One afternoon after work in 1997, Ken Hennessey was motorcycling near Los Angeles, California. Traffic suddenly stopped ahead and he couldn’t brake fast enough to avoid hitting a pickup truck. He experienced a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).
About 1.5 million Americans this year will experience a TBI, which are caused by externally inflicted trauma, such as vehicle accidents, falls, contact sports, or violence. Of the total, about 80,000 will have substantial, long-term functioning losses. TBI is the leading cause of long-term disability in children and young adults.
“I was in a coma for three days,” said 57-year-old Hennessey of his accident, in a telephone interview. “Fortunately an empty ambulance had been only three cars behind the accident scene. They quickly took me to the hospital off the next exit.”
He eventually started rehabilitation, and over a three-month period went from using a wheelchair to a walker, then to a cane. Today, ten years later, he has slurred speech, short-term memory loss, and ataxia, which is an inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movements. He falls down about once a week.
Hennessey said, “But my major problem is forgetfulness, which has worsened over the years. I often will forget something just ten minutes after it happened. My long-term memory is fine, though.”
Before his accident, he was a printing press operator. Afterwards, he couldn’t hold employment. He lost his last job when his productivity fell below company standards. His balance, speech, and typing abilities have been deteriorating. Before the accident, he could type 72 words a minute. Two years after the accident he could type 30, and today, only 15.
Because of his slurred speech, “I’ve been told by different people that I’m retarded,” he said. “They weren’t trying to be mean; they just couldn’t think of a better word. My speech is getting worse and worse. The people that used to be able to understand me can’t now. I have to repeat myself more often. Even my wife has difficulty understanding me.”
It has been hard for him to see how his condition affects his wife. She does a lot of extra work caring for him. “And I don’t think she is ready yet for what lies ahead,” he said. “There will come a time when I’ll need a professional caregiver. So far I’m able to cope.”