Traveling with a Traumatic Brain Injury

The term “traumatic brain injury” can be misinterpreted. Sometimes the trauma is caused by something that was truly traumatic to the person. But sometimes it is an aftermath of something that happened over a prolonged amount of time. When mentioned, it shapes the way that people interact with the individual. For example, I have hydrocephalus or “water on the brain” and had to have seven shunt surgeries that resulted in long-term memory loss. A shunt is a valve and tube system that is surgically put in the brain and allows the fluid to drain either into the peritoneal cavity (VP shunt) or the ventriculoatrial (VA) that drains into the right atrium of the heart. I have a VP shunt and had seven revision surgeries, hence the reason I have long-term memory loss due to a medical “traumatic brain injury.” I appear completely normal in overall function and my ability to interact with people and perform tasks; it’s when there’s a time and space element involved like transitioning to new tasks, or engaging with people while I am performing a task, that things get tricky. 

A traumatic brain injury isn’t only referring to something severe like the aftermath of a car accident or when someone returns from serving overseas. It is an acquired brain injury that happens when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. The brain is changed in its neuroplasticity, so it has a new way of taking in and interpreting information. It creates a new way in which the individual exists in the world. 

This leads to the different challenge areas of: cognition (dealing with thinking, memory, and reasoning), sensory processing, communication, and behavioral and/or mental health. Because the brain is one of the least impacted parts of the human body when we look at our evolution, going through something new like experiencing a new place or meeting a new person can help exercise our neuroplasticity in a way that can help us overcome the challenges that exist long-term. The way that we do things hasn’t changed in regard to how our minds process travel. We know we have points A and B and that there are processes that get us between those points effectively. However, travel also puts us directly into the unknown. When people live with a traumatic brain injury many of them develop a routine that creates familiarity and effortlessness…at home. The bedside table is what they wake up to first thing in the morning, and the breakfast table is where they eat their first meal before the day begins and possibly where dinner occurs at the day’s end. No matter where they are in the world, these concepts of place remain the same. Sometimes the setup of the entire space is different, but the word association can be deliberately made, and the brain will understand that when the person is in the given space, that is the purpose that the space is meant for. Or….you can be like me and have an array of Post It notes all over the new environment that allows you to navigate much easier. 

When I am traveling, I set up my bedside exactly as I have it at home and put my luggage all together in a designated space that I can return to with ease. I do this same process when I am out and about, but it does become trickier. When I did my first solo trip to see my aunt and uncle in Arizona, I knew their faces well enough to focus on following the signs of the airport until I was greeted by them. The room at their house that I stayed in was a section of my aunt and uncle’s bedroom, which is the main master bedroom of their house, so it was easy for me to associate the master bedroom with having my space as well….or I could follow the trail of dog hair that was produced from their three big dogs that they had at the time!

The process of travel for me involves making sure that everything I need is close by. My spatial judgement is the biggest damage that I have. With the way that space and time relate I have to make sure that both information and belongings are prepared properly to allow for a smooth travel process. It’s not a vision issue, it’s how my brain can hold onto memories like the placement of material things and agendas. For example, I went to England in the eighth grade and we had an itinerary that outlined everywhere we were going to be for each day of the trip. However, it was made loosely enough to allow for us to explore the different new areas we were in. I never got lost from the group, but if I had, I would have had the itinerary with me to guide me back to where we had last been or where we were headed. I did get stuck in the London tube at one point…so that was a close call! But a hilarious memory of the trip nonetheless. 

The few keys to travelling with a brain injury are: keeping the approach to the daily routines consistent, being open about the disability, and informing people who are in a position to be of service so they understand how to coexist and create the best traveling experience for you and transferring the home routine way of being to the new destination.

by Cora Eddy