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Health and Fitness

Traumatic Brain Injuries

If Only Everything Could Be Seen and Heard

Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, started off like any other weekday morning for Chief Sonya Ansarov. As usual, she woke up at 4:30 a.m., got ready for work, and hit the road for her 45-minute drive to the Pentagon.

It was dark and raining as she came up to the red light just down the street from her home. Staring at the light and listening to the wipers, she began to mentally prepare for what the day would bring - and then she felt it.

From out of nowhere she was struck from behind by a large truck.

"It felt like a bomb went off," said Ansarov. "It threw me very hard forward and side-to-side and I hit my head on my driver side window. Thankfully, instinct kicked in and I was able to slam on my brakes before hitting the moving traffic in the intersection."

Ansarov had been hit by a 13-year-old boy who had been smoking marijuana and stolen his father's vehicle. She felt immediate pain in her head, neck and back from being thrown around so violently. The ambulance arrived on scene and pulled her out of her vehicle and onto a c-spine board.

"I was hurt and I knew I was hurt, but didn't know how bad," she said.

It took eight months for doctor's to figure out just how bad it really was - eight months for them to finally see the unseen. Ansarov had suffered a mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI.)

"Immediately after the accident I had received a once over and had gotten x-rays. I was extremely sore and started physical therapy right away, but thankfully nothing was broken," said Ansarov.

Only something was broken. Not a bone, but something even more fragile. A little more than a month after the wreck, one of Ansarov's invisible injuries almost claimed her life.

"Scar tissue left internally by the impact of my seatbelt set up a blockage, which led to a major internal infection," she said. "I was in ICU for several days and I was on oxygen and had a central-line IV placed in my neck. After a week, I was better and released from the hospital."

Thinking things could only get better from there, Ansarov tried to get back to her normal routine. However, she quickly realized that things became anything but.

"I started having difficulties concentrating, remembering things, formulating thoughts; I was losing track of time and days, and getting noticeably anxious," said Ansarov. "I was feeling angry more often and doing crazy thinks like putting my car keys in the refrigerator or freezer. I would go to sleep and wake up without hardly any memory from the previous day. I had to leave myself sticky notes all over the place reminding me what day it was and the steps I had to do to get ready. I would get lost driving places that I had been driving to for years. If I had to park in a parking garage, I had to take a picture of where I parked to avoid losing my car, panicking because I couldn't find it, and calling for help - which has happened too many times to count."

Ansarov started feeling lost at her job and said she couldn't understand why. She had no idea what was going on in her head.

"I felt like a stranger in my own body and a prisoner in my brain," she said. "I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what it was, or how to explain it."

One day during a chance conversation with a hospital corpsman who had recently returned from Iraq she got her first clear answer. He had dealt with Marines and Sailors who suffered from mTBI. He asked her a series of questions and after hearing her answers he encouraged her to talk to her doctors about a possible mTBI. She did. After two days of intense tests, she was finally diagnosed with mTBI and finally able to begin treatment.

"I entered treatment at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth for three weeks to learn what an mTBI was, how it affected me, and how to cope and accept the person that I was now," said Ansarov. "It was three weeks of intense treatment at the hospital, followed by continued treatment for as long as it takes to get better."

They explained to Ansarov that when she was hit, her brain shook. That had caused physical injury by pulling and breaking connections in her brain - connections that would take time to reconnect.

"All of this took a major toll on me," said Ansarov. "There were no physical signs for anyone to see. No cast for my brain so everyone could physically see that I was injured. It was devastating. I struggled to communicate. I couldn't remember things that had just happened. I began to withdraw from everything and everyone. It was difficult trying to explain to people what was happening and some people didn't believe me or take me seriously, which drove me inside even more.

For Ansarov, the cruelest part about the mTBI is that she could remember who she was along with the harsh reality that person no longer existed.

"I was so outgoing and I couldn't be that anymore," she said. "I have to retire from the Navy because I am no longer able to do my job. I have to accept that I'm a different person now."

Thankfully Ansarov has a supportive family who despite taking the brunt of her frustration, continue to do everything possible to help her toward recovery.

"My advice for mTBI survivors and their families is to take it one day at a time - even if you can't remember that day," said Ansarov. "Sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps backward, but eventually it starts to get better, with continued love, patience and tons of support."

The hardest part was getting a non-combat mTBI diagnoses, said Ansarov. The key is to continue the conversation and to realize that sometimes the worst injuries are the ones that can't be seen.