Do we take things for granted? I want to say we do. Previously, I was an LPN at the St, Mary’s Hospital Brain Injury Trauma Unit. I wasn’t a hospital employee, I was a nurse through an agency. I always loved my job there as I was fascinated by the human brain and the resiliency it had. I worked watching people come back from nowhere. For months, they laid life-less, in a coma, a fragment of their former selves; people who suffered strokes, head injuries from trauma, being suffocated with a loss of oxygen to their brains, kids who stupidly got in a car and drove drunk, anything that rendered them a brain injury patient. We had babies, teen-agers, younger people, middle-aged and elderly. No matter what, it was fascinating to watch people wake up and then become themselves again by re-learning everything.

Can you stop for a moment and imagine how it would feel to open your eyes and feel trapped inside your own body? Or to open your eyes and then try to move your legs and they no longer work? What if you wake up and do not remember anything? You have no idea what happened? Who the people are in your room staring down at you? Treasured memories such as college graduation, your wedding, birth of your child the most important things in life erased from your memory and there is nothing there. The understanding of language could be gone.  How to walk? How to eat? How to balance your check book? All gone. Yet these are the challenges many people who suffer a brain injury go through and make it back.

Think about how we also gain much of our feelings about ourselves from what we look like, the clothes we wear and other things that define our beauty. Especially as a woman, imagine waking up and the first time you are allowed to look in a mirror and all of your hair is shaved off. You have a long scar from the beginning of your head to the back all adorned with silver staples. That is not what you looked like when you went to sleep but that is how you look now. It’s all too much to imagine. What happened when you were gone? Are your kids okay? What about your husband? When can you go home? The questions go on-and-on. These simple things we all take for granted that don’t seem to be all that much can be taken away in an instant. But I just survived a brain injury so go ahead and stare. This is the story of how one woman fought the odds and made it back. She reclaimed her life and came out kicking.

In June of 2016, Jennifer Zigenfus Boyce, was a vibrant, beautiful, young woman. She had it all; a perfect family with a loving, husband and a 9-year-old son. She enjoyed working as a successful and knowledgeable paralegal. Expecting a routine ER hospital visit, the family was blown away when a resident relayed “your wife needs surgery in the next 60 minutes or she is going to die.” What does a young man do when the burden of making medical decisions fall on his lap? Suddenly, he must make decisions about his wife’s life and if he makes the wrong decision she could die. How does a normal day turn into this? Jeremy Boyce made the right decision and his wife lived.

On the day this happened, Jennifer was rushed to the hospital by her husband after a prolonged period of intense back pain. Jennifer feels very spiritual and believes she must have a guardian angel. Up to this point, the hospital visit focused solely on the pain she was experiencing. She was admitted and she fell and hit her head on the toilet. Before she fell she had MRI’s and CT Scans but they were from the neck down because they were searching for the cause of the intense back pain.  Because of the possible head injury from falling, the hospital took preventive measures by doing the MRI of her head which showed multiple abscesses on her brain. She said after looking at the MRI her brain looked like Swiss cheese.

Donovan, the couple’s 9-year-old son, suddenly knows only that his mom is very sick, is in the hospital and he is not allowed to see her. What should he be told? Mommy suddenly isn’t there to read stories or tuck him in at night and no one can tell him when that will happen again. How does a family deal and hold it together through all of this?

When first waking up, Jennifer experienced a left- sided weakness. It looked like she would not be able to walk. She needed two nurses and a walker to go to the bathroom. Imagine how to suddenly have to worry about whether you could make it to the bathroom on your own without being dependent on others. During the month, she was hospitalized, she had to wear Depends at times, experiencing incontinence. The IV medication Jennifer now needed to treat the abscesses had a side effect of diarrhea.

When I asked Jennifer, what was the most frustrating part of this. She relayed a story where she was sitting on a bed pan. The was the first day that she remembers anything in the hospital after the day she was admitted and it turned out it was her last day in the ICU. She recalled worrying if it was time for her son Donovan to come visit because she didn’t want him to come into the room when she was sitting on the bed pan – she hadn’t seen him in so long and didn’t want him to see her that way.

Jennifer was lucky in that her doctors in the ICU were compassionate. The rules of the hospital restrict ICU visiting to people over the age of 14. Jennifer was grateful the medical staff recognized the urgency she had to maintain her relationship with her son especially after almost dying. She feels sad now whenever an ambulance siren is heard her son runs and screams out “Mommy! Mommy! Are you okay?”

Some days Jennifer recalls wanting to give up, as it is a bit much to go through something like this. She was thankful she had her family and she gained her strength mostly from them. Jeremy, her husband slept in the ICU with her for the duration she was there. Her

mother came up from Ithaca and stayed for several months and helped care for Donovan. Her father was also by her side. Jennifer remembers hearing someone ask Jeremy if she was going to be okay. He said, “She’s fine she flipped me off”.  Humor helped her make it through. Jeremy had to use tough love on Jennifer on some days to keep her pushing through. Jennifer sometimes didn’t want to do her therapy – the therapy sessions for hours a day were grueling, exhausting and intense. She remembers Jeremy telling her: “Just suck it up and do it.” Jennifer remembers how he was never mean just very stern in encouraging her not to give up.

Jennifer, a paralegal of 17 years, worked for the downtown law firm of Brenna and Boyce. Jennifer went in the hospital in June of 2016 and was hospitalized for a month. She had to begin rehabilitation and stayed through an extensive rehabilitation including speech, occupational and physical therapy hours a day daily. Jennifer remembers thinking: “I know I have to be in the hospital but I want to go home.” She missed her own blankets and pillows. She wanted to pet her cats. She missed the familiarity of lying down and taking a nap on her couch. This was extensive. She could not return to work for 4 months. She couldn’t drive for 6 month. IV antibiotics were continued at home and administered by Jennifer, her husband and her mom 2 – 3 times a week and a home care nurse came and did twice weekly dressing changes and blood draws. Basically, life as she knew it was over. She was dependent on everyone else. It sucked.

Having an employer who understood was a god-send for Jennifer. Being disabled and out of work for so long definitely placed a financial burden on the family. Jennifer was glad she did not have to worry about being terminated from her job. Mr. Brenna was very understanding and he allowed the flexibility to accommodate Jennifer as she returned to work. Returning to real life and putting this behind you is very important to allow you to put your life back together. Jennifer recalls underestimating how tiring going back to work would be. She first adjusted her hours because she had to rely on Jeremy to drive her to and from work.  Everything she had to do was a process.

In the beginning, Jen says:

“I would not go out in public. I had a large scar on my head. My head was shaved and my head was basically stapled back together. I remember how people looked at me as if I was a freak. I was very self-conscious of my appearance. But after thinking about it, I said I just survived brain surgery stare all you want. I’m alive”.

Going through this experience made Jennifer see how much we as people take for granted. She is forever grateful for having the undying support of her husband, her parents and her friends as she navigated her way back from disability.

Her friends at work at Brenna Boyce also with their understanding, compassion and assistance recognize how difficult this transition was for Jennifer. Employer Robert Brenna Jr. Esq. began his career as a mental health aide so he had a background working in the healthcare field. He encouraged everyone to assist Jennifer with her transition upon her return.

Robert stated:

“It is always an honor to have an employee to ask to return to Brenna Boyce. In Jen’s case, our friendship has been long and enduring. She has stamina and character that we should all emulate. Changing and adapting for her absence was something we did willingly and to make sure she was okay when it was all concluded. We are proud to have her back.”

Being a former fellow associate who worked with Jennifer I can personally say this is an example of a phenomenal woman. She is an inspiration to others that we can never give up. The strength she has as an individual is amazing to live through this trauma and come back. Despite personal challenges, we as women must rise above. Jennifer is a great role-model for all of us of a survivor. So, I stand with her as she says: “Go ahead and stare, I survived a brain injury!”