It isn’t what happens to you in life, but what you do with it that is important, Chris Hotaling said. He will always remember Oct. 22, 1999 as the day that changed his life forever. “It was just a routine day,” Chris said. “I said good-bye to my wife, Amy, and got on the bus. On nice days, I would walk the mile-and-a-half to Martin Luther King High School in New York City. I stopped and got a bagel and checked my mail.”
Chris, 45, who worked at the school as a guidance counselor, was having a meeting with a colleague named Irma when the fire alarm went off. A student ran in saying it was not a false alarm and to leave the building. While standing on a cross platform in front of large double doors leading to a staircase, a student came through an adjacent steel door swinging it open, hitting Chris on his right temple. The impact was so forceful it knocked him unconscious. “He called me at work, I was just heading into a big meeting; my bank had just been taken over by Wachovia. He was not making any sense. He said they wanted him to go to the ER, but he was OK.,”Amy said.
The couple met while they were both students at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., and married four years later. An ER doctor asked Chris who the president was and how many fingers he was holding up, then gave him the proverbial advice,“take two aspirin and go home.” That was a Friday, and by Saturday, he was pretty much a zombie, Amy said. “He was screaming out in pain. He dragged his left foot when he walked. By Sunday, his headaches were worse and one side of his head from the temple to his lips was numb,” Amy said. “I helped him get down to a taxi from our second-story brownstone and went to Jersey City Medical Center.” By this time, Chris’s motor skills were so bad he couldn’t feed himself, his speech was a constant stutter, and he had no balance. “It is scary seeing someone you love literally fade before your eyes,” Amy said. “They have pills for everything else, why not pills for this? I knew nothing about head injuries.”
Chris spent several weeks struggling to cope at home until a bed opened up at an in-patient head trauma unit. He was carried in by his two younger brothers, Bill and Paul. By this time, he said he was shaking like a tree in the wind, couldn’t hold his head up and refused to speak because it had become so difficult to send words to his lips from his brain. At the beginning of rehab, he was literally strapped in his wheelchair. He began occupational therapy for his motor skills, psychotherapy and neuron-psychological testing to determine which part of his brain had been impacted when he hit the railing, a wall and then the floor during his fall. “It was a very difficult time, the darkest days of my life,”Chris said. “My therapist, Eric, who had to teach me to walk again, would repeat ‘heal, toe.’ I would circle the nurses station in my wheelchair, repeating, heal, toe, until one day a nurse said, ‘you are going to wear out the carpet,’ and I said, ‘then you’ll have to put a new one in.’” He said he had a defining moment one cold overcast winter day while strapped in his wheelchair, when he had a conversation with God, saying he couldn’t live this way anymore. “Either take me or send me a sign and I will fight like hell to get out of this place,” Chris said. Suddenly, he looked up at the reflection in the window and saw his brother, Bill, who had unexpectedly showed up. He had just found out that day he could leave the rehab clinic if someone helped take him out. “Bill bought me a hat, gloves and scarf and we went and had a hamburger, it was the first time in a long time I had done something normal,” Chris said. A light rain began to fall and as the two walked along Park Avenue, Chris saw the twinkling of little white lights adorning the evergreen trees, and at that moment, he knew things were going to be all right.
He spent 21 days as an in-patient and then ongoing psychotherapy to help him heal emotionally. He credits the love, care and support of his wife and family to help him on his journey. “Every day continues to be some type of therapy,” Amy said. Because Chris couldn’t feel the bottoms of his feet while walking on the snow and ice and his eyes were sensitive to rain, the couple moved to Glendale last year to improve the quality of his life. “I have moved on with my new life and think less of my old life,” Chris said. “I don’t think ‘why me?’ I think ‘why not me.’” They visited the Brain Injury Association of Arizona to find a support group for brain injury survivors and their caregivers, but found there wasn’t one in Glendale.
So, in conjunction with HealthSouth Valley of the Sun Rehabilitation Hospital, they began the “North West Valley Brain Injury Survivor and Caregiver Support Group.” Meetings are the first Thursday of the month from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. followed by a social time from 7:45 to 8:15, at 13460 N. 67th Ave. For more information, call (602) 508-8024 or e-mailchrisandamy1@hot mail.com.
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. To learn more, visitwww.biaaz.org. Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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