TBI Ten Years Later: A Survivor’s Story

I never thought I’d be sitting here writing about the ten year anniversary of my traumatic brain injury. Matter of fact, I distinctly remember seeing an article several years ago entitled TBI Ten Years Later: A Mother’s Story and thinking to myself, “My ten-year story will be about how I used to have a disability.” 

Mine was a different case. I was more determined to get better than the next guy with a brain injury. My wheelchair and my disability were just a couple-year sidetrack to make me stronger, to teach me greater dependence and (ironically) humility. 

Or so I thought. 

When I read that very same article a few days ago to prep for this post, I was struck by the many similarities between my injury and that of the gentleman in the article. I encourage you to read it as well — it will help you understand how earth-shattering an unexpected lifelong disability can be for a person and their family. 

I’m ashamed to say that when I first read that post seven or eight years ago, I foolishly looked down on the difficulty and genuine hardship this man’s long-term disability brought on his loving family. You see, my own pride skewed my view of the world around me and my fellow humans so much that I assumed anybody in my sort of situation with cognitive deficits simply wasn’t working hard enough. It was their own fault. I was better than them.

Years later, it pains me to see those horrible words written out. Who am I to determine whether or not somebody works hard based on their condition? If another disabled person told me I wasn’t working hard enough back then, I would have used some words I’d rather not write for the world to see. Yet this is how I viewed nearly every person with a TBI who wasn’t as “advanced” as I was (which really wasn’t, and still isn’t, all that advanced). The trouble was that I had made myself the standard by which I measured everyone else. As a class act narcissist, this meant that everyone was less than me — disabled or fully able. The Apostle Paul speaks directly to this sort of tomfoolery in Romans 12:3 — 

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

Do you see the contrast there? Inflated view of self OR sound judgment. You can’t have both; they’re opposites. I’ve experienced that dichotomy firsthand. Maybe you have, too. A big head is hard to see around. 

So for my own tenth anniversary of a TBI post, I thought I’d use the same outline (with some minor changes to fit my own story) as the article that revealed my own big-headed narcissism. Here we go. 

Reintegrating Home 

In the early days of the injury I was fond of saying home was wherever Emily happened to be. After all, the only home we had known together as a married couple was an apartment in the Bible school we lived in for the seven months between our wedding and the accident. 

After that, “home” was the ICU in Cleveland, Ohio for a few weeks. Then, “home” was the Sparrow LTACH in Lansing, MI. Our next home was Mary Free Bed rehab hospital in Grand Rapids for eight months (and a week). It was at Mary Free Bed that I first started saying “Home is wherever Emily is.” Our final home away from home was Hope Network in Grand Rapids, a transitional neuro rehab facility where therapy was integrated into most aspects of life. Four months at Hope completed our full year-and-a-half of living in hospitals and facilities. 

From there it was on to… 

Outpatient Therapy 

The first place we lived for more than a year was a wheelchair accessible first floor apartment in East Lansing. From February 28th, 2014 to July 22nd, 2017 we lived happily in a place we didn’t have to share with other people for the first time in our marriage. It was a three-year period that saw our first daughter arrive, marital highs and lows, adapting to life with caregivers in and out of the house, and outpatient therapy at three different facilities. 

Unlike my experience with inpatient rehab, making progress with outpatient therapy required me to take ownership of my own recovery and work on therapy at home as well. Our time in East Lansing was a time of growing up for me (I was only 22 when we moved in) and some hard spiritual lessons. Turns out having a disability didn’t excuse me from being a husband, father and productive member of society. Who knew? 

Getting a Job

One of the big goals of outpatient therapy is community integration, including the workforce. My first two outpatient rehab facilities had vocational therapy, which essentially evaluates the skills and physical abilities of patients to help them find work. 

I quickly grew frustrated with the lack of available options for people like me with no accredited degree and no physical abilities worth paying for. It didn’t take long for me to give up altogether on work. My loving wife had encouraged me since day one of inpatient rehab that therapy was my full time job. While that might have held true at Mary Free Bed, where therapy was 5-6 hours a day and 6 days a week, I began to excuse my lack of productivity at home with the same reasoning. 

So here was my beautiful wife, working full-time as my caregiver and Nyra’s mother, in addition to multiple twelve-hour shifts per month as a nurse at the hospital, and here was I, going to therapy a few days a week for a couple hours each, and spending the rest of my time tooling around on my computer. 

Social media, Youtube, Netflix, pleasure reading on my Kindle app. Though I’d never been one to crave productivity, my bent toward selfish laziness reached a new low in those days. Emily strongly hinted to me more than once that since a “regular” job wasn’t in the cards for me, I might spend my time better by finding ways to get paid to write (the one productive thing I actually could do). After several disheartening dead ends, and realizing that becoming a good writer actually takes (cringe) work, I typed up a desperate blog post asking for help. 

A friend of my wife’s family reached out not long after with an opportunity to write blog posts for his business. That opened the door to the world of freelancing. As the years have progressed, I’ve gained some fun experience and have ended up writing about subjects I would never have predicted. From farm security systems to coconut flavored teeth whiteners, from laser engraving to ozone therapy, freelance writing and editing has taken me all over the place. 

And yet, neither my income nor Emily’s have alone sustained us financially these past ten years. I’m writing this in the fully accessible house in Saint Johns that God miraculously provided for us through the countless donations of money, time, expertise and elbow grease from friends, family, acquaintances and total strangers. Moving to this house in 2017 did not change God’s often surprising financial provision either. 

Friends and Family Relationships 

We would be nowhere without the friends and family God has blessed us with these past ten years. Our parents, siblings and extended families have sacrificially loved us in ways immeasurable since December 26, 2012. I personally have never been as close and open with my parents and siblings as I have been the past ten years. The same goes for my in-laws. I couldn’t have found a better family to marry into. 

As far as friendships go, the accident happened at a unique stage of life for me. I had just gotten married after living in a different state for nearly a year, so some friendships had already begun to naturally die away (as they do for all of us with the passing of time and circumstance). But some stuck. Those have grown stronger, thanks to technology like email, texting and Whatsapp. I can only imagine how different it would have looked twenty years ago. 

I went several years without any deep friendships here in my community — not for lack of opportunity, but because of my own self-pity and excuses. But in 2016 I became involved with a small group of men in our church digging into the Word of God and growing in friendship with each other. Just as that first blog writing opportunity opened the door to a freelancing career, this first group of men opened my eyes to the fact that I was not alone in my confusion, insecurity and desire to lead my family to Christ in a world that doesn’t understand. Since then, God has been faithfully teaching me that even though my situation may look different than others, I’m not the only one going through hard things. And I share a common bond in Jesus Christ with these men. That group in 2016 was the first of many to come. A few of those men and I still share a level of friendship that is uncommon in today’s America. 

Although I’m still not always clear or loud when I speak, it’s encouraging how many people are willing to stop and listen. After ten years, persistence starts to replace insecurity. 

In case you haven’t been able to pick it up from this post or my other posts on our blog, my dear and precious bride has been the human I’ve cared about the most on this road full of steep inclines, declines, switchbacks and unexpected stops. She’s so much more than a beautiful and kind woman in love with her Creator; she is my love and my rock. 

Honorable mention to the three awesome kids she’s brought into the world with me. This little family God created is anything but typical, but I wouldn’t have us any other way. I would die for any member of my little family any day. 

Higher Education 

Here’s another area where my story diverges from that of the man in the article. He was able to return to school and then college, a truly remarkable feat that took an insane amount of hard work and faithful support. I commend him and his family for it. 

Unless you know me well, you probably don’t know that I was planning on going to Moody Bible Institute to get a degree in teaching English as a second language once Emily graduated from New Tribes Bible Institute where we were living. After I got my TESL degree, she and I would go through another year or two of missionary training and move to a closed country to live and die proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Emily already had her nursing degree and was set to graduate from New Tribes in May of 2013. 

But December 26th, 2012 changed all those high hopes and life plans, displaying the truth of Proverbs 16:9

The mind of a person plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.

Since then I’ve been privileged to see two of my own siblings graduate from college, my brother-in-law complete med school and my sister-in-law graduate from two colleges with two different degrees. I’m insanely proud of each of them, and glad I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of an accredited college degree. 

I consider the past ten years to be a much “higher education” than any I could pay for with dollars and cents. 

Ten Years Later 

Emily and I make it a point to go on a date every December 26th to celebrate and remember all the things God has accomplished in and through us with this disability. Every year I am humbled to look back and see the impact God has made on others through us. This year I was simply blown away. After we ate dinner, Emily pulled out a bag chock full of letters, cards and emails from friends, family and others affected by our story. Come to find out she’d put something up on Facebook about doing this for me. This woman never ceases to surprise me. We’re still getting emails and snail mail from that post. 

Thank you all! It truly is amazing to see the magnificent ways God shows His kind strength and wisdom through our weakness and foolishness. 

Many things have changed since that life-altering day ten years ago, and I can only imagine what the next ten years will hold — whether I live them here in this fallen world or in glory with my Savior. All praise to Him! 

Our greatest supporters & prayer warriors the past 10 years

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  1. It is good to hear from you. Our journey with Jeanna has been similar. We wonder about a job for her, but so far she needs help with toileting and transportation, so it does not make sense. She enjoys Compassionate Heart, and Ready for Life Job Skills and I just signed her up for a class on Wednesdays at Noorthoek Academy in GRCC Campus. God has her future all planned, and we are challenged to dependence on Him as we see it unfold piece by piece. God has been so good to us all. Happy New Year! Kelly Schoonbeck

  2. Hi Lane and Emily, I didn’t know you guys before the accident. However, I am so glad that I have come to know you guys. As you said Lane, you don’t have a typical family, and I can agree with that one too. I also know that I don’t always understand everything that you say to me and I try very hard to, but I appreciate your time when we do try to talk. I’m considering myself lucky for having been able to know you guys, and the genuine way you love God. I didn’t grow up in a family that cared much about church, but I am trying to change that with our family. Being able to come to church and see you’re bright faces of welcome is always a beautiful day for me. I look forward to seeing you guys soon.

  3. Thank you for writing this. It challenges me to understand how our God can give and take away. Blessed be His name. Much love then, in-between, and now.

  4. Very encouraging and incredibly beautiful words Lane. Thank you for being a faithful example of leaning into the challenge with faith and perseverance.

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