• Survivor or Caregiver

TBI One Love Survivor Justin Contreras

Hello my name is Justin Contreras.

My path seemed pretty laid out for me: Do a semester abroad in Guatemala to reconnect with my roots, graduate with a business degree at the University of Arizona, continue pursuing my passion in gymnastics and parkour and maybe take a couple of trips with my training buddies along the way. Academics, athletics, teaching and social life were things I didn’t really have to work at. I seemed to have the world by the reigns and my future set up for success.  Maybe I was taking life’s course for granted., because in one second my life flipped upside-down.

After my epic study, abroad program in Guatemala ended in the fall semester of 2011, I decided traveled to Ometepe, Nicaragua, a remote island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, with friends I made while in Antigua. After a night of welcoming celebration of island culture and community, I was offered a ride back to my posada on a motorcycle. Seeing as it would be a short ride back, I hopped on the back of my friend's moto-bike, unperturbed and without a helmet. More than half-way to the house, and in one moment, my life changed forever. Another motor-cyclist, impaired from alcohol, collided head on with the driver of my motorcycle.  I was flung from the bike, sprawled on the stone-laden street and unconscious.

As I was on a remote island in a developing country, there was no ambulance and no medical help. It took nearly thirteen hours before I made it to a hospital on the mainland and six until arriving to a hospital in the capital city of Managua. I had suffered a serious traumatic brain injury to my frontal lobe, was under a severe coma, and sustained orthopedic injuries requiring a series of blood transfusions.

After more than eight days in a Nicaragua hospital, I was medically evacuated to the Tucson Medical Center in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. The obstacles before me became daunting and (I’ve been told) impossible, especially in acquiring the level of capabilities I possessed pre-accident. As I emerged from unconsciousness, I couldn’t swallow, speak, or understand simple commands. My femur was completely broken and my knee cap was no longer intact which confined me to a wheel chair and later a walker.  I had survived, but at what price?

I recall spending a period depressed and disillusioned at what I had lost. At one point, doctors told my mother that I would need assisted living and that I would never be independent. I know she was devastated to learn that I may never return to school. The future looked bleak. Everything seemed to have been pulled from underneath me. My brain was damaged and my future in pushing my body's limits in parkour and gymnastics was entirely inconceivable.

Through intense therapy, multiple surgeries and the support of my mother, sister, friends and community, I was determined to regain what the accident claimed. I had to relearn to speak, eat, walk and perform basic functions through years of physical, speech and occupational therapy. I also began to focus on the positive. I realized, even while my brain was healing, there must be a lesson to learn from adversity, suffering and catastrophic trauma. My experiences were life-changing. With a new-found philosophy, I became determined to overcome deficits left by the accident but also help and inspire others to do the same.

I have returned to the University of Arizona and am currently a senior in the Eller Business School. I admit it is difficult to be fully grateful for my accident and “second-chance” on life through the hardships it has caused my family and loved ones and the years of my youth that have been spent in rehabilitation centers and therapy sessions to get to this point. However, if it has taught me one thing, it is that we create our own limitations and that one cannot accomplish anything “great” alone. I was fortunate to have a support system that refused to see me quit and let my injury derail my dream to graduate and make positive contributions.

I cannot describe my journey of healing without the mention of yoga. I started going to yoga classes a few years ago out of a recommendation for helping me regain balance and reconnect with the gymnast in me. Yet, I left each class with a lot more than what I intended to gain going in. I found that the combination of intention, focus, concentration, physical and mental practices helped me heal in many ways such as overall awareness, mind-body connection, coordination, balance and rewiring my brain for more introspective, conducive thinking.

I realized that yoga sparked a sense of excitement in myself I had not experienced throughout my recovery. More importantly, I found that yoga aligned with my purpose in wanting to help others who had suffered traumatic brain injuries experience this same “spark” and compassion for themselves after TBI.

Wishing to share the yoga experiences and benefits I have experienced with others in the TBI community, I set out to complete my yoga teacher training certification this past summer and the Love Your Brain teacher training workshop in December of 2016. I am now a certified yoga instructor and continuing to broaden my knowledge and experience in adaptive yoga techniques for the TBI community! Love on!

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