- Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
At 39, George's life changed forever. He was diagnosed with a large brain tumor and underwent immediate surgery, and the surgery left him with cognitive, emotional regulatory, and physical disabilities. George participates in the New Start Brain Injury Community Center, a center that supports people who live with a brain injury. The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) supports New Start as part of the Statewide Head Injury Program (SHIP).
What was your first interaction with MRC?
The first connection was when I walked into New Start Brain Injury Clubhouse, and it certainly wasn't at the top of my list of things to do; it was more like, "Okay, Robin (my wife), I'll do it," but I'm glad I did it.
As soon as I walked in and saw the place, saw what it was about, and how it was run, I knew it was a place for me. It was almost custom-tailored for me. It has a big, beautiful kitchen, and I love to cook. The membership unit focuses on the office stuff like sending out flyers and reminders, staying in touch with other members, and doing community outreach. There's the janitorial unit as well. The advancement unit, where I ended up working, helps people find benefits that they may be looking for or help them with employment and things like that. It was literally a business, and it was awesome.
What role does MRC/New Start play in your life?
It's a place where I can take all of the stuff I've learned in the mental health aspect of my rehab, occupational and cognitive behavioral therapy, and I can put it to work in a safe, non-judgmental real-world environment. I fully credit New Start for giving me the platform I've had over the past couple of years to be a voice for brain injury awareness, and they've helped me become a better advocate for brain injury and brain tumors.
Which challenges have MRC helped you tackle?
When I was 39, I had headaches for 6-12 months, I finally told my wife, Robin, about them, and she made me make a doctor's appointment. I went to a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. That weekend I ended up in the ER with the worst headache I've had in my life. On St. Patrick's Day at 1:03 p.m., the doctors came in and told me I had a large mass on the left side of my cerebellum and that I had a brain tumor. They wanted to operate on me right away, but because the medicine for the pain was a blood thinner, they had to wait eight days. I didn't have a chance to do anything. I got out of the hospital, came home for a few days, and went in for major brain surgery. They had to take out half of the left side of my cerebellum, which left me with several cognitive and emotional regulatory and physical disabilities. I was diagnosed with cognitive cerebellum affective syndrome and PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
New Start helped me get to where I wanted to be when all of this happened. I said I wanted to help advocate and help fundraise for the brain injury and brain tumor communities, and I now sit on the state's brain injury council. I've sat on three panels for congressionally directed a rare cancer research project, and it's all thanks to New Start. Sure, I put in the work, but they helped give me the platform and networking opportunity to start doing what I want to do.
I came to the clubhouse because I was depressed, had become an introvert, and needed mental stimulation. I had all of this rehab going on, but I was still missing something. New Start helped me put all the pieces of my therapy together. It's one thing to go to OT and Cognitive therapy sessions. It's a whole other thing to be able to put those skills and strategies to use in a real-world environment and try to tinker with them to find out what's going to work for you and figure out how I was going to live the rest of my life as a brain injury survivor. The mentoring that happens there and the ability I had to take all of the therapy I received and think, "I do still have skills, and I can be a productive member of society, and I'm just going to have to do it this way."
Finding MRC as a place to help me do that's huge. You can have all the therapy in the world, but until you put it together and get back to the real world, so to speak, it's going to waste.
How would you describe your relationship with The New Start Staff?
I love the staff. They are empathetic and compassionate, yet they also know their boundaries. They're the most helpful people you'll ever come across, and there hasn't been a staff member that has walked in that building that I haven't felt entirely comfortable with. They become part of your family, and there is a genuine love for them. I've said this many times; New Start doesn't just bring out the best in people with brain injury. It brings out the best in the people who work there. You can't walk in that place and not smile.
What barriers to living in the community has New Start helped you overcome?
Getting out in the community helped me not be ashamed. It's a place where I've been able to take the skills and strategies from all of these therapies and put them into a legit real-world work experience. It helped me discover my self-worth again and realize I still have plenty of the skills I had before all of this, but I have to do things differently now. It's taken a while, and I'm still not 100% there, but New Start has played a big role in helping me accept that.
I want people to know that these are literally life-changing and, in some instances, including mine, life-saving programs. They help people find their place in the community again. They help them find their self-worth and really make them re-examine the role that people want to play in their community. People with brain injury are not just a bunch of people coloring pictures or making crafts out of popsicle sticks. There are real things that people with brain injury are doing and accomplishing every day that are amazing, and these programs have a lot to do with it.