September 25, 2016

The road to recovery

Photography by Brian Verbarg

“You should say your goodbyes. Your mother won’t make it.”

These were the words Hayley and Kelsey Rightnowar heard on November 28, 2010. Their mother, Angie Rightnowar, tripped and fell down her basement steps only a few days after Thanksgiving. Hayley and Kelsey found her a few hours later, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Angie was rushed to St. John’s Mercy Hospital where she received an emergency craniotomy, the surgical removal of a bone flap to temporarily access the brain. The doctors told Hayley and Kelsey their mother was going to die. But eight weeks later, Angie woke up.

“Most people with a brain injury; they wake up, right? They can walk again, they can talk again, they can live independently again,” Kelsey said.

Angie had suffered traumatic brain injury and was no longer able to function on her own. Kelsey said they put Angie through therapy, but her injuries made it difficult. She had lost much of her ability to move and communicate due to being unconscious for eight weeks. In addition, the doctors told Hayley and Kelsey that Angie had lost the motivation center in her brain and gained hyper anxiety and a hypersensitivity to pain. Although plenty of brain injuries can go unseen, Angie’s was apparent.

“I can only liken it to being on a really, really horrible acid trip, where everybody is against you,” Kelsey said. “A four-year-long acid trip.”

Hayley (left) and Kelsey Rightnowar frequently visit their mother Angie (right) and are very involved in her recovery process. / photo contributed by the Rightnowar family

Hayley (left) and Kelsey Rightnowar frequently visit their mother Angie (right) and are very involved in her recovery process. / photo contributed by the Rightnowar family

Understanding brain injuries

During the four years since Angie’s accident, Angie has moved among 16 different nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and hospitals. One frustration for Angie, Hayley and Kelsey has been the inability to stay in one place.

Hayley and Kelsey said because of private insurance and the slow pace of their mother’s recovery, she has not been able to stay in a facility for longer than four months. This is one reason they believe brain injuries are misunderstood, and why people like Angie who have to go through a long-term recovery process are forgotten about in the medical world.

“It’s completely rewiring your brain, even from just the smallest injury,” Hayley said. “It’s really important that people with brain injuries aren’t just getting thrown into nursing homes and are actually getting a second chance at their lives.”

Hayley said people with brain injuries do not belong in nursing homes because they mainly treat people with declining mental activity. Those who have suffered a brain injury, on the other hand, are trying to rewire themselves, so the dynamic does not work.

The family finally feels like Angie found her place after discovering NeuroRestorative, a brain injury rehabilitation facility in Carbondale, Illinois.

“Before we found this facility, she was sitting around waiting to die—and she actually confirmed that herself—but now, not so much,” Hayley said. “She’s actually a willing and able participant in her own recovery.”

But NeuroRestorative comes at a hefty cost for Angie, her Social Security and disability checks do not cover the $15,500-per-month cost to stay at NeuroRestorative. Hayley and Kelsey recently created a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 and keep Angie there for another year.

Living their lives

Hayley, 23, and Kelsey, 27, said Angie’s doctors have often told them to live their lives and let their mother be, but they have stuck close by Angie’s side since her injury. Hayley, a senior film studies major at Webster, and Kelsey, a University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou) graduate working in film production, have juggled their work and school lives while providing care for Angie.

“My sister and I never stopped believing in our mother. There was never a time when we didn’t think that she could accomplish more,” Hayley said.

Kelsey added: “But that isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of depression that goes along with it. It’s really very difficult when everything you try and do is just met with a ‘f**k no.’ Every door we would hit, every problem that could’ve happened, we would be told that the next place is going to be better . . . And everything we tried failed.”

Both Hayley and Kelsey said the people in their lives have been understanding and supportive of Angie’s recovery and the effort they put into caring for her.

Kelsey, who is a production coordinator for commercials and reality television shows, said she often has to put off her work for her mother’s care. Before Angie’s accident, Kelsey was working on feature films in New York. She eventually became Angie’s legal guardian and as a result was unable to move out of the state. She said for a long time after moving home she was floating, unsure of what to do until she began to work her way back up in the film world.

For Hayley, participating in Angie’s journey to recovery has inspired her to work hard for her future. Hayley said at the time of Angie’s accident, she was a 19-year-old with no goals and no aspirations. She left the University of Central Missouri after her first semester because she wanted to be at home, but Angie wanted her to finish school. After Angie’s accident, Hayley became inspired to get a college education, and she now puts herself through school entirely on her own.

Making progress

Hayley and Kelsey said before finding NeuroRestorative, doctors were pessimistic about Angie’s ability to recover from her injuries. But Angie has made big strides in her recovery.

They said she has gained confidence and made friends, and she has been able to participate in therapy without the risk of being discharged for not showing signs of progress. Today, they believe there is a good chance Angie could walk again in the next few years, but they said it is really up to her motivation, and a bit of good luck.

Both of her daughters believe one of the reasons Angie has done so well is because of NeuroRestorative. The facility is right by the Southern Illinois University – Carbondale campus, so Angie is often with younger student aides, which makes her feel more at home. Hayley said before the injury, Angie loved being around school environments.

As of April 8, the Rightnowars have raised over $12,000 for Angie’s therapy. Their next step is to utilize their connections and backgrounds in film production to create a documentary about Angie’s experiences, and to shed some light on traumatic brain injuries.

They also plan to raise money for Angie to continue treatment at NeuroRestorative. Hayley said although it has been four years since Angie’s injury, there is still plenty of progress to be made, so they hope that Angie can stay at NeuroRestorative for even longer.

“We’re just shouting it from the rooftops to anybody and everybody that we can,” Kelsey said. “And all we can do is keep trying.”

Angie’s Brain Injury Recovery Fund can be found at gofundme.com/pv75q4 or by searching for the Angie Rightnowar Recovery Fund on Facebook.

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