Group provides support for those with brain injuries

There is a green sandwich board sign propped by the sidewalk at 1044 East End Road with a short message:

Brain Injury Support Group

Meets Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

If the sign is out, then at 1 p.m., Kathy Stingley will be inside waiting. Even if no one else shows up. 

Stingley, who grew up in a care-giving family in Oregon, provides the time and space for those who have experienced either a traumatic or acquired brain injury to come and share their experience with others. 

When Stingley first moved to Homer in 1973, she worked with mental health as an outpatient provider for 11 years. During that time one of her clients was a young lady who had cerebral palsy. The girl and her family moved to Vashon Island, Washington, but because of Stingley’s close relationship with their daughter, they asked if she would consider coming to stay with her for five weeks while they went on a trip.

Stingley arrived on Vashon Island ready for a change in her work. When she happened to see a flyer for a presentation on something called HANDLE, Holistic Approach to NeruoDevelopment and Learning Efficiency, Stingley and the girl decided to attend. 

The presentation was by Judith Bluestone, founder of HANDLE, who had neurodevelopmental difficulties herself. Her approach was to observe a person’s behavior, then create simple activities to stimulate and help reconnect areas of their brain that had been disrupted by their injury.

“By the end of her presentation my face hurt from grinning,” said Stingley. “Because I’d spent eleven years treating behaviors and symptoms, and she’s talking about treating the root cause — and I was so excited.”

Stingley returned to Homer for three weeks, then headed back to Seattle for three weeks of training with Bluestone. She hasn’t stopped since. As a HANDLE Practitioner in Homer, she operates Thoughtful Therapies, working with people who have an array of neurological difficulties from learning differences to brain injuries.

An example of a HANDLE activity is “hug and tug.” When a person hooks their index fingers together and gently pulls on them, it stimulates the area of the brain where memory is stored, helping to remember a word or name. 

“It seems magical, but it’s not. It’s very, very, well based in neurological science, and our understanding of how the brain works and how it has developed,” said Stingley.

It was through two of her HANDLE clients that Stingley became aware of the need for the support group. Both had brain injuries from strokes, and one of them mentioned that there wasn’t a support group in Homer. 

That comment of need prompted her to begin hosting Homer’s Brain Injury Support Group in 2002.

Martha Ellen Anderson, who is in her 80s, experienced a subarachnoid (just below the brain) aneurysm about five years ago. While at the support group, Anderson said she  notices Stingley giving individual attention to everyone, according to his or her needs.

“Not only does (Stingley) have a genuine concern for others, she has studied profound tools and therapies to help people understand themselves in new ways,” said Anderson. “She challenges them, has infinite patience and never talks down to them.”

Lena Davis, who was part of the support group for almost a year while living in Homer, said she thinks it was really important to talk to other people with brain injuries. 

“Everybody’s got different things going on,” she said.

Davis, who is in her 50s, hit her forehead on a beam more than three years ago. After her stitches and two black eyes healed, she still had symptoms from the accident, as well as inner ear damage. 

“I tried to work, and I kept rearranging work to accommodate me,” said Davis, whose condition deteriorated, causing her to move to Seattle to be closer to medical care.

Each year, an average of 610 Alaskans are hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury or TBI, according to the Alaska Brain Injury Network’s online fact sheet. Symptoms of a TBI may include confusion, forgetfulness, headache, blurred vision, trouble speaking and changes in emotions or sleep patterns.

Laurel Epps experienced a TBI when she was in a car accident in December 2002. She spent two weeks at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, then worked with Stingley at HANDLE in Homer for the next four years, also attending the support group.

Now, Epps lives in Anchorage, but said she still does two or three HANDLE activities almost daily. 

“It helps my brain get stronger,” she said.

Some HANDLE activities may be incorporated into the support group, but mostly, it’s a time for people to connect with each other.

“It’s very small and intimate, so it’s a safe place to talk,” said Epps. 

Everyone is given time to share, and after they are done they can say they are open for feedback — or that they don’t want any. Some might be newly injured, while others are living with an injury that happened years ago. 

Epps said she’s been surprised by how many people don’t realize they have had a brain injury. 

“Anyone who has hit their head probably has affected their brain in some way,” she said. 

Brain Injury Support Group meets Tuesdays at 1 p.m., 1044 East End Road. For more information call 235-6226 or email handleofhomer@yahoo.com. Family members and caregivers are welcome to attend. 

For more information on available resources, visit the Alaska Brain Injury Network at alaskabraininjury.org or call 888-574-2824. Also, the YouTube video, “You Look Great! Inside a traumatic brain injury,” a six-part short video series, explains one man’s experience with a traumatic brain injury — and his subsequent recovery. 

Toni Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.


Brain Injury Support Group 

Meetings:

1 p.m. Tuesday

Where:

1044 East End Road. 

Info: 

Call 235-6226 

or email handleofhomer@yahoo.com

Family members and caregivers are welcome to attend. 

Resources:

Available from the Alaska Brain Injury Network at alaskabraininjury.org
or call 888-574-2824. 

SOME FACTS:

Each year, 53 people are hospitalized for Traumatic Brain Injury on the Kenai Peninsula.

Four out of five were caused by:

• Assaults

• Falls

• Motor vehicle and ATV crashes

One out of four injured was under the influence of alcohol.

Nearly half are under 40.

ways to prevent traumatic brain injury:

• Use a helmet when riding a bike, ATV, or snowmachine.

• Wear a seatbelt.

• Make sure your baby or small child is secured properly in a booster seat or car seat.

• Use ice cleats when walking on ice.

• Wear reflective tape on your coat, backpack or helmet.

• Don’t drink and drive.


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