By Ian Hebeisen
20 years ago, Mike Lang returned home to find his house empty – not unusual, since he knew his wife Kelly and their two daughters were at a ballet rehearsal. Upon checking the answering machine, however, Mike learned that they never made it to their destination. “The message was from our friend Kristen,” said Mike. “She says that my girls were in a car accident. I was expecting that she would say, ‘everyone’s okay’. But she never said that.”
While Kelly drove their daughters Olivia (3) and Hannah (5) to rehearsal, a car struck them from behind. The cars linked together, crossing three lanes of traffic and hitting two other vehicles before crashing into the guardrail. “The next memory I have is all auditory,” said Kelly. “I have no visual memory.”
“I soon realized there was something wrong with Olivia, who was sitting directly behind me,” said Kelly. All three of them got shipped to the local hospital. Upon waking up in the ER, Hannah found out that the hospital lacked a unit for pediatric trauma, and Olivia needed to be transferred. In her fuzzy state, Kelly provided a friend’s phone number, allowing the hospital to contact Mike through them.
“We both entered the pediatric intensive care unit at pretty much the same time,” said Kelly. They found their daughter in a coma, later learning that she had to be resuscitated at the site of the accident. “Everything moved in slow motion,” recalled Mike. “I felt a little bit of relief to see that she was breathing. But then I realized that wasn’t her, that was the respirator doing all the work.”
After about a week, the hospital removed the respirator and began to slowly wean Olivia off of the calming medication. She became agitated at times during this process – a commonality among victims of brain injury. Doctors feared Olivia would start pulling out tubes if they agitated her too much.
Olivia came to ten days after the accident. She started inpatient rehab, and recovered remarkably fast – treatment expected to take six to nine months lasted only two weeks. “We really pushed the facility because we wanted her home,” said Kelly.
Kelly found getting information on her own condition challenging. “I was told I had a CT scan. They said ‘you’ll probably need physical therapy eventually’. One of the social workers in the hospital accused me of being in shock,” said Kelly. “My injury wasn’t fully diagnosed until practically two months after. I was really lucky because my primary care doctor referred me immediately toward neuropsychologists for testing.”
Thus began the traumatic brain injury journey of mother and daughter. They focused their energy on ensuring success for their daughter. “A three-year-old obviously is not going to be able to advocate for herself,” said Mike. “That really energized us to make sure that she was getting all the speech therapy, all the occupational therapy, all the physical therapy.”
The next great challenge Olivia faced was starting school. Since she never experienced behavioral issues, some teachers overlooked her needs, thinking she didn’t need extra attention. “I would meet with the teachers every year before school started and explained what to expect,” said Kelly. “Almost every year, they came back to me afterwards and said I was spot on.”
Kids bullied Olivia for her struggles to keep up with conversations. She would be pulled from class to earn extra help with reading and math, but in time, she started to fight the attention. After much back and forth between Mike and Kelly, the parents told their daughter about her brain injury for the first time around age 10. “That was a devastating conversation for all three of us,” said Kelly.
In the years since then, Olivia and Kelly have found ways to live with their brain injuries. Olivia took up music therapy, and both became involved in advocacy groups to raise awareness and bring aid to other TBI survivors. Now, Kelly serves on the advisory council of both the Brain Injury Association of America and the Virginia Brain Injury Advisory Council.
Together, Kelly and Mike co-authored the book The Miracle Child: Traumatic Brain Injury and Me, released on August 15th. “Raising awareness is huge,” said Mike. “There is no textbook out there that is going to definitively describe the symptoms, the characteristics of a person afflicted with a brain injury. Everyone is going to be treated differently.” Recounting their experiences as caretakers and survivors, the book can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and independent bookstores.
To learn more about Kelly, Mike, and their book, visit www.themiraclechild.org. To listen to the whole conversation, check out the Faces of TBI podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts.
Ian Hebeisen is a writer based in the Twin Cities. Graduating in 2020 with a degree in Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian spends his time writing for The Brain Health Magazine and working with the Boys Girls Club. He also writes comics, zines, short stories, and poetry. He lives with his partner and two cats, and enjoys playing board games and reading.