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 Montpelier Magazine

Inner strength

Alumna survivor shares life-altering accident with future therapists

"ON TV, COMA PATIONS wake up and everything is back to normal. It's not like that in real life," says coma and brain injury survivor Barbie York ('82). In January, the former JMU music management major shared her experiences with Occupational Therapy students in professor Jeffrey Loveland's class. Her speech is slightly slurred, and her head shakes slightly, but her determination is palpable.

On Dec.16, 1991, she says, "one second changed everything." The 31-year-old ran head-on into a truck while re-turning from the store to her Idylwild, Calif., home. The driver of the truck, who suffered only a few scratches, called 911. Rescue workers called for a helicopter to transport her to Riverside General Hospital's trauma center. 

York spent six weeks at Riverside in a coma, attached to a respirator and feeding tube, and six months more at Loma Linda Rehabilitation Center. In June 1992, she began slowly to regain consciousness, but did not talk until six weeks after waking up. "I suffered from aphasia, a disrupted way of speaking," explains York. "I spoke in broken Spanish and talked about dinosaurs. I knew what I was trying to say, but no one else did."

Physical, speech and occupational therapists helped her relearn all the things that she had known before her brain trauma, and when she left that same year for Winsway Transitional Rehabilitation Center, she could eat, talk and walk with a cane. "There," she says, "I learned how to live again."

Before the accident, she had worked at an entertainment law firm. She says, "My once excellent memory isn't good anymore. … The one thing that I remember about the time leading up to the accident is having dinner with the owner of the house that we were renting. We had red chili enchiladas. It's funny that that's all I remember."

In October 1992, York moved back home with her husband, which she says was "exciting at first, but then I realized how dependent I was on everyone for what I could and could not do. I was shuffled around between friends and relatives. I felt trapped." York suffered from adynamia, as a result of the brain trauma, which made her "not want to do anything, I lost all motiva-

tion. During that time, I basically stayed in my own world … I didn't socialize. I had no interest in anything and I gained 50 pounds."

After seven years, when York realized that her relationship with her husband wasn't working, she moved to Charlottesville. "This was a turning point in my life," she says. In 1998, with the help and support of family in Charlottes-ville, she began to rebuild her life. Another turning point was reading Claudia Osborn's Over my Head, an autobiography of a doctor suffering brain trauma. "It changed my life," says York. "She inspired me to work on my own recovery."

York began attending the John Jane Brain Injury Center in Charlottesville, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maximizing independence for brain injury survivors. There she attended her first support group and met Tony Gentry, an occupational therapist in the brain injury unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center. "Until I met Tony, I never knew recovering from brain trauma was possible."

Gentry, who also addressed the class, credits York with helping him to improve, as well. "She's shown me how to do my job. Occupational therapy is not just about helping people type, it's about teaching them how to live."

  York has lost the weight, has lots of energy and says, "When I wake up, I feel great about myself." She works at Jane's Attic, a used bookstore that employs people with brain injuries, and at a dog food company, where she bakes Sami Snacks. She practices her computer skills daily in hopes of landing a clerical job. York has made 16 other presentations to occupational therapy students, brain injury support groups and participants in the fourth World Congress on Brain Injury in Turin, Italy. She took a public speaking course to prepare for the conference and is constantly working to improve herself. "I take one thing that I can tell that I'm doing wrong, and I concentrate on it," she says. "By speaking to classes like this, I help people understand that I refuse to be considered helpless."

Learn more about Barbie York's experiences online at www.jmu.edu/montpelier/.

- Allison Mall ('04)