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Women connected by experiences with traumatic brain injury

Lisa Anderson’s daughter Hannah, right, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident when she was 15. Lisa, left, who lives with her family near Leeds, N.D., serves as a mentor to others in the state dealing with TBI. Special to The Forum

FARGO, ND - Two women living in separate North Dakota cities have made a connection through traumatic brain injury and a peer mentorship program that matches survivors with others who’ve lived it firsthand.

They arrived at this place in different ways — one through a car crash and another through an act of domestic violence.

“I was so isolated,” said 43-year-old Jen Buresh, who asked that her hometown not be published, in part, because of the stigma still associated with her domestic assault.

“I never felt so alone in my entire life,” said Lisa Anderson of Leeds, whose daughter Hannah suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in a car crash as a teenager.

The women found each other through a peer mentor program run by the Head Injury Association of North Dakota based in Bismarck.

They say the program, formally known as Peer/Mentor Support Connection, is just one sign that the state may be starting to improve services for people with traumatic brain injuries.

“We still have a long ways to go,” said Anderson.

Hannah’s story

Anderson has seen peer mentorship from both ends of the spectrum.

She was led through the fog of her daughter’s recovery by another North Dakota mom whose son was injured in the same kind of situation at around the same age.

Anderson’s then-15-year-old daughter Hannah was driving with friends to her grandmother’s house in November 2007 when she pulled onto a highway and was hit broadside by an SUV whose driver was signaling to make a turn but didn’t.

Hannah suffered bleeding all over her brain and shearing in the brain stem, which put her in a coma for nearly two weeks.

With such a devastating injury, the family was told she could end up in a vegetative state.

But Hannah and her family wouldn’t accept that fate.

She learned how to walk and talk all over again.

She gradually improved over time with multiple, intense therapies and, through determination, was able to graduate high school with her class.

“She wanted to do the same things that the rest of her classmates were doing,” said Anderson.

Now 22, Hannah has managed to graduate with an associate’s degree from a two-year bible college and is hoping to someday work one-on-one with children.

But her future is uncertain, as she has many lingering effects of TBI.

“If you looked at her, you would have no idea, said Anderson, “but talk to her for a few minutes and you can tell something is different.”

Hannah’s speech is slower than average, she gets confused and lost easily, and gets headaches almost every day.

Social situations are difficult, as she can’t keep up with multiple conversations, and she has a hard time getting through the day because she gets so exhausted.

Anderson’s wish is that her daughter can eventually live somewhat independently, having an apartment and a part-time job that she enjoys.

“I hope she can live a happy and hope-filled life and find joy each day,” said Anderson.

As a mentor, she works with survivors themselves, as well as the people who care for them, such as parents and spouses.

She currently mentors the wife of a TBI survivor in Devils Lake and TBI survivor Jen Buresh, who has since become a good friend.

Jen’s story

Buresh said she and Anderson both know it was a “God thing” that they were paired up.

“I didn’t have anybody else to turn to,” Buresh said.

Buresh suffered a traumatic brain injury in June 2009 at the hands of her then-husband after they and their young son moved from North Dakota to a small Montana town.

She was living far from immediate family and hadn’t made many friends, so didn’t have a local support system in place.

Buresh doesn’t remember the assault itself, only that she woke up and nothing looked familiar to her, including her son.

“I knew I was somebody but had no awareness of me,” said Buresh.

“It was a really scary place,” she said.

She had slurred speech, triple vision and couldn’t walk or stand very well without assistance, but didn’t get medical care because her husband wouldn’t take her in and she was unable to do so herself.

“He didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me,” Buresh said.

It wasn’t until months later, when she was well enough to make her way back to North Dakota, that she saw a doctor and learned she had suffered a TBI.

The doctor said her injury was the equivalent of being in a car crash.

As a result, Buresh has some permanent memory loss and some of the same limitations as Hannah. She requires more time to accomplish tasks and is careful to give her brain lots of extra down time. But she’s come a long way since her injury.

“The further out I am, the more healed I am,” said Buresh.

Helping hand

Anderson helps Buresh navigate some of the challenges and gives her input on important decisions.

“I don’t have all the answers,” said Anderson. “Sometimes it’s just talking and she’ll come up with her own answers.”

Buresh has two part-time jobs related to the health-care industry, but has been trying since January to find full-time work.

One of the biggest challenges for people with TBI is finding a job but, more importantly, finding an employer that can give them the support and flexibility they need.

“They get distracted. They forget,” said Anderson. “It takes real specialized help for someone with a brain injury to be employed.”

Anderson’s experience with her daughter led to her becoming an advocate and serving on the board for the Head Injury Association of North Dakota. She has testified before lawmakers about what the state can be doing better for TBI survivors. Buresh has told her story to lawmakers as well.

Expanding vocational assistance, along with social and recreational services for people with TBI, are high on the wish list for the Head Injury Association.

According to executive director April Fairfield, it’s important the state broaden the brain injury definition to include acquired brain injury or ABI, which includes aneurysm and stroke.

An interim legislative committee is studying the state of TBI care and may create new legislation to be introduced in the 2015 session.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to beef up where we are as a state and how we take care of people,” Fairfield said.

Right now, North Dakota has about a dozen peer mentors scattered across the state, all trained in listening and coping skills, and dealing with the consequences of brain injury. It’s strictly volunteer work, but all involved would like it to receive state funding.

Buresh wonders where she’d be without Anderson.

“We both have seen the highs and lows in each other’s lives,” said Buresh.

“Nobody wants to be left in a high-and-dry situation when you’ve gone through a traumatic experience,” she said.