August 10, 2004
Bank employee cashes in on therapy, makes dramatic change to return to work
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
MADISON, Miss.—As Penny Cooper prepared to undergo gastric bypass surgery in March of 2003, the Madison businesswoman couldn’t wait to put her plus-sized days behind her.
She looked forward to a new reflection in the mirror and the satisfaction of winning her battle with obesity. Little did she know that her quest to improve her body would soon be overshadowed by a fierce struggle to reclaim her mind.
Two weeks after having the same surgery that downsized Today show weatherman Al Roker, Cooper suffered a complication that affects less than 1 percent of gastric bypass patients.
A blood clot developed in the deep veins of her leg (a risk related to inactivity after surgery and a history of smoking) and lodged in an artery in her lung. Called a pulmonary embolism, the condition blocks oxygen to the brain and kills about 60,000 Americans each year.
Although Cooper’s heart stopped beating three times, she survived the embolism. “I told my husband Don he should have known I would come back,” she said. “I have been told since I was a child how hard-headed I am!”
In the 17 months since, that single-mindedness has been a saving grace. Although her brain was damaged by lack of oxygen—a condition known as an anoxic brain injury—Cooper was determined to make a comeback. Today, the former assistant vice president for BankPlus is back at work as an executive receptionist.
Cooper said one key to her recovery was having access to Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s Quest program, an outpatient service in Jackson that helps brain injury survivors make the transition back to school, work and community life. “They’re a wonderful group of people who give enormous energy, spirit and devotion to their patients,” she said. “God is using them daily to help patients get their lives back.”
A classic go-getter, Cooper arrived at Quest in August of 2003, ready to devote all her energies to reclaiming her rung on the corporate ladder. “She wanted to go back to work from the moment she stepped in the door,” said Dr. Clea Evans, a neuropsychologist at Quest. “She threw herself 100 percent into therapy.”
Still, it remained to be seen whether Cooper’s abilities would support her ambitions. Anoxic brain injuries can be particularly damaging to areas of the brain associated with memory.
Cooper had little trouble recalling her distant past, which is not unusual for brain injury survivors. True amnesiacs are more common in soap operas and movie scripts than they are in the real world, said Dr. Mark Sherer, director of Methodist’s neuropsychology program.
In reality, people like Cooper more often experience problems with “recent memories—post event,” explained Sherer. Still, few have the extreme loss of short term memory dramatized in movies like “50 First Dates” and “Finding Nemo.”
“I hate to watch those kinds of movies,” said Dr. Stuart Yablon, a rehabilitation physician and medical director for Methodist’s brain injury program. “I can’t help but want to throw things at the screen. It makes me wonder who they talked to about brain injuries.”
Yablon said it’s unusual to see a patient awaken every morning with absolutely no memories of the day before. More common are brain injury survivors who are capable of forming and retrieving recent memories but need medications and/or coping strategies to help them remember on a more consistent basis. Cooper, for instance, uses techniques such as note taking and to-do lists to bolster her memory—strategies she learned at Quest.
To help Cooper adjust to her new job at BankPlus, Quest occupational therapist Charlene Toney worked with the bank to define the skills needed for the position and then simulated those activities in the Quest office. “We let her do some filing, some organizational work and let her answer the phone some days and take messages,” Toney said.
Evans and Toney said Cooper was fortunate to have an employer who was eager to help her return to work. “BankPlus really didn’t want to lose her because she is an asset to them,” Evans said.
“They were just incredibly accommodating,” Toney said. “When employers are like that, I want to get on the news at night and thank them for all they do. People don’t understand how huge the value of this is.”
Cooper said her recovery also was aided by support from coworkers, friends and family, especially her older sister Nancy Carole King of Oxford. “If not for her, I would be sitting home just ‘duh.’ ”
King, who is trained in speech pathology, supplemented Cooper’s therapy at Methodist with sessions at her home in Oxford. “She called me the drill sergeant,” King said. “We would go to the park and walk, then she would get in the pool and I would bring out memory games and drill her.”
Soon, Cooper began celebrating milestones—such as handling her own medications and getting back her driver’s license. But the biggest boost to her ego was her triumphant return to BankPlus. “I immediately wanted business cards,” she said.
Cooper’s return to work felt like coming home, and Sherer said such feelings of familiarity provide a best-case scenario for brain injury survivors. “One principle of rehab is to try to capitalize on the things they knew before the injury instead of teaching them new things,” Sherer said. “You want to get them back to the kind of work they had before.”
While Cooper got use to being back at work, she also faced the double whammy of adjusting to a new body. The gastric bypass helped her lose more than 100 pounds, and she’s working hard at the gym to maintain her new look.
Cooper also is getting accustomed to some changes in her personality. While she is still a bold and sassy extrovert who dearly loves an audience, she believes her brush with tragedy left her “softer and gentler.”
She’s also more assured of her faith, and now sees herself as an advocate for people with brain injuries and a testament to God’s grace. “So many people out there don’t know what to do about a brain injury. I would tell them you have to open up your heart and ask the heavenly father for strength you didn’t even know you had. If you get your business together, you can beat this thing.”
Penny Cooper is back on the job at BankPlus after suffering a pulmonary embolism and an anoxic brain injury. Cooper said one key to her recovery was having access to Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s Quest program, an outpatient service in Jackson that helps brain injury survivors make the transition back to school, work and community life.