Many of us have represented the parents of a brain injured or disabled child, a person whose spouse is paralyzed or a loved one with disabling injuries. While we have a certain medical knowledge about the consequences of the injuries to the injured person injuries are not confined to just the person who was injured. They also involve everyone connected to the circle around the injured person.
That includes caregivers as well as the injured person and other uninjured family members. We have learned how all of the relationships are forever changed and will never be the same again. We also know that the evidence shows the divorce rate is much higher in situations involving injured spouses or injured children. We know it is due to the stress of becoming a caregiver, because the injured person isn’t the same person and because the other members of the family unit suffer when all of the attention is directed at the injured member of the family.
I have talked to juries about the fact that the injured person is changed forever. In a case involving a brain injured wife I told the jury what it is like. I’ve said something like this to the jury:
“Helen, at least the Helen George married, doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, we see her physically looking about the same as before the injuries and she is still alive , but she’s not the Helen George fell in love with and married. That Helen whose personality ,wit and attraction George fell in love with was destroyed forever by the injury inflicted on her brain. Those of us who are married were attracted to our spouse by their personality and the essence of who they were. We married them and we found out that they weren’t the perfect people we thought they were and they learned we weren’t so perfect either. We learned to adjust to our mutual imperfections. Over time we became closer to them as we learned to understand them and our relationship grew. However, if suddenly and unexpectedly that same person we learned to love is brain injured like Helen, we now have whole new person we really haven’t met before as a spouse. The profound change in our relationship with that injured person isn’t just a change for us. It is a change for our children, family members and friends as well. Nothing will ever be the same again. The effect of injuries like this cannot be fully foreseen and continuously impact our lives as well as the life of our injured spouse into the forseeable future. ”
James W. Foley’s poem drop a pebble in the water describes the reality of what happens to a family when one of them suffers serious and debilitating injuries:
“Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone; But there’s half-a-hundred ripples Circling on and on and on, Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea. And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be.”
It’s our role in representing injured people to be able to reverse roles with everyone in this kind of a tragic setting. We need to be able to see and feel what it is like when someone you love and are responsible for suffers serious injuries.
Peter Rosenberger has written a book Hope for the Caregiver: Encouraging Words to Strengthen Your Spirit. Rosenberger’s wife, Gracie, was seriously injured in a car collision in 1983. She went through dozens of surgeries and ultimately had her legs amputated. The couple have two sons and Rosenberger and his children have been Gracie’s care giver during her life since the collision.
The New York Times interviewed him. He said he only left her at home alone for short periods and never alone overnight. He has some assistance part-time in the home. He is able to work out of his house and has a radio’s show and gives speeches.
When asked why he had written the book he said that: “More than 65 million Americans serve as volunteer caregivers for vulnerable loved ones. If we are not in a healthy place, we risk becoming a Petri dish of resentment.” Rosenberger says that caregivers should take some breaks – “even if those breaks only come an hour at a time. You help them better if you are healthier, not just physically but fiscally, emotionally and spiritually.”
Rosenberger talks about what he calls the “three I’s” He says these are: (1) loss of independence (2) loss of identity and (3) isolation. He explains that caregivers frequently are so wrapped up in the person they are dealing with that they lose their own identity. For example if you ask a caregiver how they are doing they are likely to say “we” just got home from the hospital. Caregivers often speak in the third person because they have lost their identification. Certainly, caregivers lose significant independence because of the dependence on them by the person they are caring for. If one’s life is largely confined to caring for a person needing around-the-clock care one does not have much of an opportunity to mix with and be with others. That also creates a sense of isolation and aloneness.
Rosenberger recommends support groups as well as the ” three W’s.” He says these are wait, water and walk. In times of high stress learn to wait, bite your tongue drank a glass of water and go for a walk. He recommends taking a moment before responding in a stress situation. Practice breathing slowly until you feel yourself growing calmer. Walking he says also is helpful in removing tension.
While there is no substitute for spending time with your injured client and their families a book like this can provide helpful insight in gaining an understanding of what it is the people you represent are really going through.