At age 16, Ellen Gerlich seemed to have it all with a bright future before her. She was a popular high school senior, accepted at several colleges and listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. Then on New Year’s Eve of 1979, she took a fateful ride with a young man who was an underage drunk driver and her life was changed in an instant.
Ellen was the victim of a terrible car accident that left her in a coma for six weeks as a result of a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). The intensity of the crash also caused permanent blindness of her left eye, impaired sense of smell, temporary paralysis of her right side and extreme internal injuries. Ironically, the drunken teenage driver who caused the accident suffered only minor injuries and walked away from the crash.
After a six month hospital stay, Ellen came home to her family in Westchester County, New York. Thirty two years ago, many of the state-of-the-art technologies available to patients with TBI were not available to assist Ellen with her new deficits leaving her unable to do many activities of daily living that most of us take for granted. Throughout the years, Ellen was able to make some progress and over time regained the use of her right side and was able to stand and walk again.
It was her younger sister Barbara who was interested and passionate about finding a new course of rehabilitative treatment for Ellen. Barbara, who is Ellen’s legal guardian and co- care giver along with their mother, felt that getting her sister into an advanced and individualized rehabilitation program such as those offered at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospitals of New Jersey would offer Ellen a chance at continued recovery and growth. Barbara believed that Ellen’s ability to communicate and perform independently in her daily life could be improved – even 32 years after her traumatic brain injury.
As a result of the collaborative efforts between case management and the speech department, Ellen has been receiving one-on-one out-patient speech therapy at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Tinton Falls since April of 2011. She has made significant progress with her speech therapist Lara Alfone and intern Sharon Ignoscia. Ellen has received physical therapy and is also undergoing visual rehab therapy.“I really think they are helping me. I feel like a real person – I matter!’ Ellen remarked.
Ellen has made significant gains during her course of treatment at HealthSouth due to the innovative team approach and advances in rehabilitative technologies. Research showing that the brain can continue to learn for years following an injury. A comprehensive therapeutic treatment plan was developed through discussions with Ellen, her family, and therapists to understand all of the areas of difficulty that Ellen was having in real life situations and how together the team could work to solve them. Additionally, the team established a goal for Ellen to make sure that she maintained a social network. Everyone had homework after every speech session to modify and revise strategies that had been devised in therapy in order to provide application to real life situations. Strategies included: devising visual cues to be displayed throughout her work, rehab and living area. Ellen’s Activities of Daily Living (ADL) schedule is posted on her bathroom mirror, she uses name tags to identify places for her personal belongings, an emotion wheel was incorporated to assist her in depicting her current feelings with associated behaviors ranging from mild to extreme and/or dangerous, and communication partner responses to deal with each behavior. In addition to a daily schedule to be worn as a bracelet on Ellen’s wrist is utilized to alleviate anxiety and help her prepare and recall her day.
“Although a Traumatic Brain Injury reflects respectively a before and after of the patient, I always knew the core essence of who my sister is, was still intact. I didn’t know how to unleash her beauty and potential. HealthSouth has given us those pragmatic tools by providing Ellen with a sense of confidence and a road map to discover her abilities. The entire team at HealthSouth has empowered Ellen!” Barbara explained.
As a result of consistent and focused therapy, things that came naturally to Ellen thirty years ago, can now once again come easily. Ellen is now able to remember her reading glasses daily, she remembers to bring her handbag from home to therapy, and to work and back again. She is able to remember her daily schedule, has better control and communication over her emotions and is more independent with writing letters to her social network.
“Since April, there has been a marked improvement in Ellen’s cognition.. There is a new light in her face. We can now have a structured conversation together since her cognitive awareness has improved greatly”, Barbara commented. “I am so grateful to HealthSouth for giving my sister the connection with the real world and providing us with renewed hope for Ellen”, she added.
Ellen has lived at the Universal Institute in Long Branch during the week since 2009 which provides an open-ended day program for residents who have traumatic brain injuries. She is able to participate in supported employment several hours a week at the U Gallery and Boutique in Red Bank, a program of the Universal Institute. She lives with her mother in Neptune on the weekends.
Barbara is in the process of selling her business, BelHaven Paddle Sports in Sweetwater, NJ so that she can live closer to Ellen; providing full time companionship, support, logistics and transportation. “My sister has benefited and blossomed with the comprehensive rehab program at HealthSouth. I am so impressed with the professionalism, experience and compassion that is evident there. Our family has endured a devastating experience that can be overwhelming but we have found strength through the amazing team at HealthSouth”, she concluded.