TBI One Love Survivor Tanner Cook
Hello, my name is Tanner.
My TBI story began in 2008. I was a senior in highschooland I was being recruited by Division 1 schools for football and track. Football was my passion-I lived and breathed it. I’m from West Texas-so growing up out here, you don’t have much choice. I started playing football when I pretty young . My dream was to play for Texas Tech and then coach high school football. I was well on my way to achieving this dream but that all changed On Dec 6, 2008. Iwas playing in the state quarterfinals-our team had not advanced past this point ever and I was doing my best to help us get to state.
During the game-my teammates said I was blinking a lot and seemed a little off-but no one thought anything of it. I was raised to be tough and not come out of a game unless you are bleeding or a bone is sticking out so in the 4th quarter when I pulled myself out of the game-my coach knew something was wrong. I went down on the sidelines. I had to be intubated and airlifted to the hospital. My family was told that I had a subdural hematoma-it was small and that I should be okay in a few days.
I was kept in the hospital and intubated for a few days-but my follow up MRI showed my subdural hematoma had resolved for the most part. Unfortunately a few days after my injury-I had a severe medical complication-I had 3 strokes and a severe anoxic injury. I had just about every test you can imagine to determine why this happened-but no answers came except for medical error.
So there I was, 17 years old with a traumatic brain injury, 3 strokes and anoxia. I couldn’t move my left side, I had difficulty speaking, I couldn’t move without a lot of assistance. I couldn’t even hold myself upright, feed or dress myself. These are just the physical deficits you were able to immediately notice. I was transferred to inpatient rehab. I stayed there for about six weeks and was moved to a post acute neurological rehab where I was a patient for about a year. During this year, I learned to walk, talk, and do basic activities, but many cognitive deficits were discovered. I have severe short-term memory loss.
I have approximately 20% of my short term memory left-so I remember about 20% of any given day. I may talk tonight for an hour and not remember any of it in 30 minutes or I may remember every single thing. There is no magic solution to help me remember except repetition. With repetition, I can remember people or places. I have significant fatigue issues, attention problems, difficultyinitiating tasks, planning, organizing and multitasking. Sometimes you hear people with brain injuries, especially soldiers, referred to as the “walking wounded,”—well that term is applicable to me as well—you can look at me walking and tell I have something wrong-but it is the executive/cognitive functions that I have the most difficult time overcoming.
That is one point I hope to get across tonight-with a brain injury-someone may look fine and move well—but may not be able to form a complete thought or finish a task. While in rehab, I was found to have something called homonymous hemianopsia-which is a big term that means I cannot see out of the right half of either eye. Also, I do not have sensation on the left side of my body and during my intubation, my vocal cords were damaged so it is difficult for me to speak loudly and clearly at times.
Following my year in rehab, I tried to get back to a “normal life.” I worked at my old school and was able to help coach my younger brother’s team to a state title. I also tried attending college—but to remember the material from one class I would need about 40 hours of tutoring per week. At that point, I realized I needed more rehab. My injury happened while I was in highschool, so I never had to learn “independent” living skills of cooking, cleaning, bill paying, grocery shopping etc. So in 2012, I went to the Centre for Neuro Skills where I met my buddy James.
Over the next 6 months, CNS helped me with strengthening coordination, balance and independent living. I was able to live independently and work once I returned from CNS. I met my now wife in 2012. She is actually an occupational therapist and we have been married since 2014. I am working at a local church—employment has not been easy to come by—I’ve done a lot of different things including volunteer work trying to find something that works. I need a very patient/understanding boss who is okay making lists and giving me frequent reminders. Fortunately, I have found that in my current employer.
I want people to know several things: with a severe brain injury, the recovery process never stops. It’s been 7 years and I have had some form of therapy for 4-5 of those years. Some in inpatient rehab, some outpatient. Most recently, I had a surgery to place a baclofen pump-to help reduce tone and spasticity in my muscles so I can move better-this required another inpatient rehab stay and now outpatient therapy. I’m also getting vision therapy at this time. I constantly have to THINK about things most of you take forgranted. I have to think about each step I take so my stride is smooth, I have to think about holding myself upright so I don’t develop scoliosis, I have to remember to look to the right so I don’t bump into things, I have to think about speaking clearly and loudly so you can understand me.
Most of all-I have to have reminders for my memory-it really is that bad-my wife has to remind me of appointments, to take medicines, how much money we have in our bank account, what we did today. It’s a struggle between wanting to be as independent as possible and knowing I need help with life.
All of that being said-I love my life. I wouldn’t wish this injury on anyone, but I can look back on my life and say that I am honestly thankful for this journey. Yes-it is rough at times, but it has shaped me into a better person. I found a true love for the Lord- I have seen him use my journey to help people. I decided that I can either be bitter and live life angry everyday or I can choose to be joyful that I am alive-I can move, I can talk, I can influence others. I have found my true purpose in life-and that is because of my injury. I want people to know a TBI is a life changing event-I will never be who I was and that is okay. I think I am better in many ways. In fact, this journey led me to a wife-A woman who loves me and accepts me just they way I am.
If you are currently on this journey-don’t give up. My recovery has taken a village. From the beginning, I have had a family and a support system that NEVER gave up on me. My family wouldn’t settle for me not being able to walk or live-they pushed me. They fought insurance companies for more therapy and rehab, they have driven me across the state for appointments, therapies, evaluations-everything. They have let me struggle, let me fail, been there to pick me back up, encouraged and prayed for me. It hasn’t been easy for them either. We have all had breakdowns and bad days, but we kept pushing. Family and friends-please don’t give up if your loved one has a TBI-he or she may be a different person and it may be hard-but please try. Please be a rock for that person-I can tell you that I would not be here today if it were not for my friends and family.
People often ask me if I hate football or if I would let my kids play football. No, I don’t hate football-I still love it. And yes, if my future children want to play the game-then that is their choice. With anything physical that you are passionate about-there is a risk of injury. Most often we think of broken bones not broken brains, but anything can happen, anytime, anywhere. My advice is to be smart. Educate your players on the signs of concussions and the risks with playing the game.
I encourage players and coaches to take concussions seriously. I had a concussion several weeks prior to my injury and we did everything right. I took time to rest my brain and I listened to my doctors recommendations about returning to play. Football as a whole is beginning to realize the risks associated with the game and are taking steps to protect players with better helmets, new rules and concussion testing. I encourage parents to have your child participate in baseline testing before the season so if a concussion is suspected, you have a baseline cognitive test to see if there are lingering deficits. As I’m sure you have heard- a brain injury can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone-it can occur from a fall while walking down the sidewalk, from a car accident, from a sporting event-from anything. So no, sports like football, boxing, hockey-I don’t think they should be taken away-but I do think parents and players should be aware that anytime you step out onto the field-you are at risk.
My wife firmly believes football in the younger kids even up to middle school should not be tackle football due to the risk of injuring developing brains. It has been stated that a player over the course of a lifetime can sustain 20,000+ hits from 6 to 150 g’s. We must realize that our brain is our most important part and make informed decisions regarding play. This may require parents to step in and say no after a concussion and if this happens-I hope the coaching staff and sports community would get behind the parent-no matter how talented the athlete is.
My story isn’t over, it is still being written everyday. I am a survivor, a fighter and I won’t give up. No matter what challenge you are facing. You can get through it. You may not look like you did before, or come out it looking like you think you should, but I promise you this. There is calm at the end of the storm so don’t ever give up.
Thank you all for taking the time to listen to my story and recovery!