Early one morning about seven years ago, Jane Concato rose out of bed in her Westwood home and headed downstairs.
One false step during her descent changed her life forever.
“I fell down the steps,” said Concato, whose husband, Joe, heard the fall and came running to see what had happened.
Joe found his wife unconscious, squeezed up against the front door.
“He called 911 and then it just all began,” Jane said. “My life with a brain injury.”
Concato’s fall fractured her skull, bruising both her right and left temporal lobes. She remained in a coma at Hackensack Hospital for three excruciating weeks.
The doctors there prepared Concato’s husband for the worst.
“Joe would tell me that when I was in Hackensack Hospital, the neuropsychologist would say, ‘This might be it. She’ll survive, but she might never walk, she might never speak.’”
After coming out of her coma, Concato endured more than six months of cognitive remediation at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange.
Her major cognitive deficits involved speech – both speaking and processing the speech of others – and problem solving. She also was suffering from depression, a common problem for individuals diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury because of the sudden and profound life change it brings about.
“One minute you’re,” Concato paused. “You’re just so different.”
Like many people, Concato didn’t know much about traumatic brain injury, or TBI, before her fall.
In the last seven years, awareness of the condition has grown -- due in large part to the highly publicized TBI epidemic among returning war veterans and football players – even still, few know that the annual incidence of TBI is higher than that of breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS combined.
According to the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, a TBI advocacy group, 12,000 to 15,000 of the 1.4 million people who suffer traumatic brain injuries annually are from New Jersey. BIANJ estimates that 175,000 New Jersey residents currently live with disabilities that resulted from traumatic brain injuries.
The Walk for Thought, a TBI charity walk held last Saturday at Saddle River County Park, is one way the BIANJ and co-sponsor Rehabilitation Specialists of Fair Lawn, are trying to educate the public about brain injury and raise funds to support those affected by it.
Much of BIANJ’s brain injury work focuses on education and prevention, which its website calls, “the only cure for brain injury.”
“There will always be accidents,” BIANJ president and CEO Barbara Geiger-Parker said, “but we do know good ways to prevent injury.”
In terms of car safety, Geiger-Parker cited wearing a seatbelt, making sure children are secured in safety seats and not drinking and driving.
Signs with brain injury prevention tips like these were scattered along the one-mile walk’s path.
Mayor Lisa Swain, who participated in last weekend’s walk, said the experience made her reflect on her own close call with a potentially serious head injury.
“I once had a bad bike crash,” Swain said, when discussing the Walk at Tuesday’s council work session. “If it hadn’t been for me wearing my bike helmet, I might have been walking on that walk in a different way. We’re fortunate that we have a lot of wonderful organizations in Fair Lawn that support people who are disabled in one way or another.”
Fair Lawn-based Rehabilitation Specialists have sponsored and coordinated the one-mile walk through the park’s Dunkerhook section with the help of its own staff members, patient's families and volunteers for the past six years.
“It started off as a dream,” said Virgilio Caraballo, president of Rehabilitation Specialists, “and now, six years in, we’ve got teams, we’ve got the folks that we know every year that donate our bagels and our Entenmann’s, and it’s become this machine that now, I don’t want to say it too loudly, but it runs really smoothly.”
In addition to the walk, breakfast and lunch are provided to participants, and kids have a smorgasbord of activities to choose from, including pumpkin decorating, bracelet making, sand art, face painting and hula hooping, to name a few.
This year’s walk, which attracted TBI victims, their families and friends, and any walk-ups who stumbled upon the festivities, totaled more than 150 participants, including regulars Jane and Joe Concato, who’ve been doing it for the past five years.
Almost seven years sincer her fall, it’s hard to tell Jane once suffered a serious brain injury.
Her speech and comprehension have returned, but she said she still trips sometimes when she gets tired, and has fallen on occasion. She controls her focal seizures with medication and has at times experienced vertigo. Fatigue prevents her from returning to her former job as a dental hygienist.
But she considers herself blessed to have recovered as much as she has.
Today, Concato and her husband are facilitators of the Brain Injury Support Group of Bergen County, an affiliated BIANJ support group with about 80 members. In her spare time, Concato makes regular visits, with her therapy dog Lucy, to patients undergoing rehabilitation for brain injuries at the Kessler Institute in West Orange.
“Sometimes I’m busier now than I was before my brain injury,” she said. “It’s just different, but it’s good… Our whole life has changed and it all centers around brain injury. In a positive way.”