March 21, 2002
Methodist Rehab program helps student return to college, get her life back
By Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Your whole world can change in the blink of an eye.
Last December Sarah Gannon was dancing the night away at her college formal in Memphis. Moments later, she was being rushed to an emergency room.
The Mississippi College senior doesn’t remember much about the wreck that left her with a traumatic brain injury. Authorities say part of a tree broke through the windshield of her date’s car and struck her head.
Eleven days later, she found herself at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson.
“We were getting ready for church Sunday morning when we got the call about the accident,” recalled Sarah’s mother, Mary Ann Gannon. “We were scared to death. I was praying all the way to the hospital.”
After intensive therapy at Methodist Rehab, Sarah is back at MC and going after her elementary education degree with renewed vigor. Not everyone gets a second chance.
When she first arrived at Methodist Rehab, she had problems with her balance and memory. The brain injury team—consisting of physicians, neuropsychologists, nurses, occupational, physical, speech and respiratory therapists and case managers—worked to help her regain her balance and prepared Sarah for outpatient treatment in the hospital’s Quest program.
Quest focuses on returning those with brain injuries to their jobs and communities. “Physical, occupational and speech therapists work with physicians to help patients improve in a setting that’s more tailored to their individual needs than a hospital environment,” said program coordinator Joyce Leverenz. “We set goals for our patients and work on specific skills they may need to get their lives back.”
For Sarah, that meant re-learning how to do her schoolwork and keeping a schedule of her day-to-day activities.
“Short-term memory deficits are common after a brain injury” said Charlene Toney, an occupational therapist at Quest. “Typically, patients who return to college face problems learning new information and processing it in a fast-paced environment. They also have to deal with social changes that can be challenging for a young adult with a brain injury in the college atmosphere.”
Through Quest, Sarah learned new ways to schedule her day and new study skills to help her better retain information and do homework.
“Basically, there are two ways a person recovers after a brain injury,” explained Dr. Risa Thompson, a neuropsychologist in the Brain Injury Program at Methodist Rehab. “Either your brain heals and you get better over time or you develop strategies for doing certain activities another way and getting around your deficits.”
All through therapy, Sarah’s family and friends have been by her side. And Mom, a neonatal nurse, hasn’t let a precious moment slip by without the flashing and whirring of her camera catching it all on film.
“I made all of her friends write a note every time they visited and we’re keeping them all in a scrapbook with the pictures. She doesn’t remember all of it so I want her to be able to look back and see how everyone cared about her,” said Mary Ann Gannon.
Just weeks after her accident, Sarah was back on campus and leading the prayer at a meeting of her school social club, Laguna.
“It was really special,” Sarah said. “I got to thank all of them and talk about my accident.
“It’s been so neat to get back into my social responsibilities,” added Sarah, who is also a member of the Baptist Student Union and the student senate at MC. “I can’t be involved in everything I was yet and I’ve had to let a few things go, but it feels good to be active again.”
Along with fulfilling her school obligations, Sarah is continuing her physical rehabilitation at the school gym doing the same exercises she was taught at Methodist Rehab.
“One of our main goals is for patients to continue their therapy at home and incorporate it in their daily lives,” says Dr. Thompson.
For Sarah, the plan remains the same. Finish MC, do graduate work and teach elementary-aged children. “I’ve considered going to a missionary-type school and I’d like to do some teaching overseas.”
Mom couldn’t be happier. “When I was looking at her in the hospital, it was scary, but when I think of all the injuries she could have had and didn’t, I thank God,” said Mary Ann. “This has been such an experience and we’re so thankful for everything.”
Occupational therapists Nik Carnathan, left, and Charlene Toney, right, oversee Sarah Gannon, center, as she completes homework from her classes at Mississippi College. Making sure she could do her own schoolwork was an important part of helping Gannon return to college after suffering a brain injury in a car accident.