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Claremont resident survives, thrives in spite of injury

In May of 2000, the unthinkable happened. A young woman ran a stop sign and broadsided Celeste Palmer’s SUV, causing it to roll. The accident left her, at age 50, bereft of a lifetime of memories.

Ms. Palmer sustained a traumatic brain injury, which left her with anterograde as well as retrograde amnesia. Not only is she unable to recall her pre-accident past, she has difficulty making new memories.

She didn’t recognize her three children and—as someone who no longer remembered how many times a day to brush her teeth—had to consciously relearn her mothering skills in order to care for her 13-year-old son.

Ms. Palmer had run her own consulting firm, specializing in accounting and database management. Suddenly, she was unable to do simple calculations, in large part because she had lost her grasp of the number 4. She was also faced with chronic pain, limited mobility and poor balance, which worsened after she was involved in a second car crash in 2003.

It’s enough to make the most optimistic person give up. Instead, Ms. Palmer decided to start over.

“At some point during my journey, I decided to sculpt a personality for myself because I couldn’t remember my character traits from before the accident,” Ms. Palmer shared in the 2014 anthology, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries. Hers is just one of 101 stories of “hope, healing and hard work” highlighted in the book.

“Based on observing others, I realized that if I became known as a happy person, people would want to be around me,” she continued. “From then on, becoming happy in spite of my circumstances became my mission. It became what I call my Happiness Project.”

In many ways, Ms. Palmer’s situation is as strange as fiction.

As is the case for the protagonist of the 2000 thriller Memento, notes and journals substitute for her short-term memory. And if you thought the romantic comedy 50 First Dates, in which a woman wakes each morning with no memory of the previous day, is far-fetched, Ms. Palmer begs to differ.

“Welcome to my world,” she said.

Nonetheless, Ms. Palmer has persevered at her Happiness Project, determined to overcome setbacks, look for the positive and enjoy life on a moment-by-moment basis.

Ms. Palmer learned pretty quickly she is not alone. Nearly 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year in the United States alone.

There are many soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with TBIs and post-traumatic stress syndrome, another invisible disability that makes it hard for a person to cope the way they once did. Increasing attention is also being paid to the detrimental effects of concussions and other head injuries incurred during athletic events, so more people are being diagnosed with TBIs.

With all that she learned through her own struggles, Ms. Palmer has become a writer, speaker and coach. Her aim, she writes in the Chicken Soup book, is to “empower people to break through self-imposed barriers, implement new strategies and achieve successful outcomes, just as I have.”

Ms. Palmer has also founded a nonprofit organization,  Bridging the Gap: Connecting Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors (www.tbibridge.org). On the site, she shares myriad resources for those with TBI and PTSD and for their families. These include lists of support groups, helpful books and websites, medical facilities and treatment centers. There are posts and videos relating the stories of TBI survivors and forums where visitors can explore topics such as what sort of therapies have helped them relax and heal. For instance, some local TBI survivors have found relief from “brain fog” through hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Ms. Palmer is more than happy to share the activities and treatments from which she has benefited. She makes use of a smorgasbord of therapies, and gives special thanks to Claremont chiropractor Martin McLeod, local massage therapist Lorena Cowle and Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center (PVHMC) physical therapist Amy Newmork.

Two other activities that have proved invaluable are walking meditation at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and community engagement, including volunteering for the PVHMC auxiliary.

“Volunteering, helping others, keeps your focus on others and not on your own pain or problems,” she said.

Ms. Palmer is a realist. On Tuesday evening, she was one of the 20 or so people who attended the Brain Injury Support Group, founded in 2005 by local psychologist Karen Salter-Moss and held at the Claremont Club. Ms. Palmer urged fellow members, including Brian Keyner, a former police officer sidelined by an on-the-job accident, to embrace how they are now. 

But despite her acknowledgement that TBI is characterized by limitations, Ms. Palmer encourages people with brain injuries to ignore some of the well-intentioned messages delivered by medical personnel. It’s common practice for doctors to give TBI patients a two-year window in which their brains can heal. In fact, people with TBIs continue to improve in ways that should be honored, often years after the injury occurs.

Adapting to life changes

Sometimes, as in the case of Baldy resident James Farmer, the improvements merit a full-scale celebration. In 2007, Mr. Farmer—a competitive skier—was injured as the result of an ambitious jump gone wrong. He was in a coma for some time and doctors were unsure whether he would make it. In the aftermath, Mr. Farmer has found himself unable to think and move as easily  as he once did.

His grandmother, Mary Lou Young has been deeply inspired by his story, even penning a book called James Please Awake. The title comes from a line in a poem James’ 13-year-old sister wrote as he fought for his life.

Ms. Salter-Moss will often give the book, along with essentials like a toothbrush and toothpaste, to relatives who find themselves in the hospital, praying for the recovery of a loved one with a TBI.

On Tuesday, Mr. Farmer returned to the Claremont Club support group after a long absence. He had been attending San Joaquin Valley Community College, and he recently earned an associate’s degree in construction management. 

Ms. Young brought a cake to the gathering in order to mark the occasion. Also cheering him on were his grandfather, Paul Young, and his fiancé, Liza Via.

Staying upbeat has been tough for James because, unlike Ms. Palmer, he remembers his fast-paced, pre-injury life. While he still rides his dirt bike from time to time, Mr. Farmer misses whizzing down the ski slopes, his only concern being to top his last trick.

“He has to work through everything slower—everything comes at a slower pace,” Mr. Young said. “All we can do is encourage.”

Mr. Farmer isn’t sure what he will do next, but his family says he has already done plenty.

“We’re proud as punch,” Mr. Young said. “To see him go from lying there, not able to do anything, not even swallow, to doing something like this is amazing.”

James is just one of the many TBI survivors pushing past mental and physical blocks by tapping into the philosophy of Bridging the Gap: Be patient. Be positive. Never give up.

“My life now is rich with close friends, family and activities I enjoy, in addition to my nonprofit work,” Ms. Palmer wrote in her Chicken Soup for the Soul entry.  “I don’t know what my life was like before the accident, but all that matters is that I’m happy now. Attitude truly is everything!”

You can by the book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries: 101 Stories of Hope, Healing and Hard Work, by calling Ms. Palmer at (909) 260-0890 or emailing her at info@tbibridge.org. The cost is $15 plus shipping and handling, with proceeds going toward the Bridging the Gap foundation.

—Sarah Torribio


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