By Ed Roth
Letitia Frye will be the first to tell you she doesn’t sugar coat anything. But she did try to hide a few things, namely the ocular and physical limitations her brain injury caused her at work and home.
West Coast-born, East-Coast raised, Letitia doesn’t have a 9-5 desk job or a typical life. Her professional life involves jetting around the country, working for celebrities, foundations, and some of the biggest nonprofits. She even caused an international stir in 2018 when she locked lips with actor Johnny Depp in an Instagram photo. However, hiding her fatigue and severe changes in vision, including seeing entire crowds upside down, became a new full time job. Turns out no matter how impressive your gift of gab, you can’t talk your way out of the symptoms of a brain injury.
As an actress, model, and auctioneer, Letitia Frye was used to putting on a public persona. She knew how to look the part she played and convince others she was the real deal. Unabashedly proud of her Type A personality, she felt confident about overcoming any obstacle through hard work, determination, and chutzpah.
However, behind the scenes, her life was anything but rainbows and unicorns. Her wealthy husband battled addiction issues for years, and when they eventually divorced, she found herself a single 37-year-old mother of two with deep financial problems.
So, Letitia did what she does best – she fought back. Six years later, she hit the top of her auctioneer game; Alice Cooper called her America’s Auctiontainer ™. Her single-mindedness led to specializing in fundraising for nonprofit organizations. She was riding high, making a difference in other people’s lives, and raising two terrific kids.
That all changed on Thanksgiving morning, 2014.
An avid runner, she went out for a quick 3-mile jog near her home in North Scottsdale before boarding a flight to California with her kids. As she stepped into a crosswalk, two cars came barreling toward her at about 60 MPH. Coming from the other direction was a young driver who briefly looked down, then up to avoid the other cars. In the blink of an eye and the quick swerve of a steering wheel, the driver hit Letitia and sent her flying.
While on the ground and semi-conscious, she saw and heard bits and pieces of everything around her. A split second of being upside down on the windshield looking at the driver. A random high-pitched noise. A screaming woman with her dog. Her shoes on the ground.
She sat up and apologized to the young man driving the car that hit her, then felt a gelatin-type substance oozing from the back of her head. A moment later, she passed out.
In what she can only describe as a near-death experience, the grown woman living in Arizona transformed into a four-year-old girl on a family farm in Pennsylvania on a beautiful summer day, her once-favorite childhood summer escape. The bright light filled with love beckoned, but the sounds of people and trucks called for her to return. In a flash, “like being pushed back into a birthing canal,” she returned to Earth against her wishes. Now, the only sound was a muffled Charlie Brown’s teacher-like “wah wah wah.”
At the hospital, she recalled a seven-foot-tall EMT imploring her to stay conscious and remember three things: Brian, green ball, 15. He said he would return later and she needed to remember those three things. Using her technique to remember details on stage, she recalled how at age 15, she dated a boy named Brian and attended Greens Farms Academy…. Brian, green ball, 15. She would never forget.
Letitia suffered a blow to the cerebellum, didn’t realize the doctors needed to shave the back of her head to staple the wound. Anesthesia couldn’t be used; instead, they gave her a towel to bite. In her mind, she kept thinking: Brian, green ball, 15. This kept her from drifting away. The EMT did return later when everyone left. All alone in the room with him, he asked her to repeat the three things. Letitia said, “Brain, green ball, 15.” The EMT smiled and said, “You are going to be just fine,” then left.
She left for her jog without her phone or ID and therefore had been found as a Jane Doe. Although her family eventually found out and came to her side in the hospital, she felt frustrated, cut off from her family, and worried about her children she left home, so she checked out after 15 hours against medical advice. She was completely unaware of just how much support she would need in the coming weeks.
In shock, heavily medicated, and still reeling from the head injury, Letitia believed all was well, even calling the hospital to thank the enormously tall EMT for being so supportive. They told her no EMT there matched her description, leaving Letitia wondering if he was even real or just in her mind. To this day, she believes her subconscious survival skills saved her life.
Letitia continued to play the brave survivor, with mixed results. Although she holds no memory of it, she returned to the stage eight days later, with staples still holding her shaved head together. Her hairdresser created a strategic combover with some well-placed taped extensions, and several days later shared a concert stage with Alice Cooper. She continued at this pace, performing in her trademark high fashion dresses and 4-inch heels, determined not to let any competition move into her space.
At home it was a different story – she would walk into walls as she struggled to see and hear, due to the loss of sight in her right eye and tinnitus.
While she admits a total disregard for her health, Letitia was hell-bent on keeping her business afloat. She built it from the ground up after breaking the glass ceiling in the male-dominated auctioneering profession. Desperate to hang on to the life she built, she feared losing her two young children: trudging through parental duties like school drop-offs had been second nature before the accident.
However, she was failing to provide her body the time it needed to heal. A few months later at a Super Bowl event, she suffered a seizure on stage and knew some things had to change. “It turns out leaving the hospital with my head shaved was the easy part of this journey,” Letitia would reflect.
Over the next seven years, Letitia worked to address the symptoms of brain injury that she could and accept the quirks from the brain injury that she couldn’t. Her brain injury awakened her from her all-too-typical life, whether she liked it or not. Fighting to move forward, Letitia focused on the things that mattered, like her family, and continued to heal by setting small goals, such as tolerating fluorescent lights to make it through her son’s eye doctor appointment.
Meanwhile, she battled extreme vertigo, which fooled her brain into thinking audiences were upside down while faces and carpets melted. Some of her post-brain injury symptoms gave her a newfound empathy. “Whenever I raise money for a nonprofit, I always make sure that I understand their programs,” Letitia said. “I work for many programs that serve veterans. Until I had my brain injury, I never understood why those with brain injury and PTSD found something like a trip to Walmart almost impossible. Then I had a brain injury and began to understand sensory overload on a whole new level.”
The hospital discharged Letitia without any referral for community support to her local Brain Injury Alliance or Brain Injury Association. Searching on her own, she found an ocular therapist who concluded her eyes weren’t tracking with her brain.
To combat this two-second disconnect and her growing depression, she was fitted with prism lenses and began undergoing brain mapping. As a result, she reconfigured her approach to life, and became more patient with herself; not an easy task for someone so focused on achievement.
Letitia learned the importance of understanding the root cause and not just the symptoms. She also became familiar with something all too common in the brain injury community. Because she “looked just fine,” her laundry list of post-brain injury ailments often went dismissed by medical professionals.
Years after her recovery, Letitia became acquainted with the Arizona chapter of the Brain Injury Alliance when her good friend asked her to help with an auction for the gala supporting outreach and services in the brain injury community. The news that such an organization existed stunned Letitia. While getting familiar with the programs and resources of the Brain Injury Alliance, she was invited to join the virtual women’s brain injury survivor support group, She Shed.
“Seeing the support that exists took me back to the early days of my recovery. I saw myself in those women who were fighting so hard,” Letitia said. “I wish I had known that things like this were here. We really need to do more to bring awareness to these community-level programs that are a cornerstone for recovery.”
Brain Health Magazine Editorial Board Member Carrie Collins-Fadell feels strongly that we are at a tipping point when it comes to the discussion on brain injury, emphasizing the need to encourage, celebrate, and elevate recovery stories like Letitia’s. “This woman’s experience spotlights so many things that are misunderstood or hidden about brain injury.
“One is the fear of losing your entire life, including your career and family. Another is that recovery is a journey and not usually wrapped in a bow and completed within a few weeks. Finally, there’s the ping-pong nightmare many survivors who ‘look just fine’ can experience as they bump around looking for treatments and try to explain vast and evolving symptomology to professionals.”
As for Letitia, “The last three years, I have gained the awareness that my brain injury woke me up. I will no longer be asleep in my life.”
Ed Roth is a Scottsdale based media consultant, branding expert, and writer.