By Laura Southers
Staff Writer

 

It was early morning.  I was en route to Neskowin for an employee meeting at work, 42 miles from my home in Tillamook.

The last thing I remember is cursing myself for taking too long picking out doughnuts for the staff. The next thing I remember is having my favorite cousin, from Kansas City, wheel me into a hospital room.

I had veered into the wrong lane of traffic, I slammed into a Ford Bronco on a blind curve. My 1986 Toyota Camry was totaled.

Luckily the driver of the Bronco only spent one night in the hospital. Firefighters, who had three other calls that morning, hypothesized that a truck carrying silage slopped some onto Highway 101. Silage is slick as black ice.

Brain injury survivor Laura Southers in the hospital, with a tube attached to her throat. She is looking directly at the camera.

Laura Southers in hospital, photo provided by Laura Southers.

Being back at school at Clackamas with a traumatic brain injury that I have struggled with for 20 years has not been easy, but it has been rewarding and among one of my proudest moments.

I awoke from a three month, 28-day coma. When asked how long I was in a coma, I typically respond, “JUST four months.” Yes, I did mean “JUST,” because it very well could have been four years!

After graduating from Reed, much to my parent’s chagrin, I did not want “a real job.”  I simply wanted to continue waitressing and save up for my third trek across Europe.  My passion at the time was developing my own black-and-white photographs, mostly of the 22 foreign lands through which I had traveled.

Thank goodness the accident occurred after I had already received my diploma from Reed College. There is no way I could accomplish 200+ pages of reading per day now.

I was an English Literature major, and after college, I used to read voraciously.

It was an occupational therapist, Sonja Black, who discovered why I now did crossword puzzles continuously. I assumed it was to prove that although it took 45 stitches and staples to close my head wound, none of my brains had fallen out.

She explained it was because my eyes had lost their ability to track. After a year of weekly vision therapy appointments, and daily homework, I can now read. However, it is much easier if I use a bookmark to isolate one line of text.

I cannot choose my proudest moment.  It was either walking across the lawn to receive my Bachelor of Arts at Reed College in 2000. Or it may have been graduating from wearing a diaper in 2003.

Brain injury survivor Laura Southers at her graduation, with a blonde woman standing beside her. She smiles brightly at the camera, proud of her achievement.

Laura Southers graduating college, photo provided by Laura Southers

Thank goodness I had listened to my parents’ advice after graduating from college and getting kicked off my father’s insurance. I had enrolled in a major-medical health insurance policy.

I had only paid this company 9 months of premiums, but they covered everything. My ambulance ride to life-flight, to three weeks in the intensive care unit, and three weeks in the trauma unit. Finally, they covered two and a half months in a nursing home, all while trapped in a coma.

Having slept for four months, all my muscles, from my eyeballs to my vocal chords, forgot how to act. After much speech therapy in the nursing home re-teaching me how to swallow, I moved from tube feeding to a solid food diet.

My first meal was pureed white fish and green beans. While everyone else in my room was gagging, I was scarfing it down. Real food was a blessing.

My most startling doctor’s appointment was with my sleep specialist (a neurologist) who said, “Laura, with your amount of brain damage, you will most likely ALWAYS have sleep issues.” Imagine, someone who wasted four months of her precious life sleeping, would now have clinical insomnia.

I now celebrate both my birthday, and my “re-birthday,” or anniversary of my car accident. I deeply regret making my parents raise their daughter again from virtual infanthood. They had to shop around for a nursing home for their 26-year-old daughter. They remind me that the only thing worse would have been if I had died.

Back in school, I must print out everything assigned online. I am only on my second printer now. God bless tax write-offs.

A brain injury really is invisible as it affects invisible signs such as eyesight and sleep schedules. The most telling sign of my disability is my dysarthric speech. I am quick to explain, “this says nothing about my intellect. It is simply a motor problem.”

When the pandemic ended my fourteen-year prep cook job at McMenamins, I decided it was time to move out of the kitchen. I was expected to finish my certificate in “Entry-Level Journalism” in December, but I just dropped a course. I mistakenly thought I could handle three classes, but it turns out two per term is my maximum if I am going to maintain my position on the honor roll.

The first staff member I met at CCC was Beth Wicklund, my College Navigator. She was excited and encouraging about my return to school which rubbed off on me. Every other staff member I have met has acted in the same manner.

I am not shy talking about my TBI. I would share my email address, but screen time is exhausting.

Should you ever meet me, I am an open book about this transformation I have undergone. I am proud to wear the label “survivor.”

I cannot wait to walk up to the emergency room doctor who said to my roomful of family and friends, “I have never seen someone with Laura’s amount of brain injury, either walk or talk again.” I cannot wait to show him how much rehabilitation can be achieved and thrown in the face of doubters.

Laura Southers

9 Comments

  1. Kathy Venti on May 28, 2024 at 6:20 pm

    I’m sorry about your accident! I was interested to hear about your story and all the trials you have been going through! You are strong and determined and such a wonderful inspiration to many folks who might have challenges in their lives. I hope you will continue to heal and to write and to inspire. May God Bless you in all that you do! Keep up the hard work! 🥰Kathy and Mario🥰

  2. Brenda Dumler on May 28, 2024 at 7:09 pm

    Thank you for this article, Laura. I had heard very little of your story! Your writing is beautiful. So happy that you are having success there. Honor Roll! Fantastic!

  3. Brian Jones on May 28, 2024 at 8:07 pm

    A candid, frank story of resilience and recovery. Great piece, Laura!

  4. Bryan on May 29, 2024 at 12:30 pm

    Great article, thank you for sharing Laura! It is truly an incredible story and only getting better!

  5. Angie on May 29, 2024 at 1:02 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story Laura. More need to hear about the successes after suffering a TBI.

  6. Mara Gelski Dunn on June 2, 2024 at 5:12 am

    Laura – I was shocked, saddened, & absolutely amazed after reading this. You still have the determination of that little girl who lived down the street from me in Salisbury. I think of you every Christmas when I pull out an ornament you had given me before you guys moved. Now each Christmas, I will think of all the strength and courage you have.

  7. Bob Mennonna on June 2, 2024 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Lara,
    A terrific story about overcoming tragedy! You are an amazing example of someone who is not about giving up, but rather pushing ahead and accomplishing so much more than people expected. Congrats to you and your supportive family.
    Your Moreland Presbyterian Church friend and greeter,
    Bob

  8. Patty Adams on June 2, 2024 at 12:17 pm

    After knowing you (Laura) for the past several years, I would never have guessed your whole story. Thank you for sharing and writing so beautifully. I am an advocate and an admirer of you and all that you’ve accomplished. Congratulations and continue on your journey.

  9. Marilyn von Foerster on June 5, 2024 at 5:05 pm

    You are an inspiration! and a great writer too! I am honored to have shared some of your journey with you.

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