What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger, Part 2

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. They spoke last week at a combined Survivor and Caregivers Support Group sharing what they’ve learned.

Written by Laura Nordfelt

Greg & Laura-landing pad.pngThe medical helicopter which came to life-flight Greg was very old and small. In fact, half of his body was in the nose of the aircraft. The ventilator was broken and one of the paramedics was trying to bag Greg (it seemed sporadically) while trying to preform many other tasks. I mentioned to her I was an EMT and asked her if I could do the bagging for her. She agreed and I continued on every 4 seconds like I was trained to do in school. The flight seemed to take forever (I worried we were going to Canada!) and only looked out the window once or twice. When we started to land, all I saw was a “tough shed” structure on top of a roof.  Medical people ran out to get Greg and down an elevator we all went and into the Emergency Department. By the time I felt comfortable enough to leave his side, I asked, “Where are we?” When they told me Coeur d’Alene, ID, I told them I needed to take Greg to Salt Lake City, but the doctor told me he would not survive the flight. I slumped down against the wall and lost it.

I made mistakes. I am fiercely independent and a stubborn woman. In the beginning I turned family and friends away. I said “don’t fly up here, I’m fine”. Then, “we don’t need meals, I’ve got this covered.” Not only did I watch him crash, but I kept him alive for 45 minutes until the paramedics arrived. I was a mess! I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and I was in a cocoon as much as Greg was in a coma.

An Executive Vice President from Greg’s work came to the hospital to visit and I cut her off down the hall and visited with her. There’s no way I was going to let her see the condition Greg was in. I was so worried that he was going to lose his job. I posted a sign “Family Only” on Greg’s door at the hospital. Visitors had to check with me or the nurse before entering his room. I took the phone off the wall and put it in a drawer and took his cell phone away from him. He wanted to call his office to “check on things” all the time. I was worried he’d say something inappropriate.

Greg & Laura-tableWhen Greg left the hospital, I sent out a message on Facebook telling our friends that Greg needed time to rehab and recover so if they could wait to visit, that would be much appreciated. I really only meant it for acquaintances, thinking our close friends wouldn’t take it to heart. A few months down the road some dear friends of ours called and asked if they could bring dinner and come for a visit. I was thrilled! Frankly I had wondered why they hadn’t called sooner.

While we were setting up dinner, she told me they would have come sooner, but wanted to respect my wishes of giving us our space. I said, “Oh, I didn’t mean you guys!” I realized then that I had alienated the very people Greg and I needed the most. Greg’s co-workers later expressed the same emotions. If only they’d known what to do. They wanted to help in any way, but we pushed them away.

I own a business and I needed someone to sit with Greg or run him to therapy appointments, but I said “NO, I’m fine”. I really wasn’t fine, but I wanted to be and I didn’t know how to let them help. Most of it was my fault, but some of it was not.  Caregivers leave the hospital with their tool bags pretty much empty. I had to earn my hammer, saw and screwdriver the hard way. I felt neglected, isolated, abandoned, ignored, lonely, unsupported, disrespected and misunderstood. When I needed family and friends the most, they were all gone.

Greg & Laura-walkIn order to heal, I had to get outside of myself. I started the first ever Caregiver Group in Utah as a survival mechanism. As much as I wanted to give back to the community, I needed other caregivers. As I spent time listening to their stories, I felt not so overcome by my own problems. I felt empathy and compassion. When “in the moment” of caring for caregivers and survivors, their hurdles felt more important than my own. When we get caught up in these “feel good” experiences, we don’t need anything in return. I also joined the Board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah. This is my passion now!

Another way I healed is a couple of years ago a friend asked me to join her book club. I love to read, but I was scared at first because I only knew her and no one else. I went one time and almost did not go back, but forced myself to hang in there. These women are now very near and dear to my heart. I’ve read many wonderful books which I never would have picked up on my own. The social setting has its benefits as well. We trade off hosting dinner so I’m learning new recipes. I work on my listening skills and forget my problems for a few hours. By the very nature of getting together with women, it forces me to get out of my pajamas. Therefore, I get semi-dressed up, put on my makeup and lipstick and wear my fun jewelry. All of this is very good for my soul!

Thank you, Laura, for sharing your experiences and what you’ve learned. Friedrich Nietzsche was right, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I see that in Greg and Laura’s life and hope you see that truth in your own life.

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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.