'How beautiful the brain is': Perham woman and crash survivor, Kellie Smith, reaches out to others like her with new brain injury support group
She awoke to the sound of her 3-year-old daughter screaming in the back seat of the car.
Her head throbbing with pain, she had no idea how long she had been unconscious. The details of what had happened were a blur.
There had been an accident, she knew that much. She could hear sirens in the distance. All she could do was wait and hope.
The next thing Kellie Smith remembers, she and her daughter, Olive, were being loaded into an ambulance. Someone had witnessed the crash and called 9-1-1.
It was Nov. 30, 2015. A day that started out like many others. Kellie was driving Olive to Detroit Mountain on a road they'd traveled plenty of times before. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; life was good.
Then, in an instant, their lives changed. Another vehicle on the road suddenly veered over the center line just as it approached them, hitting their car head-on.
"It all happened so fast," Kellie recalls today. "I just remember seeing the other car coming and knowing that I couldn't really do anything."
She never learned much about the driver of that other car, just that he was an older man who might have had a medical condition. He did not survive the crash.
At first, it seemed like Kellie and Olive were incredibly lucky. It was a miracle they were alive, let alone relatively unscathed. Olive came away from the wreck with nothing more than some bruises, and Kellie was diagnosed with whiplash and a severe concussion.
Kellie and her husband, Jacob, breathed sighs of relief. Olive was going to be fine, and it seemed Kellie's injuries were minor, as well. She was monitored for awhile and then sent home with a doctor's order to watch for anything unusual.
The family went home hoping for the best. But it didn't take long for things to take a turn for the worse.
Within a couple of days, Kellie was back in the hospital, this time with her regular physician at Perham Health, Dr. Vince Pankonin. She was suffering from a terrible headache and couldn't see straight; she was also unable to form sentences, and couldn't understand simple questions that people asked her. Light and noise were intolerable.
"I was just completely out of it," she says. "I had no idea where I was, what I was saying... and I had migraines like I had never experienced."
It was all very new and frightening for Kellie and her family. She had always been a bright, conversational person who had no trouble communicating.
Kellie moved to the Perham area from Colorado in 2005 to work at her family's resort on Eagle Lake. She met her husband here and later opened two of her own businesses, With Love Floral Boutique, in Frazee, and Petals and Roots, in Perham. She and Jacob were planning to buy the family resort, but then the accident happened and Kellie could no longer work. Not only could they not buy the resort, but she had to close her two floral shops, as well.
Kellie is still recovering today. Though she's able to look back on the past year-and-a-half with some clarity, acceptance and a renewed sense of self, the 33-year-old is still learning her limits as a traumatic brain injury survivor.
She struggles with short-term memory loss, mental fatigue, migraines, anxiety and vision issues. She's also had a hard time finding words, speaking complete sentences, and controlling her emotions. She's working very limited hours, and can only drive for about 20 minutes at a time.
"Just going to the grocery store is enough to wipe you out for the whole day," she says.
She's still finding out which parts of her new reality are permanent, and which can be improved or fixed through time and the right treatments. She's about 12 weeks into a 33-week span of testing and rehabilitation to help figure that out.
The whole experience, she says, has been "kind of a wild ride, a wild journey."
An MRI at Perham Health showed that Kellie had some smashed blood vessels on her left frontal lobe. She tried occupational, chiropractic, physical and cognitive therapies, but nothing helped, so she was sent to see a specialist in Fargo, N.D. From there, she was referred to a doctor in Pittsburgh, Penn., one of the top neurologists in the country, whom she's traveled to see once every six weeks for the past year. She's also seen a neuro-ophthalmologist in the Twin Cities for vision therapy, to try and regain normal eye control and sight.
"It's been a long road," she says. "No need to sugar coat it. It's been the hardest year I've ever had."
She credits her family and doctors with helping her get through it. Her husband has been a tremendous source of support, she says, as has Olive, whom she calls her "little cheerleader."
"She's so strong and understanding," Kellie says of Olive. "There were times I was in so much pain I couldn't get out of bed, and she would say, 'This is great! I get to stay in bed and read with you!' She was just so supportive and so patient."
Extended family has also been helpful, and Kellie calls the doctors in Perham "wonderful and super supportive...always pushing me to get the best treatment possible."
Nevertheless, she hit a low point about six months ago, when her recovery plateaued and she got frustrated.
Things "got to a point where it became really difficult for me and my family," she says. "But then I realized it was OK to ask for help. As much as it's important to rehabilitate your eyes or your brain, it's just as important to rehabilitate your mental health."
She reached out to a local therapist, and also met another person in town that she could talk to about her struggles—a fellow traumatic brain injury sufferer. Talking through her story and sharing her journey with others helped her get over that hump.
A new purpose
It was around this time when Kellie began working toward her new passion—the creation of a support group in town for people with traumatic brain injuries.
"I think one of the hardest parts of having a brain injury is that you look totally fine on the outside," she says. "People see you and say things like, 'You look fine, there can't be anything wrong with you,' or 'It can't be that bad.' They mean well, but when you have other people who have been through it, you don't have to explain yourself to feel validated in your journey."
Kellie has started a Traumatic Brain Injury and Concussion Support Group. It will meet the first Tuesday of every month from 6-7 p.m. at Perham Living, starting in April.
The group is open to anyone living with a brain injury, and their loved ones, or even just those who want to learn more about the subject. Participants will talk about their daily struggles, share ideas and tips for improving health, pain and stress management, healing and more. There will often be special guest speakers, such as local doctors and yoga instructors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people who have traumatic brain injuries is larger than most would expect, with about 1.5 million people in the nation newly suffering from such an injury each year. Common causes are car accidents, firearms, falls, tumors, infection and stroke.
"I hope that people can come together and share their stories... that it's raw and vulnerable and supportive," says Kellie of her support group. "I want a group that makes it easier to heal and cope."
In her own words
"I've had times of sadness. Times of worry and times of anger. But not once have I lost the sense of gratitude. I've learned my own strength. I've learned that even in the hardest, most painful of days there is still beauty. I've learned that it is OK to cry. I've learned it's OK to ask for help and accept it. I've learned the steps of grief for my old life and for someone I never knew. I've found out how strong my faith is...
"I have learned how beautiful the brain is and how delicate and intricate it can be, something I will not take for granted. I have learned that mental health is just as important as any other health. But most importantly, I have learned the true meaning of grace and of my own strength.
"This day will be a new anniversary. An anniversary of my strength. A day to remember how precious life is and how great our blessings are. I am a different person. Some things I can't do the way I used to. I may not be able to work or drive or communicate like I used to. But I am a better and stronger person than I ever was."
-Excerpted from a post made by Kellie on the one-year anniversary of her accident, on the website HopeAfterHeadInjury.com