Learning By Accident

 In Family Matters, Health Matters, Local Spotlight, Music/Entertainment, Something to Talk About

A Caregiver’s True Story of Fear, Family, and Hope.

Editor’s Note: I want to say at the onset of this article that this was a very difficult story to tell. The story of the Rawlins family is so impactful that I hope I did it justice.

“Be patient. Time will tell.” Those were the words that my family and I lived with for a long time,” Nags Head resident Rosemary Rawlins, author of Learning by Accident, told me on a Zoom call recently.

“Looking back on it, it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. It feels like it happened to the other me.”

Rosemary Rawlins author
Rosemary Rawlins, author of Learning By Accident

“It was almost 21 years ago now, the date was April 13, 2002, when I took my twins, Anna and Mary to their surprise 13th birthday party. Hugh went out for a bike ride,” Rawlins recalls, “when our whole life changed.”

Hugh is Rosemary’s husband of nearly 20 years at the time. Going for bike rides was as natural for him as it is natural for you and me to go for a walk. Rosemary dropped off the twins and ran to the grocery store, when she returned home the phone was ringing.

“It was the hospital,” Rawlins said. “They told me that Hugh was hit by a car, and it wasn’t good.”

hugh and rosemary rawlins
Hugh and Rosemary Rawlins

“It was then that all, the be patient, time will tell, started,” Rawlins remembers. Hugh had a traumatic brain injury. “Almost immediately, the medical staff were preparing me for the worst.”

Initially, the medical staff didn’t even know if Hugh would survive. It was bad. All the Rawlins family could do at the moment, was be patient and time would tell what would happen.

“Looking back on it, it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. It feels like it happened to the other me.” Rosemary said.

Ironically the medical staff said “that cycling, the very thing that nearly killed him, is the very thing that kept him alive too. He was in great shape at the time of the crash.”

Early on, it was an ICU nurse who suggested Rosemary to keep a journal of all that was going on to help her remember things.

“A lot of things just weren’t sinking in. The journal helped. In the beginning, it was just a lot of doctor things in it,” says Rawlins. “The doctors were talking to me but my mind was wandering. It was filled up with worry, fatigue, and everything else.”

It was that journal that ultimately became the book Learning by Accident.

Thankfully Hugh did survive, but his brain had been put on reset. “Hugh’s physical therapy involved toileting, speaking, planning, and something called sequencing.”

Sequencing is, as it was explained to Rosemary, “it’s like we’re here breathing. We’re not thinking about it. We’re just doing it. Our heart is beating. We’re not thinking about that either. We swallow, we blink our eyes. None of these things do we think about. Our brain just does it. But these are hard things for the brain to do. With an injury, the brain is working so hard just to do these things that before it can anything else it has to be woken up again. That was why Hugh was put into a coma. So the brain can sleep and can heal a little bit. So it doesn’t have to work so hard to do these things.”

learning by accident journal

According to Rosemary, Hugh needed to learn to put his socks on before his shoes; his underwear before his pants. He also had to relearn to brush his teeth. He also dealt with something called pocketing. It’s a condition where he would put food in his mouth, but it would sit in his cheek, not knowing he was supposed to swallow. As it turns out, swallowing is often the first thing to go with traumatic brain injury patients.

In a rare moment of levity, Rawlins remarked, that when teaching Hugh to brush his teeth, she decided they would never again have pink toothpaste in their house. Pink toothpaste coming out of a tube was how it was described when Hugh’s brain fell out of his head during the accident.

“We had no idea to what level Hugh would return to his own self. Not a lot of what the medical staff told us was positive. A lot of it was, to prepare for the worst – never hope for the good – but prepare for the worst.”

The Rawlins family

The Rawlins Family

“With this injury, there are no timelines. There is nothing that says in 3 weeks, you’ll feel this. In 6 months, you’ll be able to do this. Every case is different.” Rosemary recalls. “Again, be patient. Time will tell.”

As a writer herself, Rosemary Rawlins sought out answers in books. The first book she read was Where is the Mango Princess? “It was scary,” Rosemary recalls, “the husband in the book started doing things like kicking the dog, screaming at their daughter, and saying horrible things.”

One of the things, the family was told to prepare for, was the inevitable personality change that would occur. Many patients with traumatic brain injuries will suddenly become crude and oftentimes, ornery. And definitely not themselves.

Thankfully, again, the best possible outcome happened. Hugh did undergo a personality change. “In fact, we had to go to marriage counseling because of it,” Rosemary says. “It’s like being married to someone for 20 years and then find yourself married to someone else due to the traumatic brain injury. Same person. Same body, but with a new personality. It was so confusing.”

According to Rawlins, one of the changes in Hugh’s personality was that “he became much less intimidated by anything. He developed the attitude that all of this is temporary, so you might as well go for it. And don’t sweat it.”

Learning By Accident book

Turns out, that paid off for Hugh. One of the things that had concerned the Rawlins was whether Hugh would ever work again. Again, Rosemary recalls, “A lot of bad outcomes come as a result of angst. It’s such a long process that people lose their jobs and run out of money. We were lucky, I married a guy who squirreled away money all the time, but I did think that I was gonna lose our house, or something. It was scary.”

Hugh ultimately went back to work. In fact, before the accident, his goal was to become a Chief Financial Officer. After the accident, Hugh had one false start, and then was able to go back to work full time and work on his master’s at night. He did go onto reaching his goal and became a CFO.

Originally, Rosemary wrote the book as a thank you letter for all of the family’s friends and doctors that attended to Hugh. She wanted to put out a book of positivity. “Yes, be patient. Time will tell. But people need to understand that there are positive outcomes in some cases. Like ours”

Rosemary turned her journal into the book for that reason. “Fear is more debilitating than any injury or illness. That was what I used as the premise of my book.”

At one point, Rosemary was told by Hugh’s neuro-psychologist that she should grieve for her old life, and start a new one. “He did say that!” Rosemary says, “and he’s right. Life is different now. The old life is gone, but this one is pretty good too!”

Rosemary and her family had been learning by accident the whole time.

The accident is 21 years in the Rawlins family’s rearview mirror now. As time has gone on, Hugh became more and more like his old self, but has still held onto some of his new personality traits. According to Rosemary, he is much more compassionate now, and it is always family first with him. He is more light-hearted. He still has no memory of the accident.

I had one last question for Rosemary before signing off our Zoom call: What color is the toothpaste in the house right now? With a hearty laugh, Rosemary shouted out, “BLUE!”

Rosemary’s book, Learning by Accident can be purchased as an ebook on Amazon. Her latest, All My Silent Years, “about a young girl dragged across the jagged history who must learn to forgive herself for the law she broke to stay alive,” is available locally at Downtown Books in Manteo.

Rosemary Rawlins' family

Greg Smrdel
Author: Greg Smrdel

Greg Smrdel, while his physical body lives in Ohio (for now), his soul will always remain on the Outer Banks.

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