Saturday, July 05, 2008

The hidden illness

I was emailed this by a friend who keeps me up to date on brain injuries and veteran's issues. It struck me because of the similarities to my injury. Here's a man who was a professor and obviously intelligent. Then he gets lost, carries his dog upside down without being aware it was not the right way to do it, can no longer read as he once did, and...well you can read it. I too have these problems along with several others. There was a time I would read two or three books a week but now I don't read books at all, except the bible. For some reason that I can remember. I suspect this is because of the years I spent studying it. Here's a point, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) is called the hidden illness because, like this professor, we look normal with no visible signs of injury. But there are many short circuits in the brain that cause things like turning bolts the wrong way (Something I often do despite years of mechanical experience)and turning the wrong direction. And the problems are different from individual to individual, depending on what circuits in the brain are damaged. So it's hard to get a handle on. A vital key to helping us is communication, just talk and understand. There have been some who have not tried to understand and thus judged me because of my...socially awkward?...behavior. It caused rejection and hurt both Cherie and I. This is why I endeavor to bring awareness of the issues that come with TBI. There are an estimated 1.4 million TBI's every year and it has been called the signature injury of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. So read this if you could. It's a fascinating, at least to me, look at the effect of a brain injury that went undiagnosed for a while.

Major life changes can be traced back to accident in 1983

Retired Union College professor uses his own experiences to help others with brain injuries

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Retired Union College professor of chemistry and runner, John Sowa, 73, goes for a run near the Union campus. He survived a brain injury and has been instrumental in helping others cope with the same.

SCHENECTADY — Before his accident on Oct. 13, 1983, John Sowa, then a 49-year-old organic chemistry professor at Union College, memorized the first and last names of all 300 of his students within the first two weeks of classes. He also ran 60 miles a week and bicycled between 20 and 50 miles a week.
“Today, I can’t remember names and I have difficulty with faces,” said Sowa, now 73, who sustained a brain injury in the accident. “I understand it’s normal for people to be like that, but for me it’s a big change.”
Through persistent effort and determination to improve, however, Sowa has gone on to help countless others with brain injuries, as well as students at Union who were having cognitive and emotional problems.
“I think I am more understanding and helpful to people than I was before the accident,” said Sowa, who lives in Glenville, with his wife, Eileen. “I really enjoy helping people.”
Giving tirelessly
Sowa, the father of four and grandfather of four, is the co-founder of four traumatic brain-injury support groups, and he was on the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of New York State for 12 years. He also started an annual display by brain-injured artists in the north lobby of the Empire State Plaza.
He has spoken at numerous Brain Injured Association conferences and has lobbied for helmets for bicycles riders.
Judy Sandman, assistant director of the Brain Injury Association of New York State, described Sowa as a remarkable human being who lives with a disability, yet gives of himself tirelessly.
“I can’t tell you the difference he has made in so many people’s lives,” she said. “Through hard work, he is always trying to work on his deficits as much as he can. I think that is why he is a role model for so many people. He shows what can be done through perseverance and wanting to make a difference. There are few outstanding people you meet in your lifetime. He is one of them.”
Sowa was riding his bicycle on Union Street on a Thursday afternoon in 1983 when he stopped at a red light. When the light turned green, he continued to go straight as a car turned left and came directly at him.
“I started yelling, ‘Hey watch it, you’re going it hit me,’ but it was too late,” recalled Sowa, who was not wearing a helmet.
The next thing he remembers, he was picking himself up off the ground, his head bleeding, feeling faint.
His right side and back began to hurt, and he was taken to Ellis Hospital, given 15 stitches for a head wound, and sent home.
“No one talked to me about the possibility of a brain injury,” said Sowa. “In those days, that wasn’t something on their minds.”
Drastic changes
Sowa took Friday off and rested on the weekend before returning on Monday to Union where he said his lectures were totally disorganized.
“It was just very difficult for me to put my thoughts together,” he recalled.
No longer able to run because he was so dizzy, when Sowa tried to walk, he would often lose his balance and stumble like a drunk. He also began dropping things.
Always handy with mechanical projects, he began turning valves and bolts the wrong way, often breaking them.
One day when he brought his dog to the veterinarian, he found himself in the wrong part of town. When he finally found the office on Union Street, he began walking in the wrong direction, carrying his dog upside down.
“Fortunately, a friend found me and set me straight,” Sowa recalled.
Once a voracious reader, Sowa’s reading skills were virtually wiped out. He couldn’t recall the first sentence he had read after reading the second. As he moved his eyes across a page, he would get dizzy and see streaks of lightning in his field of vision.
“If I have a problem, I try to find a solution as opposed to the cause. So I started projecting the outline of my notes onto a screen to help me know where I was in the my classroom lectures,” said Sowa.
Diagnosis at last
After seeing several doctors to no avail, Sowa saw a neuropsychologist at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital who suspected a brain injury.
In the summer of 1984, Sowa’s brother brought him to a neurologist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee to be evaluated. There, he learned he had a brain injury.
He spent the next several years studying coping skills while continuing to work. He often told his students about the affect his brain injury had on his life.
“Because of my own problems, I was more understanding of students’ difficulties in learning,” Sowa recalled. “And I became more verbal in encouraging students. I had a few students come up to me and tell me they were thinking about committing suicide. We talked about it, and I told them who to see. I think I helped a number of students that way.”
Sowa said it’s often difficult for others to understand what brain-injured people go through.
“We who are brain-injured often say we wish we had a cast or bandage so people could see we had this injury,” said Sowa. “You don’t want sympathy, but you do want people to understand that you have a problem.”
Still active in the Amsterdam brain-injured support group, Sowa said he enjoys helping new people in that group.
“I think I know where people are coming from, and I have the skills to help them understand what their problem is.”
Shortly after retiring from teaching in 2002, Sowa began working as an environmental health and safety officer at the college, often putting in 10-hour days.
Sowa is also vice chairman of the Schenectady County Local Emergency Planning Committee and vice chairman for the Community Advisory Panel for Schenectady International Group. He is a member of the board of directors for Mother Teresa Academy, a new school in Clifton Park, and is involved with several other organizations.
“I think I have continued to improve because of the coping skills I was taught,” said Sowa. “Sometimes, you forget, and you have a lapse, and you just need to work at it again. Things that are natural reflexes for most people are for me processes.”
Making strides
In 2004, Sowa decided he wanted to try running again.
“When I first started running, I had to have a student run next to me because I would run off to the right,” said Sowa. “It was as if a magnet was pulling me.”
Little by little, Sowa improved, and he now runs three to eight miles most days around the college campus or around his neighborhood on the weekends.
In 2006, he ran in his first race since 1983, and he came in second in his age group at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater. That same year he came in first in his age group in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Albany. He also came in first in his age group in Schenectady’s Stockade-athon.
“I think I’ve continued to improve because I strive to be better,” said Sowa. It’s a challenge, and I like challenges. One thing I notice is that when I run, it clears my mind about everything else. It’s a nice feeling.”

© The Daily Gazette Co. 2008


Andrew Brereton said...

It's a fascinating story about problems which go unrecognised by the public, until it hits them! And you are right, people DO judge, - too easily. Thanks for bringing this issue up.

Bob said...

Thanks for the comment Andrew. I checked out your website on autism. There is a high probability that I had Asperger's Syndrome as a child and no question that I've suffered multiple brain injuries. It's been tough but I think I've turned out OK.

Rose said...

how inspiring your story is. My husband sustained a brain injury January 2. 2007 and has fought his way back. He like you is highly intelligent with a few misfires. I hope someday soon he will also try to run again. He also gets dizzy and waivers to the right. Thanks for your story

Bob said...

Thanks Rose. Email me if you could at Would love to talk to you and your husband about TBI issues. There are many of us out here and many stories that need to be told to help others understand. said...

Your story is amazingly touching. I cannot fathom what you went through, or the strength it took to keep going. You mentioned you try to keep up on TBI research and I'd like to pass along the website and blog we run on TBI and SCI injury, we try to always keep the latest information out there.