In one second, artist Jean Zera’s world was altered
Jean Zera’s life changed in January of 2005.
“It was dark and I was reaching for the light at the top of the stairs,” she says, “and as I reached out, I just kept on going. Head first.”
Zera is one of the 11 million seniors who fall every year and one of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota’s many senior consumers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 1.6 million of those seniors will go to the emergency room. Almost 13,000 will die.
Zera had hit her head above her right eyebrow on one of the wooden posts of her stairwell, but because she wasn’t showing any outward signs of impairment, brain injury wasn’t considered. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that she developed head pains that impaired her functioning.
“I would get up, maybe brush my teeth, maybe have a meal and have to go lie back down. It was just severe pain.”
Zera’s son, a surgeon at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), encouraged her to make an appointment at HCMC’s Mild to Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. There, she met with Dr. Sarah Rockswold and was given the proper tests to determine the extent and severity of her injury.
“They asked me questions that any [ordinary person] should know. But, I didn’t know them. And that is how they discover what part of your brain is injured. But, I didn’t know that then. I was too ashamed to go back for more tests ….”
It is this reluctance for treatment, coupled with the embarrassment of potentially displaying vulnerability that Zera credits for many people in her generation not seeking proper medical care.
“In my generation, you had to be half dead to call an ambulance or go to the emergency room,” she says, “We are more aware of injuries now than we were, but not as much as older people need to be.”
HCMC referred Zera to the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota’s Resource Facilitation service in April of 2005. According to Zera, contact with her facilitator has been very positive. “It was nice to get a call every now and then to [be asked] how I was doing and if I needed anything. It was very personal to me,” she says. Zera counts herself lucky to have a large family surrounding her, with professional knowledge and ready support. She notes that many people don’t have those family resources and that is where the Resource Facilitation service is so important.
Zera now lives with a noticeable short-term memory loss, frequent headaches and hand tremors. The tremors have kept Zera from pursuing one of her greatest passions: painting.
For the past thirty years, Zera has studied acrylic, oil and watercolor painting. The fruits of her efforts are on display throughout her home. Beautifully vibrant flowers, painted in extreme close-up, adorn the walls of the living room.
Her hand tremor went away for a while but it has recently returned, making painting difficult. “If I ever get back to painting, I’m never going to move!” she says.
Zera uses several techniques to counter the effects of her short-term memory loss. She writes everything down and makes sure to read something several times over, until the information sinks in. “I can remember the words to every song I grew up with, but I can’t remember what I ate last night.”
Today, Zera is very conscious of the possibility of further accidents. “You have to turn the lights on. Even if you think you know what’s in a room, you have to turn the lights on and see what’s in your path. I turn on three lights on the way up and down the steps now.”
She also implores seniors to seek immediate medical attention for falls, even if they don’t immediately think something is wrong, and to not be embarrassed if it turns out nothing is wrong.
CDC studies indicate that seniors who receive medical attention in the first hour after a fall have a ninety percent chance of returning home, while those who do not receive help in the first six hours have a ninety percent chance of entering a nursing home.
“We ought to be educated on what to do. Don’t be ashamed to ask somebody to help you,” Zera pleads, “even if you’re not sure what you’ve done to yourself. [Brain injury is] dangerous. It’s fatal sometimes. It lasts an awfully long time. I’m going on my fourth year and I don’t feel that I’m really finished with it. If I dwelt on it I’d be miserable. I try to get along with what I’ve got left to use.”