.” The session was part of "Rays of Hope,” a conference sponsored by the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona.

Valentina Tarango, José Escobedo, and Mark Cesar shared challenges faced and lessons learned after brain injury. Although each story was different, the speakers shared many common experiences with each other and with members of the audience as well.

Valentina, a stroke survivor, has found productive work as a volunteer with the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL) and with the Grace Thrift Shop in her community.

José, who had a brain aneurysm at age 19, is now interviewing for jobs. He has received several job offers but is holding out for the right job to match his skills and his needs for accommodation.

Mark, whose brain injury occurred during a catastrophic car crash, sustained a number of additional injuries to his body and was in a wheelchair for a time. He returned to work after healing physically but before he was really aware of the impacts of his brain injury and how this might affect his work.

Some important themes emerged during the panelists’ discussion.

  1. Redefinition. For Valentina and José, who had to re-learn basic functions like how to walk and talk during their rehabilitation, it was clear that they were redefining themselves and their abilities as they regained brain function.

    Mark, on the other hand, was aware of how his broken bones affected him but only learned over time that his thinking and job performance had changed, too. It was as he struggled to adapt to changing work assignments that he began to identify the changes in his brain and his behavior.

  2. Communication. Each of the speakers is in an ongoing process of learning how to communicate their abilities, limitations, and needs for accommodation and support in more effective ways. Valentina has found a set of comfortable duties in both of her volunteer jobs that feel easy to accomplish. José is working with his vocational rehabilitation counselor to assess each job offer he receives to make sure that the requirements of the job are a good fit for his abilities. For example, a job that involves standing all day would not be feasible for him.

    Mark described a job experience in which his co-workers understood his strengths and accommodated his limits. He contrasted that experience with the frustration he found with another job in which he was expected to work beyond his capabilities, even after he had done his best to communicate his limits.

  3. Patience and perseverance. Each of the speakers talked about hopes for the future and the steps each of them is taking. Valentina wants to progress from her volunteer work to a part-time job. An Army veteran, she has begun an application through the VA for vocational rehabilitation assistance toward that goal.

    José revels in his successful return to driving. He continues his job search and is making plans to move from his mother’s house once he is employed. Mark recently retired from his job but wants to find new work. He has started making lists of what he loves to do and does well and what he needs from his next work environment to support his success.

As we opened the discussion up to the audience, many of the participants shared their own stories of redefinition and learning to communicate. They applauded the panelists for their willingness to share the lessons they have learned. In story after story, the power of perseverance came through as a dominant theme.

Brain injury is certainly a set-back for those who experience it. Yet participants emphasized the efforts they made, their persistence over time, and the rewards of each accomplishment along the way.

Valentina made a comment that seems a good way to end this report: “After my stroke, I learned how to be patient and really listen. I’m a better person for that.”

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