Till death do us part: A couple's life after brain injury
Although she had been a nurse for nearly 30 years, Janet Cromer knew very little about brain injury before her husband suffered one.
Now the Bethesda resident is out to educate people about the often misunderstood ailment. Her new book, "Professor Cromer Learns to Read," not only documents her husband's journey as a survivor, but also her own as a caretaker.
Alan Cromer had a massive heart attack and went into cardiac arrest on an airplane in 1998. Rescuers were able to revive him, but a lack of oxygen during the resuscitation caused damage to his brain.
"In an instant," Cromer writes, "Alan went from being a professor of physics at Northeastern University, a prolific author, and an engaged and loving person to being someone with a life-altering brain injury who had to learn how to do everything all over again."
Among the skills he lost were walking, talking, reading, writing, remembering and even thinking.
"Often people don't realize how complex it is to do those things when we take it totally for granted," Janet Cromer says.
One troubling misconception about brain injury is that it is rare and unlikely to happen to anyone you know.
"Every year, 1.4 million Americans sustain brain injuries from falls, motor vehicle accidents, sports concussions, assaults, illnesses, and accidents," Cromer writes. "Over 125,000 of those people who suffer a brain injury become disabled."
Cromer has heard very intelligent people spread the myth that the brain eventually heals itself. But, she explains, brain injury patients need a variety of forms of continuing care to show improvements in their abilities and quality of life.
People who have suffered a brain injury often have trouble controlling their emotions, especially anger, and may become easily frustrated. Sights and sounds can overwhelm them. As a result, she observes, there is a widespread erroneous belief "that people aren't even trying to behave better."
Brain injury survivors need a well-planned approach to recognizing and managing their emotions. Cromer is particularly concerned about the young wives of brain-injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, since these women must learn to take care of their husbands around the clock.
"It was hard enough for me," she says, noting that she is a nurse by profession and was older and had been married for several years before her husband's injury.
People with brain injuries can fail to recognize their loved ones, which "can be very confusing and depressing" for their spouses. Cromer says her husband always had a sense that she was his wife, but didn't remember their life together.
To ease her stress, Cromer sought the aid of a therapist and took up meditation and yoga.
"It helped to get out of my head and into my hands," she says of the physical activity.
Another way she found to heal was to become an advocate for brain injury sufferers. She speaks at conferences, rehabilitation hospitals and support groups.
"That really helped a lot to get involved," she notes.
Cromer has long wanted to write a book because brain injury is both so utterly life-changing and so misunderstood. She saved her husband's medical records, doctors' notes, writings and photos, as well as her own journals and poems.
"I wanted to tell our story in hopes of helping other families who are also dealing with this," she says.
The decision to self-publish was made so she could get her work out to the public in a timely fashion, thus avoiding the often years-long process of finding a publisher.
The book has many stories of trials and triumphs, from Alan's lengthy stay in intensive care to his time in a rehabilitation hospital to his ultimate return home. It is a story not only of survival, but of the strength of love.
"Alan was truly a real professor' both before and after his brain injury," Cromer writes. "He taught all those who loved him and those who treated him a new meaning of courage, resilience, determination, motivation, and passion."
Alan Cromer survived for seven years after his heart attack and subsequent brain injury, during which time he battled the resulting Parkinson's disease and dementia.
Despite the tremendous challenges, the Cromers lived their lives with meaning and zest and, as Janet Cromer says, "We did get to fall in love again."
"Professor Cromer Learns to Read" is available for purchase online at www.janetcromer.com and at www.amazon.com.