A Traumatic Brain Injury Stole Her Ability to Speak. Now, She’s Back to Teaching and Being a Mom to Her Three Boys

By Jade Waddy

When fourth-grade math teacher Laura Chaffin and her husband, Bryan, decided to start a family, they knew they wanted to adopt. Their journey led them to Uganda, where they adopted their first son in 2014, and then, a year later, they decided to return to adopt their second son. By then, laws had changed, requiring them to live in Uganda for a year before being able to adopt for a second time.

The Chaffins, both teachers, sold their home and cars, and raised money so they could return to Uganda and finalize the adoption process. They lived there for 17 months and ultimately decided to adopt a third son, growing their family of three to a family of five.

Then, six days before the family was set to return to Texas, Chaffin and her youngest son were involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. Chaffin’s son miraculously avoided a scratch, but Chaffin was not as fortunate. In addition to fracturing her skull, she sustained three separate brain bleeds and spent the next two weeks in a hospital in Uganda.

“There are five-and–a-half weeks of my life I don’t remember and many moments that happened during that time,” Chaffin said. “For example, I don’t remember coming home from Uganda, mid-December after my accident, and I don’t remember celebrating Christmas with my family.”

As a result of the accident, Chaffin sustained serious injuries to her back, lost her ability to communicate and her right side suffered from paralysis.

Ready for a challenge

During those five weeks, Chaffin’s husband and mother worked to enroll her into the TIRR Memorial Hermann Challenge Program, which helps brain injury survivors learn how to live with a brain injury and provides a range of services to help maximize their potential.

Dr. Jyoti Pundlik, clinical neuropsychologist with the TIRR Memorial Hermann Challenge Program, assured Chaffin things would come back in time.

“She told me to be excited for everything that does come back,” Chaffin said.

On January 12, Chaffin’s ability to remember moments returned, and several weeks later, she started the Challenge Program.

“By March, I felt that I had progressed to a good place and could blend into a crowd,” Chaffin said. “However, TIRR doesn’t want you to just blend in with the crowd; they wanted me to run, walk and type, and do so much more than blend.”

By early March, Dr. Pundlik’s words became a reality for Chaffin when she noticed the small things she had lost due to the accident were beginning to come back.

For two months, Chaffin participated in the Challenge Program four times a week.

Learning to speak again

“What really stood out to me was my time with my speech pathologist,” Chaffin said. “I could think, but the words couldn’t come out of my mouth. I needed to hear someone say a word and practice it before I could use it in a conversation.”

To regain her ability to speak, Chaffin’s speech pathologist, Veronica Garcia-Lechuga, worked diligently with her on a variety of activities to help with word-finding and short-term memory loss.

“As a result of her accident, Laura experienced anomia, which is when someone struggles with finding the right words due to an injury on the left hemisphere of the brain that affects language,” Garcia-Lechuga said. “A unique part of the Challenge Program is our ability to tailor treatment and incorporate activities that will help the patient achieve their personal goals.”

Since Chaffin was a teacher, her speech therapy incorporated functional activities that were tailored to the goal of getting her back into the classroom. To help with memory loss, Chaffin would receive homework to review teacher certification exams and then take mock tests.

“We also practiced mock lesson sessions as if she was in the classroom working with her students,” Garcia-Lechuga added. “Since she was such a great teacher, she made a great student to work with during this time.”

For her final ‘exam’ at the end of the program, Chaffin presented in front of Challenge Program classmates, a step that restored her confidence to return to her students.

 “Veronica never stopped believing in me and working with me,” Chaffin said. “Every word I’m able to say now, was practiced with her or my family.”

“It wasn’t just the running or the walking that was important to come back. It was the thinking, the writing, and getting the words out of my mouth that I really needed,” she added. “Things are still coming back to me and I know that will continue to happen.”

Today, the family of five gets active together by taking neighborhood walks and runs as part of Chaffin’s ongoing journey to healing.

Five months after she completed the program, Chaffin proudly returned to her students in August to start her ninth year of teaching.

“I’m so excited to be back teaching and for my beautiful experience in the Challenge Program,” Chaffin said.

For more information about the TIRR Memorial Hermann Challenge Program visit:
http://tirr.memorialhermann.org/patient-resources/challenge-program/

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