una bella vita…
Every office has stories of Vision Therapy success, and surely, we’ve all felt the pleasure of changing a person’s life almost literally before their eyes. I am sure for most people that will read this blog, helping others is not just what you do, it’s woven into the very fabric of who you are. For me to pretend that I am unique in this way, would just be unfair. Every once in a while though, a story comes along to move the mind and touch the heart, and reminds me of what life is all about. This is one of those moments.
For the better part of the last 18 months, I have had a front row seat to a story of true success – both in Vision Therapy and in life. The lone character in this story is a co-worker, a patient, and a friend; fully embodied in one remarkable young woman. A young woman – who by all accounts – does not understand the meaning of the word “quit”; and on the contrary, personifies every aspect of strength and determination. When I contacted her to ask if she would allow me to share my perspective of her story in this blog, she graciously agreed. Her only request though, that I give her an alias; perhaps because she is too humble to share with the world how wonderful she is – but more likely because, she has conquered the mountain, and has no need to look back.
The alias I have chosen is after one of my greatest female inspirations – my great grandmother – whose friends called her “Bella”; which is Italian for “beautiful”. It’s the most appropriate alias I could find for a person with a beautiful spirit, an incredible faith, and the heart of a lion. This is Bella’s story.
In the summer of 2010, our office hired a young lady who had just graduated from college, to train as a Vision Therapist. She had considered a career in both nursing and teaching, but as many of us have experienced, choosing a life path right out of college was tough. She had stumbled upon Vision Therapy, like many great therapists before her, and was intrigued. Since I was the Head Therapist at the time, I was responsible for her training. She spent her first few months in the office eager to learn and enthused at the amazing benefits VT had to offer. She asked many, many, many questions in a curious and almost apologetic tone. She quickly understood the gravity of what Vision Therapy had to offer; and the gravity of what becoming a good therapist would take. She approached every patient with a mixture of innocence, determination and sass – three necessary skills in most therapy rooms. She embraced Vision Therapy as a craft over the next year, and quickly became an asset to the office. She was growing in to a real Vision Therapist, and by the end of summer 2011, was considering certification as the next step in her journey. I agreed to be her mentor.
On September 8, 2011 her journey came to a screeching halt – quite literally. While driving home from work, her SUV was hit broadside and rolled over three times. She was briefly knocked unconscious and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Because I was her boss, her mom phoned me that evening to inform me of her accident and provide preliminary details. Thanks to her seat belt and airbags, she was OK. Bruised and concussed – but OK.
The times that followed were rough, by all accounts. Hard days and restless nights. Headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and frequent naps. I received an email from Bella the week after her accident where she wrote:
“I am still sleeping most the day, and have trouble sitting up for extended periods of time without getting dizzy and exhausted”…”I’m just now getting to a point where I can look at a computer screen without throwing up, but I can only manage in small doses so I will do my best to keep you updated”…..”at this point I honestly don’t know when I’ll be back.”
With the help of a friend driving her, Bella did manage to make it back for two hours a couple of weeks later. The next week, a few more hours, a few days a week. I remember the first day she managed a full 8 hours was a Monday in late October after resting all weekend. And oh yeah, she stayed home Tuesday and Wednesday, completely exhausted. This progression of slowly building herself back up went on for several months. Many days started off great for Bella, and ended with leaving work after just a few hours to go home and rest after feeling exhausted, feeling the world was moving faster than she could process, getting a Migraine, feeling enormous anxiety, feeling “lost”, being unable to organize her thoughts, or just feeling “off”. We even had to drive her home a few times in the middle of the day, out of fear she would not make it on her own. More than once I found her slumped in her chair, head in her hands, completely exhausted and unable to think at 9:30 in the morning. This went on day after day – for several months. Although she was medically cleared not long after her accident, her symptoms lingered, and lingered, and lingered. Still she pushed on.
Privately, some of the other therapists in the office grew concerned. She was not able to see patients or perform her duties on a reliable basis, and in fact it appeared she was falling apart. Some asked how long was I going to let this go on? As her supervisor, I tried to find a balance between meeting her needs and the needs of the office. At times I would tell her to go home after just a few hours, realizing that she really had no business being at work. Being the determined hard worker that she was, she would often argue about what was best, telling me she could do it. Only to track me down 30 minutes later and ask if she could leave. This was Bella’s routine for weeks on end. A good day, a bad day, work 6 hours, work 3 hours, go home early and go to bed, wake up with a headache come in late, and emotions that were all over the map. We even tried different strategies with her schedule mixing half days with full days to provide extra time to rest. I believe it was March or April before she managed an entire 40 hour week.
As heartless as it seemed, discontinuing her employment was a decision I had to face. Never mind certification. She could no longer do her job on a full time basis – a realization that was hard for me. How could I, as someone who has worked with many accident victims and TBI patients, actually give up on this girl? This was the one time, the ONLY time, in my life that I have known someone before and after their head injury, and giving up was the best I could do? Not a chance. See I too was in a serious car accident in my early 20’s. My injuries were more physical than anything else, but after breaking the driver’s window with my head I experienced the brain fog, the confusion, the sleeplessness, and the headaches. Luckily, my symptoms were no where near as severe as Bella’s, though 13 years later, I do have lingering effects. Above all that though, I am a therapist, and helping people is what I do. I couldn’t give up.
The turning point for Bella came on a Wednesday morning in May of 2012. As an office, we were in our weekly training session discussing TBI’s. I pulled out some notes I had from one of Dr. Bob Sanet’s seminars I attended, and as a group we began to review symptoms, side effects and treatment. Since her accident, Bella and I had discussed her possibly doing VT, but she was very defensive about not needing it and I wasn’t about to force her. We were butting heads enough as it was. In fact, she jokingly told me later that she “didn’t know how I put up with her, because she wouldn’t have dealt with her”. Our training ended with a nice discussion on approaches with patient’s with TBI’s and we all went our separate ways for lunch. When I returned, Bella wanted to talk. She told me that she had re-read my notes when I left for lunch (she thought I was just making up the parts that were similar to her symptoms and wanted to see for herself), and for the first time tearfully admitted that despite her body appearing healthy, something in her head was not right. I gave her a hug and let her go home. Down the road, she told me that she had gone home that day and cried for 4 hours, then fell asleep for the night. She had hit bottom.
The best part about hitting bottom is there’s only one direction to travel. Up. Bella started doing some simple VT activities in the office with me, and after a few weeks, decided she was more comfortable doing her VT at home. It was not an ideal choice in my mind, but I had my foot in the door, and I was not about to push my luck. Privately, she and I discussed which activities would be best and every so often we would touch base. Slowly but surely her stamina improved, her brain fog seemed to clear, and her good days were far outnumbering her bad ones. By the end of the summer, she was showing marked progress in all areas. In fact, in the entire month of August, I think she missed less than 8 hours of work. Before her accident, she was well on her way to becoming a strong therapist with a great intuition about which direction a patient’s treatment should travel. Almost a year later, those qualities were coming out again in full force.
In the middle of September of 2012, I left my post as Head Therapist and moved to Austin to be closer to my children. With three days to go, our office had an “End of Summer” party, which of course included some going away sentiments for yours truly. The staff of close to 25 went around the room and said nice things about me and wished me well. All of it was appreciated. Bella tearfully thanked me for everything and said she didn’t know where she’d be if I had given up on her. A moment that will stick with me for a long time.
Although I don’t see her daily as I used to, we occasionally will check in with each other. In fact, I suggested the COVT idea to her recently, not thinking that she would ever consider it after what she’s been through. To my amazement, and utter surprise, Bella called me about a month ago and asked if I was still interested in being her mentor. I said yes, hung up the phone, and about hit the floor. I couldn’t believe she was actually going to go through with it. At that moment, this journey became like a ring in my life that was left open, and was finally clicking closed – quite satisfactorily. She is going to be OK.
As Bella sent her first Open Book Question my way, and I sent it back with some ideas and revisions, a very interesting thought crossed my mind: No matter when she puts the letters “COVT” after her name, be it this year or 50 years from now – she will always be able to offer her patients a quality that no textbook, mentor, seminar, or Power Point presentation could ever teach – personal experience. That is pretty powerful.
So one October in the future, when Bella’s real name is called at a COVD Annual Meeting, she will proceed to the front of the Banquet Hall to proudly accept her certification. And somewhere in that room I will be smiling a little bigger and clapping a little louder than anyone else in that space. For Bella never gave up. She is now and will forever be, one of the good ones.
And it’s always darkest before dawn…