Living with a Brain Injury

More than three decades after a tragic car crash, alumna Sam Renfro struggles to keep her daughter safe and get her the help she needs

By Mary J. Loftus

portrait

keepin’ on: Alumna Sam Renfro and her daughter, Debbie—who suffered a severe brain injury in an accident in 1980—relax at home.

Kay Hinton

Related Stories

"Crash Course," Spring 2011

"Mind Mend," Spring 2011

The Jeep had flipped. “Debbie was hanging upside down by the seatbelt,” says Samantha Renfro 94C, senior director of alumni relations for Goizueta Business School. “We were living on Lookout Mountain right outside of Chattanooga, and she hadn’t quite finished high school. She was in a Jeep with a couple of teenage boys, and it rolled over.” In 1980, treatments for severe brain injuries were not very advanced, says Renfro, chair of the Brain Injury Association of Georgia advisory board. “Debbie’s brain started to swell, her temperature spiked to 106, she basically died and was brought back,” she says. “She had oxygen deprivation and was in a coma for six weeks.” The family was given a list of nursing homes; they put a hospital bed in the middle of the living room and hired an LPN. This was the beginning of a three-decade-long struggle to secure continued coverage for Debbie’s needs (she has memory loss, lack of impulse control, and lingering physical ailments such as hydrocephalus and diabetes insipidus, which often accompanies TBI) and to find appropriate care and safe, structured housing. She has been in twenty different rehabilitation facilities, and has been abused and even abducted from one. Although Debbie, forty-eight, now lives in an apartment attached to her mother and stepfather’s home in Snellville, where she enjoys gardening and a measure of independence, she can still be injured easily, as when she recently tried to put out a fire with her hands, or was bitten by a strange dog. “There is always something; it is very hard to keep her safe,” says Renfro, who has guardianship of her daughter. “Young people have brain damage and have thirty to forty years to live with it. I hope that progesterone and other advances will make a huge difference.” To view Debbie’s blog about her experiences, go to www.recoveryinpoetry.com.

Email the editor