Megan Feld was 17 years old when she had her accident.
She was driving alone one night on a back road near Green Bay, Wis., where she grew up.
"I hit loose gravel and overcompensated and started swerving," she said. "I didn't have my seat belt on, and I was thrown from my vehicle. I lay undiscovered for about 45 minutes. When I was found, I had hypothermia and was unconscious, and I remained unconscious for a month-and-a-half."
Steve Eldred of Lake Placid and Megan Feld of Saranac Lake have formed a support group for survivors of traumatic brain injury, like themselves, as well as stroke and aneurysm.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Traumatic brain injury survivor Steve Eldred of Lake Placid smiles for the camera after completing a 37-mile trail run along the Jackrabbit Cross Country Ski Trail, to benefit Kenya’s Jambo Jipya school, in 2010.
Feld's account of what happened to her that day sounds vivid, but it's not drawn from her memory. It's what other people have told her. That's because Feld suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in the accident and has no recollection of anything that happened to her on April 26, 2003 or from the entire month before.
"This is all what I was told, because I don't remember," she explained. "It was about a month after I came out of my coma that I started remembering things."
Feld, who now lives in Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid resident Steven Eldred, who's also a traumatic brain injury survivor, shared their experiences about living with TBI earlier this month in an interview with the Enterprise. The two have recently formed a support group for survivors of TBI, stroke and aneurysm. The group met for the first time earlier this month and will meet once a month at the Adirondack Community Church in Lake Placid.
If you go
Name: The Tri-Lakes Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group
What: A support group for survivors of TBI, aneurysm or stroke, and their family and friends
When: The first Thursday of each month, 1 p.m.
Where: Adirondack Community Church, Lake Placid
Feld was in a coma for a month-and-a-half after her accident. When she woke up, she said she had the physical capabilities of an infant.
"I couldn't walk," she said. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't eat. I couldn't even sit up on my own. I had a long road to recover from. I basically had to relearn everything."
In addition to the severe TBI, Feld had broken four vertebrae in her neck, broken her collarbone and was paralyzed on her right side. One of her vocal cords was paralyzed, and she couldn't breathe without a tracheostomy tube.
Feld spent three-and-a-half months at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay. Once she was released, she continued outpatient therapy for another two years.
She doesn't recall much about her recovery, describing herself as being in a dreamlike state that she believes helped to speed her recovery.
"I didn't really know what was going on," she said. "Very rarely did I get depressed and upset, but I really didn't have that understanding of how difficult things were, so I did what I had to do. The fact that I really didn't understand how hard I was working to get better, that really helped. My family and friends were huge in that. They kept pushing and wouldn't let me stop."
After a year-and-a-half of breathing through a tube, Feld had reconstructive surgery. She said doctors took a piece of one of her ribs and stuck it between her vocal cords so they would remain open and she could talk and breathe on her own. When she speaks today, Feld sounds hoarse, but the doctors told her going into the procedure that she might end up with nothing but a whisper, "so I'm pretty pleased with the outcome."
Feld also regained the ability to walk, but she said there are still some things she can't do.
"I can't run," she said. "I can't ride a bike because I have a problem stopping. I tend to just fall off it because I can't balance. I don't swim. But I'm happy. I made a great recovery."
Eldred was 22 years old when he suffered his traumatic brain injury. It was Aug. 27, 1991, and the Vermont native had just arrived a few days earlier for orientation at Central Maine Technical College in Auburn, Maine, where he planned to pursue a degree in building construction technology.
Like Feld, Eldred has no memory of what happened to him that day, only what he's been told by other people.
"As I grew up, I sleepwalked a lot, especially when I was in new places," Eldred said. "I think I was sleepwalking that night because the night before I ended up sleepwalking into somebody else's dorm room. I walked out the back fire exit of the dorm I was staying in, fell three flights down and landed on a rock. This is what people have told me."
Eldred suffered a closed-head injury. He was unconscious for four to six hours before he was found. He was in a coma for the next 10 days.
"After I came out of the coma, the first memories are very foggy. I was in inpatient care for three months (at Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington, Vt.), and an outpatient for probably two years. I don't really recall about a month before or a month after my head injury."
Eldred lost most of the use of his left side. For a while, he was in a wheelchair. He described his recovery period as "hazy" and said he remembers little of it.
"It was like you're watching from outside yourself," he said. "You knew what you wanted your body to do, but for some reason, you couldn't do it. But my family, my wife, everybody was great. They took care of me. I couldn't be left alone because I was very stubborn. I'd try to get up and fall on my face. It's like you're dealing with a baby all over again, a full-grown baby."
Eldred said the first 10 years after his accident were very difficult. He went through periods of depression and anxiety. But he eventually learned to live with what happened and make the best of it.
"I'm able to walk; I'm able to run," he said. "I've completed a full Ironman (the 2008 Lake Placid Ironman) triathlon. My goal is I want to do it again."
Eldred and his wife moved to the Adirondacks in 1993. They operated the St. Regis Restaurant between Paul Smiths and Gabriels until 1998. Eldred later took a maintenance job with the American Management Association, where he's worked for the last 10 years.
Feld came to the Adirondacks in 2005 to attend Paul Smith's College. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in hotel, resort and tourism management, and an associate degree in restaurant management. She lived in Lake Placid until about six months ago and works for the Adirondack Arc as a direct support professional.
Eldred said he was working out at Fitness Revolution in Lake Placid about six months ago when he met Feld, although he had heard of her before through contacts with the Arc.
"Everybody had said we should meet because we're both survivors of TBI," he said. "I told her I was thinking about starting a support group because I knew a few people in the area who would be interested in it. I was a little bit overwhelmed trying to do it myself, and it was great to have Megan's help in putting this together."
Eldred said one of the goals of the support group is to help TBI survivors make a smooth transition to the work force "and let them know they can never stop pushing."
"I think acceptance is where it all starts," Feld said. "Healing, not only emotionally, but physically as well. You've got to let go of some of the past, and your past interests, and you've got to embrace what God left you with, and make a good situation out of the bad."
Both Feld and Eldred said they've been in situations where people looked down on them or they felt discriminated against.
"It's hurtful, because you remember how you used to be," Eldred said. "When people segregate or discriminate, and I hate to say that word, but you still feel like you can do what you used to be able to do, and it hurts to learn that you can't."
Feld said she has experienced some workplace-related discrimination in the past.
"One place just wouldn't hire me due to my voice, and another place gave me maybe a month and didn't feel I was catching on quick enough, so they let me go," she said. "It does take me longer to do things, but the more I do them repetitively, the more it sticks in my brain."
Eldred said people with TBI just want to be treated like other people.
"Treat them like a normal person," he said. "Their memory might not be as good. They might be a little bit slower, but we'll get there."
"Give us a chance," Feld said.
Traumatic brain injury is defined as a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain. The leading causes of TBI are falls, car crashes, being struck by an object and assault. About 1.7 million people suffer traumatic brain injury in the U.S. each year. Some survivors suffer obvious disability, but most TBIs are concussions or other milder injuries that generally heal on their own.
In recent years, there's been a growing awareness of TBI and concussion due to a number of high-profile concussion injuries in professional sports like football and hockey. TBI is also the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, affecting more than 200,000 soldiers.
March is National Traumatic Brain Awareness Month, an effort organized by the Brain Injury Association of America to raise awareness and understanding of brain injury through advocacy, education and research.
"I think the awareness is a very good thing," Eldred said. "The faster somebody can be examined from a head injury, the better. My first concussion was from playing soccer when I was a senior in high school. I don't think anything was ever done more than, 'Go see the nurse,' and, 'Here's an ice pack.' I think a lot more is done today than in the past. People just never thought about the consequences."
"People are becoming more aware and more knowledgeable," Feld said. "After my TBI, my family saw there wasn't much support for TBI, so my mom started, with the help of my former speech pathologist, a support group in Green Bay."
Thursday, April 5, is the next meeting of the Tri-Lakes Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group. The group's first meeting earlier this month drew seven survivors, not including Eldred and Feld, and their family members.
"If we as a group can be a help by sharing our past experiences, all the better," Eldred said.
"We have TBI under our belts, so to speak," Feld said. "We've experienced quite a bit and want to help others through our experiences."