Trisha Smith, A Journey Back to JMU


the appointment

Sitting next to James Madison University freshman Trisha Smith in class you might notice her brown, curly hair, her casual style or the way she concentrates on the professor. Smith looks like an average JMU freshman. 

She is not. Smith is trying to concentrate, but it is hard. The potential for reoccurring Arterio-Venous Malformation and seizure activity in her brain engulfs her thoughts. "Every day is a new barrier to overcome," said Smith. 

One Life-Changing Day 
The fall 2009 semester was coming to an end as Smith prepared for the upcoming week of finals. Smith found it difficult to stay focused and concentrate on her work. Blurry vision, slurred speech and loss of feeling on the left side of her body ensued, a combination of symptoms Smith never recalled experiencing before. 

Based on her roommate's intense concern, Smith was rushed to the hospital where she was quickly diagnosed with a brain AVM, a tangle of abnormal arteries and veins that had burst and were bleeding in her brain. Little did she know then it would take almost a year of intense physical and mental hard work to return to JMU. 

According to the American Academy of Neurology's website, brain AVMs affect about 0.1 percent of the population, and are present at birth. They occur roughly equally in men and women. People typically begin to feel symptoms between the ages of 10 and 30. Smith was 18. She knows the facts: 50 percent of people who have a brain AVM bleed do not survive. The survivors almost always have some form of disability. 

After two weeks in various hospitals in Virginia, Smith relocated to Germany, where her parents reside. Smith was admitted into a rehabilitation center to recover from the aftermath of the AVM bleed: stroke-like symptoms, residual blood swelling in the brain, poor visual perception and the loss of coordination. 

�For a while, I couldn't shower or use the bathroom by myself. I was in a wheelchair because of poor stability with a helmet strapped to my head for protection,� said Smith. �I had to constantly be watched, even by my 11-year-old brother and sometimes he would talk to me as if I were his little sister.� 

The rapid occurrence of events that fateful day in December left Smith with emotional issues to overcome as well. Confused and frustrated, the thought of �Why me?� constantly echoed in her mind. �I felt like I was living my last day with each day that passed because everything was happening so fast,� said Smith. 

Office of Disability Services 
Although not 100 percent back to her pre-AVM self, Smith was ready to return to JMU in the fall of 2010 to repeat her first semester. Smith takes multiple medications, suffers short-term memory loss, has vision problems that impede her ability to obtain a driver�s license and fights depression. 

Recognizing that she could not succeed on her own, Smith sought help from various rehabilitative services and departments to ease back into school. Vision and class accommodations, note-taking assistance, stress-management training and learning-style assessments provided by JMU's Office of Disability Services have helped Smith rebound academically. 

"ODS is dedicated to working with students and providing support as they pursue their goals and realize their dreams," said ODS Director Valerie Schoolcraft. "We can be pro-active in removing barriers, reducing stigma and creating more accessible and welcoming environments together." 

�The Office of Disability Services is a welcoming group of supportive people. They are always there to talk and have been so helpful to me during my recovery process,� said Smith. 

"With Trisha, as with all students who connect with ODS, our role is to listen, encourage and work with her to identify connections and services that have the potential to increase her access to JMU and reduce some of the burdens or barriers she might experience as a person with a disability," said Schoolcraft. 

Video as Therapy 
On the road to recovery, Smith's counselor recommended creating video documentaries. With five videos already completed, Smith continues to share her story with others in hopes of spreading awareness and celebrating her second chance at life. �Things happen in our lives that we have no control over,� said Smith. �The only thing you can do is take control of yourself.� 

Smith�s latest video, "The Appointment," received distinguished recognition at the American Academy of Neurology�s annual film festival, was featured in a newsletter on and was posted on the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services website as a video spotlight. 

A screening of the video and panel discussion took place during Disability Awareness Week, sponsored by ODS. The panel featured Smith, case managers Michelle Huey, Darlene Cooper and Karen Stevens from various rehabilitative services, neuropsychologist Audie Gaddis, Ph.D. and Cara Meixner, JMU assistant graduate psychology professor. 

"I was glad that ODS gave me the opportunity to have this event, to share my story and to spread awareness of both disabilities and brain injury," said Smith. "I definitely think it was something students and falculty needed to hear." 

Setting New Goals 
When asked about her decision to return to JMU, Smith said, �I really couldn�t see myself doing anything else. I envisioned something bigger for myself and knew I had to come back to accomplish my goals.� 

"Trish is incredibly self-determined and a positive self-advocate," said Schoolcraft. "I admire and respect her passion to press on, to share her story in her own voice, in her own way, in the hope that we can all understand and support one another better." 

Smith has not let her medical condition cloud her goals and dreams as a JMU student. A law enforcement major turned psychology major, Smith has made it a personal goal to help others who are struggling. �I want to provide others with the kind of support I have received,� said Smith. �I want to help people the way others have helped me.� 

To see Trisha Smith's video: 

For more information: 
Office of Disability Services 
Disability Awareness Week 
American Academy of Neurology 

By Lisl Magboo ('12) and Paula Polglase, JMU Public Affairs 

Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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