ONEONTA — About a year and a half ago, Sherburne native Megan Viera was airlifted to SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, where doctors had to remove part of the right side of her skull to relieve pressure caused by a serious car accident she was in.
The Aug. 8 car crash in the Madison County town of Eaton left Viera in a coma, with multiple injuries related to the accident. She was placed on a respirator and was fed through a tube. The 18-year-old had graduated from high school just a few months earlier.
Against all odds, a walking, talking, awe-inspiring Viera will celebrate on Friday her recovery and the launch of a book she wrote while recuperating, titled “Viera Strong: My Struggle with Traumatic Brain Injury.”
The book launch and a reception to recognize Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month will take place at 11 a.m. at Robynwood Home Care Agency and Adult Home in Oneonta, where Viera and others attend Robynwood Enrichment Center’s weekly Structured Day Program for individuals coping with traumatic brain injuries.
A LIFE-CHANGING ACCIDENT
Donning a green ribbon for TBI Awareness Month, Viera, 20, sat Tuesday clasping the dainty silver heart necklace around her neck and recalled some of the darkest days in her life.
“It was very bad,” Viera said. “I was a passenger in the car. It was scary, but it was probably scariest for my parents.”
After the car accident, Viera was unable to walk or talk for a year because of the traumatic injury her brain had endured.
With extensive rehabilitation and a great deal of support, Viera began to regain use of her body and cognitive abilities, she said.
Months and months of occupational therapy led to Viera’s slow recovery. First came the ability to blink her left eye, then her right. Then she gained the ability to give a thumbs-up for yes questions — a huge step, she recalled. She then worked on moving one arm and the other, learning to write her name, feed herself and speak. She began to move around again on her own, first using a wheelchair, then a cane, and — after some time — walking on her own.
But even when she was still unable to talk, Viera was beginning to write her story.
“I was still in a stage of coma when I started writing it,” Viera said. “My family encouraged me to. As I was getting better, people always told me I was really inspiring, so I thought, ‘Why not write a book about it and inspire others?’ It was therapeutic for me.”
‘A LOT TO CONTRIBUTE’
After recovering significantly, Viera and her family visited Robynwood’s Structured Day Program and were filled with hope, Viera recalled. She began attending the weekly program, which helps those coping with TBI achieve their goals, according to William Simmons, promotional director and service coordinator at Robynwood’s Enrichment Center.
Early on, one of Viera’s greatest hopes was to publish a book about her journey, she said, and Robynwood has helped accomplish that goal by editing, publishing and distributing her book to local medical facilities for free, Simmons said.
“She had the bulk of the work done,” Simmons said with a smile Tuesday. “We just brushed it up a bit.”
Robynwood’s program for individuals living with TBI has existed for about five years, Simmons said. There are six people in the program now.
“There aren’t many programs around here like this,” Simmons said. “Instead of a one-size-fits-all, we build the program around each specific individual and his or her goals.”
The Structured Day Program harnesses what individuals are most interested in to help them cope, Simmons said. Viera likes to paint, cook and write poetry. She’s also attending classes at the State University College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville, she said.
“She’s amazing,” Simmons said. “Simply because they have a TBI, a lot of people feel like they are less than they really are. But it’s important for them and their loved ones to remember that they still have a lot to give and contribute. This program can help with that.”
PROGRAM DIRECTOR: TBI AN ‘INVISIBLE AILMENT’
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traumatic brain injuries are caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Not all blows or jolts to the head result in a TBI. The severity of a TBI may range from “mild,” i.e., a brief change in mental status or consciousness, to “severe,” i.e., an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia after the injury.
Falls are the leading cause of the condition, followed by unintentional blunt trauma and, finally, motor vehicle crashes, the CDC reports. Most TBIs that occur each year are mild, and are known as “concussions.”
Serena Wright, director of Robynwood’s Structured Day Program, said the program provides services and community integration counseling for its TBI patients, most of whom were injured in accidents.
Many patients have become isolated and withdrawn because of the condition, Wright said. One woman’s TBI was caused from multiple strokes, and another individual was in a bad bicycle accident at a young age.
“People with TBI don’t often have an opportunity to meet others with similar conditions,” Wright said. “So this is a good social time for Megan and others.”
“Before the accident I was a social butterfly,” Viera added, “so it’s nice to have something to look forward to every Tuesday.”
TBI tends to be an “invisible ailment,” according to Wright.
“You can’t see it, but it’s very real and requires respect from other people,” Wright said. “No two people are the same, and you have to be patient and understanding of the person and what they’re going through.”
Each year, traumatic brain injuries contribute to a substantial number of deaths and cases of permanent disability in the United States, according to the CDC. In 2010, 2.5 million TBIs occurred either as an isolated injury or along with other injuries.
‘I REALLY JUST WANT TO HELP OTHERS’
Even with all Viera has been through, she chooses to focus on the positive and, in a way, sees the accident as a blessing, she said.
“I work harder now, and I have more drive,” Viera said. “Things don’t come as easily to me as they used to, and I can’t drive a car, but I don’t dwell on that. I instead think ‘Look at all I’ve already accomplished.’ A year ago, I wasn’t even walking or talking.”
Viera said her book will be free for anyone who wants it. The point is not to make money, she added.
“I really just want to help others,” Viera said. “There’s another girl from Sherburne who is going through right now exactly what I went through. So I want to help their family and use this to comfort other people.”
The silver heart around Viera’s neck is engraved with the phrase “Megan is Strong” and was a gift from this family, she said.
This kind of community support was abundant during Viera’s recovery, she added. A Facebook page called “Viera Strong” that was created in the wake of the accident to update friends and loved ones has almost 2,000 likes and is filled with pictures and messages of hope.
Viera is “very” close with her family, she said, and is appreciative of their help throughout her recovery. When she couldn’t remember aspects of her story while writing about it, they were there to remind her and support her, she added.
“It’s a terrible thing to have, but just because you have a TBI, don’t be shy about it,” Viera said. “I’m not shy about it. I actually like myself more now because I’ve done better things with it than I did before. I’m proud.”