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Neuroscience Center Traumatic Brain Injury Advocacy Group

My Story  - Alec Harmes
“Sure we all know it happens, but I never thought it could happen to me”. Looking back now, I recall nothing of the horrendous motorcycle accident that could have taken my life. What it temporarily took instead, was my memory, speech, and the ability to move one whole side of my body. 

My accident occurred on February 5th, 2000 when I was 16 and “indestructible”. I was returning home from a friend’s house when the accident occurred. While I remember driving down the road, that would be my last memory for over two weeks.

According to the police reports, I was attempting to make a right turn and collided with a car also turning right. Truth be told, I now understand I was acting like the typical impatient teen, and decided to pass the car and make the turn prematurely. Not seeing the car, I collided with it just as it was also making the same turn, my head shattering the window. I was thrown through the air, landing in the street 15 feet away. Unconscious, I miraculously suffered no broken bones or apparent internal injuries. Only later was the “invisible injury”, a traumatic brain injury, apparent.

Though I was wearing a helmet, which clearly prevented a potentially fatal head injury, the impact of the accident caused a serious traumatic brain injury, resulting in a coma, complete paralysis on one side of my body, and considerable neurological damage. It was explained to my parents that my brain had reverberated inside my skull causing swelling and extensive damage to several areas of my brain. This caused me to experience difficulty with remembering information for even short periods of time, concentrating, or paying attention to simple details. This was difficult for my parents to comprehend at first --- after all, I was an honor student who had always excelled in school. During the first few months after my injury, I couldn’t even write, and my reading was limited.

After being in the ICU for two weeks, I was transferred to inpatient rehab, where I had physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day for the next five weeks. My therapists had their hands full at first, because I had no apparent comprehension of my condition. I was unaware of my physical limitations, and required close monitoring to keep me safe from potential hazards. I also needed everything written down. Because I was a high school student, much of my speech therapy was to address study skills, problem solving, and attention/concentration tasks. My Occupational Therapist helped me to regain dexterity and relearn how to write. I was actually writing upside down at first. OT also helped me to relearn how to dress, bathe, and feed myself. Physical therapy was grueling. I had to relearn how to walk, and progressed from requiring two people to support me, to using a walker, to a cane, and finally to needing no assistance.

Little by little, over those five weeks, I grew stronger. Each daily victory was celebrated with my family, therapists, nurses, and so many other medical staff members at the Rehabilitation Center. I can definitely speak to the value of having the support of family and friends as an important factor in recovery. I realize that this injury did not just happen to me, but to my whole family. Either my mom or my dad was at my side 24/7 until I could return home.

I eventually returned to high school after missing a complete semester. Initially it was hard. I was not able to keep up in Algebra II and was reassigned to a basic math class. This was a hard pill to swallow, as I already had aspirations of becoming an engineer., and math was a key subject for this profession. However, with perseverance and the continued support of my family, teachers, and therapists, I not only graduated on time, but with honors. I continued my educational path by attending Tallahassee Community College, and then the University of Florida where I graduated with a degree in Building Construction. I will admit that during my college career it took me a little more time than my classmates to absorb some information; however, again, I graduated on time, and with honors. Today I am a happy, independent, 25 year-old pursuing a career in construction management, and have recently obtained LEED accreditation (allowing me to take an active role in Green building certification).

I still cannot believe that I was in a coma, paralyzed, and now, here I am, back to “normal”. I have not taken my recovery for granted. This life-changing experience has created a special perspective for me. I realize how much I took for granted before my accident. Little things like being able to walk or brush my teeth. I understand better what people with permanent disabilities have to deal with, and I know things could have turned out so much worse for me.

I have embraced my injury as part of my identity, and enjoy the opportunity of this Advocacy group as it allows me to help others through prevention and support. I’m a lucky person.