What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger, part 1

A German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, actually said it more eloquently: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” I thought this title was fitting for the couple I’m highlighting this week. I met Greg and Laura Nordfelt at the 2013 Brain Injury Conference, just two years after Greg’s motorcycle crash. I’ve enjoyed our friendship and watching this couple get stronger through their traumatic experience

Written by Greg Nordfelt

Greg headshotI am a three time Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor (TBI). By looking at my picture, you’ve already noticed I have a huge forehead. Many have told me I could rent space out on it as a billboard. Well it’s also a magnet to immovable objects. That’s why I’ve had three TBI’s. The first was in high school when I was skiing at Alta. I fell on a mogul run and hit the post of a sign that ironically said, “SLOW SKIING”. I hit it head on with the left side on my forehead. The second time I was racing heavy bicycles in England downhill on the wrong side of the road. I didn’t make the turn at the bottom and my front tire hit the guard rail. I hit a lamp post head first, again with the left side of my forehead. The third time I crashed my motorcycle into a bed of Lava Rocks and, again, I hit them, you guessed it, with the left side of my forehead. I am an adrenaline junky, but unfortunately my forehead had a crazy attraction to all of those immovable objects which eventually caught up to me.

Last August was our 5 year anniversary of my accident. We drove to Coeur d’Alene, this time in a car, to meet with Kootenai Health’s executives, two surgeons, and the critical care team that save my life. This was my first time to meet them consciously. I wanted to thank them individually, face to face, and hug them so they would know how grateful I am for what they did for me and my family!

Greg & Laura-Gala

2016 Greg & Laura, Festival of Trees

The press showed up and articles were written. We were on the cover of magazines. They asked us to be their “Spokespeople” for their Festival of Trees. It’s a black tie fund raising Gala.  They asked us and we agreed to help them set a donation record. They were expanding their Emergency Department and Operating Room, the two areas that saved my life. They called us the “talent”. Put us in wardrobe and makeup. They ran out of spray for my face and said I’m “Ruddy” and “Scaly”! I’ve crashed into too many immovable objects and my “talent” and “cover” days are over! We helped them set the record they asked for and raised over half a million dollars!

My primary focus after I got home from the hospital was keeping my marriage with Laura because the TBI divorce rate is huge at 70%. My second focus was keeping my family together. Everything else I had was intently driven into relearning how to speak, read, write and walk again in Neuro Rehab. I worked harder than they asked me to so I could get my job back!

Unfortunately, I lost most of my friends and communities. They became the casualties of brain injury. As a survivor, I ruminate, isolate, avoid loud noise, bright colors, confusion, strangers and crowds. I fatigue easily.

As a result, I was no longer the late night party animal I used to be. I wasn’t as apt to go on long road trips on a whim. I avoided situations where I would get over stimulated and fatigued – the exact opposite of my old self.

I woke up one day after fighting to recover and realized I was a newer version of my old self and I had lost the human connections I once had. The good news is our neuro rehab physicians and therapists not only helped me remap my brain, but gave me tools which helped me nurture my most valuable relationships. Now it was up to me to reach out to friends and family and hold fast to the human connections that were dear to me.
On my second outpatient speech therapy session I learned my biggest lesson after my accident and it had nothing to do with learning how to talk again.  It had everything to do with being taught how to nurture the most important relationship I had – my marriage! I showed up complaining about having my first disagreement with Laura since the accident.  Remember I didn’t have my wits about me yet and could barely speak, so disagreement was a huge stretch!  I sat down across the table from Kim with a huff.

Greg & Laura-landing pad.png

2016, Greg & Laura Coeur d’Alene Hospital Landing Pad

“What’s wrong?” Kim asked. I tried to explain what happened the night before with Laura. After a few minutes she said, “Greg I’ve heard enough. Where’s Laura?”

“In the car,” I said.

“You need to stand back up in your walker, walk to your car and ask her nicely to come and stand next to you.” Then say these words to Laura.  I’m sorry.  I love you.  Thank you for all you are doing every day to take care of me and then HUG her.

This was the most important thing I learned in all of my therapy, by far!  It was an awakening moment for me. I learned that day I was a traumatic brain injury survivor and others were working their butts off to take care of me.  And, I need to thank them – often.

Thank you Greg for sharing and to your therapist, Kim, who told you what caregivers need to hear often. You are an inspiration and definitely stronger by your experience!

Greg had a 35 year career with Zions Bank and was Senior Vice President before the accident. Now he is a motivational speaker and a professional member of the National Speakers Association. The year 2016 was a big year for Greg as he was the Utah Speech and Hearing Association’s (USHA) Ambassador was awarded Survivor of the Year by the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah (BAIU) in October. He is a mentor and volunteer with Neuro Rehab patients and caregivers at IMC and is writing a Memoir expected to be published in 2018.

 To see Greg’s website visit: www.gregnordfelt.com

On Wednesday, Laura’s will share her perspective.

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Greg and Laura Nordfelt’s Story

Laura & Greg

Greg and Laura Nordfelt                The day before the accident.

On August 15, 2011, our friend Jimmy, my husband Greg and I were riding our Harley motorcycles along a scenic section of highway 95, about 60 miles south of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Greg was feeling sick, from food poisoning contracted at a diner the night before, but he insisted that we continue on with our planned trip. I was on my own Harley behind Greg and saw him pass out and crash into a bed of lava rocks at the side of the road. I anxiously ran to him and gave first aid until the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) came. I’ve had EMT training and my skills took over until the professionals arrived. Greg was transferred by life flight to the nearest hospital in Coeur d’Alene.

Even though Greg was wearing a helmet he suffered a severe brain injury, a crushed leg and had deep open wounds from the impact. We spent 11 days at the hospital in Coeur d’Alene until he was able to be flown to the Neuro Rehab at Intermountain Medical Center (IMC) in Murray, Utah, which was closer to home and family. He was there for a couple weeks before coming home. He worked extremely hard to get back to work as a banker full-time over the next 5 months (starting initially at only 2 hours a week).

The left side of Greg’s brain was damaged beyond repair and the right side had to learn to take over the tasks of reading, writing, talking, walking, banking etc. This was difficult for both of us because it effected his personality and how we related to each other. Greg read a book called “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Taylor, which explains in detail a neurologist’s loss of her left side of the brain function during a stroke. She had to cope with a complete driven right brain for all her activities.  This book had a tremendous impact on both of us.

Laura & Greg kissingOur marriage has been very different since the accident and not what I was prepared for. I’ve had to cope with his strange changes and sometimes I say to him, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” I wouldn’t say I’m a patient person and our six children can probably attest to that, but I have been extremely fortunate to be able to take one day at a time.  After all, isn’t that what marriage is all about?

Greg and I were very “fly by the seat of our pants” kind of people . . . always ready for the next adventure, whether it was motorcycles, riding our bicycles down hills at 60 mph, hiking where we maybe shouldn’t be hiking, jumping off cliffs, extreme diving, etc.  NOT so much now.  We are discovering new adventures in less dangerous ways.

I was not prepared to be a caregiver for my husband. My EMT training seemed to help some, but as a mother, being a caregiver came naturally. However, the thought of taking care of an adult TBI survivor long term was extremely hard, especially when there was no one taking care of me.  Brain injury patients are constantly surrounded by doctors and therapists. They are initially monitored and recorded and any progress is celebrated.  As a caregiver, I was left completely on my own to figure out my new life and how to make it work. I felt like I was set up to fail! There were no guidelines, no manuals and no pats on my back.

I was also dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the accident. I tried personal therapy a couple of times, but couldn’t seem to find the right therapist for me.  I looked for caregiver groups, but none were readily available.  Within a year after Greg’s accident I asked to join the board of directors at the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah (BIAU).  It was my attempt at giving back to the TBI community. I was motivated specifically to start a “Caregivers Support Group” that was not available to me during Greg’s recovery. It was extremely important to me to help other caregivers that were lost like me. I also felt it would help my own healing while supporting the daily living issues of other caregivers. I felt that working together in groups would be therapeutic and healing for all of us.

Now we have our very own Caregiver Group monthly, at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. We meet in conjunction with the Survivor Group on the third Thursday, at 7:00pm. Together we can learn how to cope, and find helpful resources. A big shout out of thanks goes to Kim Kirkham at TOSH for all her help launching this group and for her continued support. Greg has also been supportive and has helped me find a way to support TBI caregivers.

Monthly updates concerning the caregiver support group can be found on our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Caring-for-the-TBI-Caregiver/705869382781093  Please press the “Like” button to get updates.

You can listen to Greg and Laura recount their experience and tell their amazing story.