Green Country Grown-Up: Kim Tonquest
Raising Awareness of Traumatic Brain Injury
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. According to the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA), the 2020 campaign theme, “Change Your Mind,” raises awareness about brain injury and focuses on the people and caregivers affected. So, what is a brain injury? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or a penetrating head injury.
To help raise awareness about TBI, we visited with Kim Tonquest, mother of two, and her son, Blake. They were open and honest in sharing how one fall on the Oklahoma ice changed their lives forever.
TK: Tell us about yourself:
Kim: I am a single mother of two boys. My oldest is a freshman in college and my youngest is a sophomore in high school. Prior to my accident, I was full steam ahead, working full-time in the medical field and volunteering at my kid’s school.
TK: What happened that changed all that?
Kim: I have to piece the story together from what my kids witnessed. Five years ago this month, I went outside to check the icy roads and slipped on the ice. When I fell, I hit my head and was knocked unconscious – it is estimated that time was about 20 – 30 minutes. When I came to, I was still outside, but I got up and walked into the house. I noticed I was bleeding from my mouth and my tooth was broken. I instantly knew I couldn’t drive because I was so disoriented. So I called my mom and asked her to take Sean to school and me to the ER. At the time of the accident, Blake was 14 and Sean was 11.
TK: When were you diagnosed with a TBI?
Kim: Shortly after the fall, I went to the emergency room and they performed a CT scan on my brain. The scan did not show any signs of injury, so I was released and told that I could go back to work in two weeks. Although I didn’t feel right, I returned to my demanding job and it was quickly apparent that things weren’t right. I suffered from a constant headache and had problems concentrating. Just a few weeks later, I was at my house and fell again. My older son witnessed the fall and called 9-1-1. I had stopped breathing and he had to perform CPR until the paramedics arrived. I was taken to the hospital and more brain scans were ordered. They could see some abnormalities and ordered more tests. It was discovered that I was having multiple seizures. However, it still took months for a TBI diagnosis.
TK: What symptoms do you experience as a result of the TBI and how do you manage them?
Kim: I experience severe headaches and seizures along with sensitivity to lights and noise. I’ve lost all my depth perception and have a difficult time walking. I sometimes have a difficult time coming up with the right words in conversations. I have learned to wear dark glasses to combat florescent or bright light. Before the accident, I never wore hats, now I wear them all the time; it helps the pressure in my head and protects my eyes. I wear earplugs to help with noise sensitivity. I also experience mental fatigue from overstimulation. I have learned to pace myself and organize my time. I space out my meetings or appointments and include adequate downtime to recover.
TK: How has the TBI affected your everyday life?
Kim: In addition to the things already mentioned, I can only remember about a month-and-a-half to two months of the past. If I haven’t seen someone or talked about something during that time, my brain reverts back to before my accident. So, I have to make it a point to see my loved ones at least once a month to keep a recent connection.
TK: With your memory being so short, how do you remember what happened two years ago?
Kim: Technology has been a blessing for me. I consistently try to post photos on Instagram or Facebook so I can look back at them. I also keep a written journal that I can reference. I can read passages, although it won’t jog the memory, I can relate to the post and know that it happened. The journal or photos provide proof of the memory.
TK: Have your priorities changed since the accident? If so, how?
Kim: Yes, without a doubt. My kids are my priority. Before the accident, I was always on the go and didn’t prioritize quality time with my kids. Now, my focus is solely on my kids. I am present for them on a daily basis. My kids have grown a lot since the accident – it has made them more compassionate and understanding.
Kim’s son Blake was present during the interview and answered the following questions:
TK: Blake, how has your mom changed following her accident?
Blake: She is a better mom. She cares a lot more about Sean and I. She is a lot more involved in our lives. The only downside for me is that she doesn’t have a filter and says what comes to mind. If she is upset about something, we hear about it – and if she’s happy about something – we hear about that, too.
TK: Blake, in a way, you are a caregiver for your mom. How do you and your brother help take care of her?
Blake: We both watch out for her and do what we can to help. For example, like today, I am here in case she needs help with an explanation or finding the right words. In a way, we are her guides. Around the house, we prepare meals (usually dinner) and have basic chores. Once I got my license, I have been able to drive her places.
TK: Has it been a difficult adjustment?
Blake: It has been an adjustment, not difficult, just different. When it first happened, I was dating a girl whose mother was dealing with a harsh illness and she was also in a caregiver role. I talked with her about it a lot, and she helped me navigate through the beginning.
TK: What is your current treatment plan?
Kim: In my situation, there is no full recovery from my TBI. The most recovery occurs during the first year or two following the injury. After that amount of time, the recovery starts to slow down exponentially. Regardless, you will never be the same as you were before the injury. It forever changes you. The brain is constantly “on” – even when someone sleeps, it is communicating with the body. There is no time for rest. I have learned how to function and now see a behavioral therapist, someone who specializes in TBI, who understands what I’m going through and helps me navigate through my feelings. I work with an excellent team of doctors who help me with my medications and keep me up-to-date with the latest treatment options.
TK: What is the one thing you wished everyone knew about someone affected with a TBI?
Kim: Having an invisible injury is hard. In many ways, I am still the same person that I was – I look the same and have the same vocabulary, however, I have to work hard to take in information. It is mentally and physically exhausting.
TK: What’s next for you?
Kim: There is no way to fully recover from a TBI. Many with this diagnosis experience depression knowing that their life is forever changed and will never be the same. I feel lucky that I have learned how to manage my life, creating a new “normal.” It would be easy to mourn my former life, and I do, but I also know it’s important to look ahead. I am happy that I got to share my story because this injury is very isolating. If you are suffering from a TBI, just know that you’re not alone. If I can encourage just one person going through this by sharing my story or help one person better understand what a friend or family member is experiencing, it was worth it.