Invisible Injuries: Living With Traumatic Brain Injuries and PTSD

April 9, 2015

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In 2006, Joel Hicks woke up in a hospital bed. With no recollection as to what happened, Hicks, a former medic in the United States Air Force, was told he had sustained blunt force trauma to the head and had been intentionally paralyzed for the time being to prevent further damage. That isolated incident, combined with previous injuries from auto accidents and a combat-related explosion, forever changed his life. Now, almost a decade later, Hicks, a 2013 Texas Lutheran University graduate, uses his experience as a soldier and Desert Storm veteran living with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) to educate and empower others.

The 2015 TLU Krost Symposium, "Grey Matters: Discerning the Impacts of Head Injury," looks to offer more insight into understanding brain trauma and individuals dealing with the day-to-day effects of their injuries. In addition to prevention and education regarding sports-related head trauma, the symposium will also focus on veterans living with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hicks will participate on several of the symposium’s panels to answer questions and share his story as a student-veteran. While tough at first, Hicks said being part of college classes and the campus community helped rehabilitate himself.

“How I explain what my injuries to people is how doctors have explained it to me,” Hicks, 46, said. “Our brains are like a chain link fence. When I was struck on the head, some of my brain cells were damaged and some of those links broke. My brain now has to reprogram and reconnect the links any time I want to talk. I have difficulty communicating and speaking because it’s like my brain sometimes draws a blank. I might stutter. Or, sometimes I know what I want to say but it just won’t come out. Going back to school really helped me with my communication skills.”

In December 2013, Hicks received his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.

“It took a lot of dedication and hard work to graduate,” Hicks said. “I had to overcome the frustration. When you have a TBI you have to have the will to be able to get better. It’s very challenging and it’s a long process but I do believe people can recover. I would also like for people to understand that those with TBIs are trying to relearn everything all over again. We store so much in our brains and I just ask for patience and understanding.”

At TLU, Hicks said he felt appreciated by other students and that his professors were always available to help him.

“My overall experience was great and I was a person there and not a number,” Hicks said. “The one-on-one interaction with my professors really helped me and the way I learn. Arthur Babcock, a fellow student and my friend, was so caring and concerned. He enjoyed listening and talking to me. He wanted to hear what I had to say and that meant a lot. When I graduated in December 2013, that was the high point of my life.”

Marie Paiz, TLU’s assistant registrar and veteran affairs certification officer, was pleased when Krost committee chair Tim Kent asked her to help with the symposium in regards to current and former service members.

“Right now, the media talk is all about sports concussions and it was great to see that TLU was looking beyond that to our veterans and active soldiers who have suffered TBIs,” Paiz said. “What I hope this symposium will help the TLU community and others see is that these TBIs can cause unseen damage and it’s not until a veteran or active soldier needs to recall information that we see what has happened. We need to be understanding of this and help the student-veteran overcome the problem in unique and understanding ways. I hope this symposium can help with that too.”

Hicks talks about PTSD as another form of invisible injury in that there might not be any physical damage to an individual, but they are dealing with traumatic stress. There are certain things that can trigger a person’s PTSD, he said, and cause them to have an emotional reaction. For Hicks, it could be something like hearing a helicopter or a recurring nightmare of waking up paralyzed.

“PTSD is a day-to-day situation,” Hicks said. “I think the most important thing for people to understand is that anyone with PTSD is not choosing to act in a psychotic or irrational way. We lived through a traumatic experience, whether that was war or something like sexual assault. Having the public’s support and their willingness to understand what PTSD is and how it affects people is very important. I’ve had friends who took their own lives because the pain of their PTSD was too much. I explain to others that many of these soldiers really felt they should have died during whatever incident that caused their injuries or PTSD. I don’t think taking your life is the answer, but I admit I understand their pain. My son, Cody, and my 11-year-old daughter are my motivation to keep fighting.”

Although his injuries and rehabilitation are a large part of his life, Hicks is very involved with the City of Cibolo, Texas. He is a member of the parks and recreations committee and the zoning and planning committee, as well as the announcer for all of Steele High School’s home baseball games. He plans on running for city council in November and, potentially, for the mayor’s office.

“I just want to be an example, especially for my kids,” Hicks said. “I want them to know they can accomplish and overcome anything.”

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