It happened in an instant.
And in the weeks that followed, Terri Braun came to realize her life wasn’t the same.
The Hays woman was helping a family member move when a strong gust of wind knocked a basketball goal over on top of her. The impact hit her in the back of the head, temporarily knocking her unconscious.
“It was a freak accident,” she said. “I went back to work thinking — oh you know, the stubborn German in me — it’s no problem. Well, it was a problem. It got to be where I couldn’t even function.”
The incident happened June 21, 2014, which also happens to be her husband Scott’s birthday.
A series of x-rays revealed everything was physically OK — a fact the family remains thankful for — but Braun’s cognitive abilities had been damaged by the impact. She was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and prescribed 30 days of cognitive rest, meaning she could not do anything that might stimulate the brain.
“So you lay in a dark room in silence. It was pretty horrible,” she said. “You’re really just alone with your own thoughts. Thoughts can be pretty positive at first. But then as you lay there and you really can’t do anything, thoughts just go dark sometimes.”
Journey through ‘the pit’
And that was just the beginning of Braun’s struggles to regain as much normalcy as possible. She began undergoing a variety of therapy services, with the ultimate goal of helping to “re-calibrate the brain,” she said.
Her vestibular system, which regulates the sense of balance and spatial awareness, had been damaged. When asked to stand up straight, she would tilt to a 30-degree angle. Because her sense of balance was so skewed, the slightest movement would leave her dizzy and nauseous.
Her brain also wasn’t “filtering out” any sensory stimulation, leaving Braun easily overwhelmed — sometimes to the point that her brain would simply “shut down,” she said.
She often would sleep 18 hours each day, as sleep is the brain’s way to heal and restore.
“Basically, my world came crashing down,” she said. “Everything I knew how to do, I couldn’t do anymore.”
She eventually had to give up a job she loved — managing High Plains Mental Health Center’s Schwaller Center for people in crisis — so she could focus her full attention on therapy and getting better.
The therapy was hard work and would make her feel physically sick, she said. But she pressed on, hoping to see progress.
But a few months after starting therapy, Braun found herself in a dark place. She wasn’t progressing as hoped, and it wasn’t clear what the next steps might be for her treatment.
“I really fell into this pit,” she said. “I would have panic attacks in Walmart because I never knew when my brain was going to shut down.”
She began showing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and anxiety or depression are common in people who have survived traumatic brain injuries, she said.
Her “pit” extended through much of the 2014 holiday season, and Braun also began psychotherapy services. Another bleak moment came the following August, when she was rushed to the hospital unresponsive after a bad reaction to a new medication.
“It’s interesting, too, that my passion is working with the mentally ill. I found that out early,” Braun said. “To experience some of the same things (our patients do), I find I’m much more empathetic. I can say, ‘Hey, I lived that. This is what helped me.’ ”
Turning a corner
Journaling her thoughts and feelings became Braun’s favorite coping mechanism. She often chronicled her experiences by dictating to Siri on her cellphone, as writing or typing were difficult for her.
Her faith, Braun said, is what got her through the tough times.
“To heal on many different levels, first of all you have to get rid of the pride, then you have to get rid of the self-pity, and then you’ve got to ask for help,” she said. “That was the biggest problem I had is I didn’t want to ask for help. I could do it all.
“Over many years of therapy, I’ve just learned it’s not about you changing your circumstances; it’s about changing your heart. That’s where the hope is.”
There also happened to be a physical therapist in Hays at that time who specialized in the vestibular system and offered a new approach to Braun’s therapy. And she finally started to see the results she had hoped for. She estimates she is at approximately 80 percent of her previous capabilities, and even has returned to work at the Schwaller Center on a part-time basis.
And this summer, Braun took another big step when she published her first book, “Good Morning, Sunshine.” The book is a collection of her journal entries, and her goal is to give other people hope and let them know they are not alone if they are struggling with difficult circumstances, she said.
A second book, “Preparing Your Heart for Christmas,” is being released just in time for the holiday season. The Christian book is intended to remind people of what truly is important in life -- a lesson the Braun family said they learned throughout Terri’s long ordeal.
“It helps you realize what’s truly important. I always thought my job was super important. Not that my job isn’t important, but you realize it’s your family that’s important,” Braun said. “It’s your friends that are important. And it’s the fact you can wake up in the morning that’s important.
“You learn to appreciate all the little things that you didn’t take note of before, birds chirping and how blue the sky is.”
Scott Braun said the entire journey has been a “roller coaster” for the family, which also includes two teenage boys.
“We have learned to adapt to her schedule for rest,” he said. “We have learned to give accommodations for her needs. And considering we were a very active family before, we had to dial that back a little bit, and that’s OK.”
Terri still needs extra time to rest in the afternoons and is continuing therapy. But the family is grateful for the incredible progress she’s made. The couple even was able to recently spend a weekend in Colorado for their wedding anniversary.
“I will never be able to do the things that I used to be able to do, or right now I can’t. Who knows, down the line, in baby steps, maybe I will continue to heal and create those neural pathways,” Braun said. “But I’ve grown in so many other different ways. I’ve attacked a lot of my own demons, so to speak.
“It’s a different path than I thought I would be on, but it’s a path I’m still passionate about. I want people to know that there’s hope out there.”