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My Journey to Recovery From TBI
I made this website four years ago when I was discharged from the hospital, I spent seven months in there after being robbed at gunpoint and shot in the head. My cognition was poor, the only extremity mobility that I had was partial movement in my right arm, and menial tasks felt like I was mountains. For example, my first blog post, as seen below was short, but sweet, and to the point.
“I was shot in the head. On April 23, 2017 my car was surrounded by six people when a gunman shot at me through my drivers side window. When the shooter saw that I was still alive he put the gun against my head and pulled the trigger causing the bullet to enter one side of my brain and exit out the other. I am sharing my TBI journey to track my progress and I hope to inspire others.“
A lot has changed since then. A girlfriend came and went, relatives moved, my brother got engaged, and I made a TON of progress in my recovery. With that said, this blog article documents my journey to recovery from TBI.
Introducing Myself, Nolan McDonnell
When I came out of the coma I told my mother, ” I can prepare to suffer or prepare to heal.” When I was in the coma, after being shot in the head, I remember being so close to death that I was at a spiritual crossroads had a choice to die or work hard for the life that I wanted for myself. Almost losing my life was a beautiful thing because it taught me that my entire life I was not living at all. For example, smoking weed, living the YOLO life, and doing this because I did not know my place or purpose in life. All of that changed however when my medical team came into my hospital room and said, “Nolan, we are here to inform you that you will never walk again, and our physical therapy plan for you is to get your wrist moving so you can operate a high powered wheelchair.” I respectfully told my medical team to get the fuck out of my room, my family made the arrangements to have me transferred back to my hometown, San Jose, Ca, and we made the 445-mile drive back to San Jose, where my journey began.
“Fuck you Robin!” I was covered in puke, urine, we just left 120-degree weather in a van with no air conditioning, my skull is bleeding from the gunshot still, my cranium is oozing out bullet fragments, I am in excruciating pain, as I should be after literally having my brains blown out, and robin steps out in the hot sun to introduce me as his nurse and to let me know that my medication was not transferred but he would happily supply me with Tylenol.
I am grateful for every moment because it all happened for a reason.
Hello, my name is Nolan McDonnell and this is where my journey began.
I do not remember the night that changed my life.
I do not recall two passengers getting into the back seat of my car. I cannot remember where I was meant to be taking them. I cannot fathom how far along that journey we got. I could not tell you whether I mistook the first shot for the backfire of a car. I cannot imagine the look on my face, or the words that were exchanged at the time of the shooting, if any, and I do not remember what they looked or sounded like. I can’t hear what that shouted at me in my mind. I have no idea how I responded. Luckily, I cannot relive the feeling of the bullet entering my skull and exiting on the other side. All I can remember vividly is the face of a hairy man in a fresh labcoat screaming, “Nolan, do you know what happened? You were shot in the head.
If you were to ask me, before I literally got my brains blown out, what the most important day of life was I would have mentioned how I was supposed to graduate from a junior college in two months or when I received my real estate license in the mail, I never would have expected to say my parents 20th wedding anniversary, the night when I was sitting in my car, robbed at gunpoint, and shot in the head. Unfortunately, the only accounts I have of the most important day of my life come from a series of police reports and witness statements. I quite literally have to live the moment through the eyes of others. Witnesses claim that I was driving through a residential neighborhood when the first bullets were fired. The entire ambush only lasted a minute or so from start to finish, with the five sixteen-year-old assailants jumped over a wall eventually fleeing on foot, and stashing the would be murder weapon in a nearby bush. The two passengers in the back of the car, fortunately unharmed, immediately got out and ran to nearby houses in seek of assistance. 911 was called and, despite the bullet carving through from the left side of my skull to the right, my life was saved.
Shortly after the incident, I drifted into a drug-induced coma. While many will assume that the shooting itself was the most important moment in my life, it was in fact this period of nothingness that followed. Many people recall different accounts of what living within a coma is like. For me, it was a spiritual experience in which I envisioned myself as a fully recovered man. I pictured every single person that I had to meet along the way to achieve this goal, with my mind running in reverse until I eventually found myself back in the hospital. That was when I finally woke up.
From the first moment that I opened my eyes, I felt like the life I had been leading before was not living at all and I felt as if I had been reborn. It was abhorrently clear that I should not have survived such an ordeal, so every second onwards was like living a miracle; a miracle that I intended not to waste. I had been on life support with a 5% chance of surviving, yet my body held on for dear life. I was now faced with two options, prepare to live out a life of suffering, or suffer to live out a life of healing. In my mind, my chances of recovery did not lie in the hands of doctors and rehabilitation workers, but with me. It was my attitude and approach to new challenges that would dictate how I recovered from my injuries, both physically and mentally.
My starting point was low. The lowest I had ever been and my life has been plagued with low points. While it was a miracle that I had regained consciousness at all, I had done so in a sorry state. I found myself lying in a pool of sweat as my internal thermostat had been destroyed by the gunshot. I was paralyzed from the neck down, including my intestines, which made it impossible to have any bowel movements, scratch the itching parts of my body, press the call button to get a nurse into my hospital room, and I lacked the ability to drink anything in order to maintain hydration. In fact, I had to suck on a wet sponge for a month to keep my mouth moist, which only made my mouth more parched. I was in so much excruciating pain that they put me on around-the-clock medicine, a regimen of 22 different medications, to be exact. Unfortunately, even with a steady supply of tablets, the main remained so great that I prayed for the bliss relief of death.
It took a long time for me to summon the courage to want to get better. However, once I realized that attitude is the foundation of our existence and human beings have the ability to what we think about most, it was like a switch had flicked. If I thought of myself as fully covered, focused on all the positive aspects of a negative circumstance, and found meaning in the suffering then I would live a purposeful life. Not only that, but I would attract the necessary people who would help me to reach my goal, learning how to walk again.
“There is never such thing as a hopeless situation as long as you never lose hope in yourself.”
Shortly after I had this mental, spiritual, and emotional epiphany, my medical team informed me that I would never walk again. Mere minutes after setting my biggest goal in life, I had been told that it was an impossibility. However, instead of rolling over and falling into a pit of despair and depression, I responded with anger and passion. I shouted and screamed at the doctors, telling them to fuck out of my hospital room. I made it clear that no one was going to tell me what I could not achieve with my own mind and body. No one was going to stop me from reaching my goal. While I was not angry at the doctors themselves and remained eternally grateful for their work, I needed this fire to be lit within me.
Determined that I would have to start this journey without the hospital, I took the decision to fire my medical team and began an aggressive process to discharge myself from the hospital. Of course, this took some doing considering the fact that I had been on my deathbed just one week prior. My older brother, Kenny, found the very best nursing facility in my hometown of San Jose where I could start my recovery process, Almaden Health and Rehab.
This was where my journey would truly begin.
“You cannot always control life, however, you can always control how you react to it.”
Almaden Health and Rehab
I was getting transferred to my second hospital, which was seven hours away, and I was told that the transport vehicle was going to be a luxury RV, which sounded great considering I was on a rotation of twenty-two pain medications, off life support for a week, and it was 122 degrees outside. Upon being told that transport arrived, I was injected with a generous dose of Dilaudid, Valium, and an assortment of other drugs before being rushed out to a beaten-down 1989 Toyota Previa, not the picture of “Luxury RV that I was led to believe. To make matters worse, after the transporters got me on a stretcher and my mom in the back, the air conditioner broke. I was already heated, pun intended about the retired soccer mom van with no AC in the desert summer situation, however, I completely lost my cool when I heard the driver on the phone. “Yeah boss, the van became disabled, the engine overheated, it’s complete shutdown… We need a second transport vehicle.” This time I was promised a Mercedes however, I knew better than to believe these people, again. With that said, when the pain medication wore off, my catheter broke, and found myself in so much agony that I began violently puking and urinating on myself, while my head is wrapped and I am still bleeding from my skull, I reminded myself that if I cannot control my circumstances, I can always control my attitude and how I react to them.
When I arrived at Almaden Health and Rehab, I was relieved to find a cool ocean breeze that gently brushed my skin as soon as I exited the transport vehicle, a stark difference from the 120° desert heat I was used to in Palm Springs. When the two EMS drivers pulled the stretcher out of the transport vehicle, where I laying helplessly in excruciating pain, I was covered in urine as my catheter had broke during the ride to Northern California. Not only this, but my entire torso was painted with puke due to the fact that my stomach had not been able to handle the new pill-form pain medication.
At this low point in my life, arriving at the skilled nursing facility, I was paralyzed from the neck down, in excruciating pain, and I constant mess from consistent puking and urination. I needed a daily round of 22 different medications just to combat the pain I was in. It is no exaggeration to say that I wanted to die.
When the EMS drivers finally transported me inside the hospital on a stretcher, the night shift nurse approached me politely welcomed me to my new temporary home.
“Mr. Nolan McDonnell Welcome to Almaden Health and Rehab, can I help you with anything?”
“Yes! I need my pain medication now, I am in so much pain. I think I’m gonna die.”
“Mr. McDonnell, can I offer you some ibuprofen?” he replied.
Fueled by pain and rage, I snapped back, “Excuse me, what’s your name?“
“I apologize, sir,” the nurse smiled. “My name is Robin, it’s nice to meet you.”
Taking a moment to compose myself and channel all of my energy into my lungs, I screamed as loud as my body would allow, “Fuck you, Robin! Ibuprofen? I’m not fucking with that shit!“
He must have felt the pain in my voice and seen the anguish painted across my defeated face because he immediately explained to me that my Dilaudid, Oxycodone, Morphine, and other drugs had not yet been transferred to the facility. However, he was able to provide me with a dose, explaining that the hospital keeps an emergency supply for situations just like mine. I was administered the pain medication soon after, which I immediately vomited back up as my body continued to reject the pill form. Now screaming in pain from not only the gunshot to my head, the hospital ride from Hell, or my contractures as my arms, hands, and feet began to deform, but now, my stomach was getting tortured by these pills that had left me in extreme physical agony. I immediately went back to work vomiting on myself, as I was painfully screaming for help from the nurses. At this point, I could not see my mother anywhere and that was when I heard her crying in the empty hospital room next door. As I was choking on puke I yelled to her, “Stop crying mom, it’s all good!” As I continued to project puke on my chest, and scream in pain, I kept myself optimistic about the situation by detaching myself from my past, believing in myself, and using this moment as a turning point to begin living the life that I always wanted for myself.
Shortly after my arrival, at Almaden Health and Rehab, I was scheduled to have physical, occupational, and speech therapists to work with me and help with my recovery. While she had originally been scheduled to be away on vacation during this time, this one aggressive, and overly motivated, the therapist had happily canceled her travel plans to Israel at the last minute in order to be present for my stay. The first time I met her, she came running up to me with a rather strange sense of excitement on her face, a contrast to the solemn looks people usually greeted me with. “Heeellloooo, are you Mr. Nolan McDonnell?” You’re the one, I’m going to get you walking again! You are my next project! I just got done working with a client in your position and she walked out of here.” she beamed, introducing herself as Monica.
As I was paralyzed from the neck down, Monica forced me to use an arm bike, practice standing in a frame, and walking using the parallel bars. Her objective was simple, to make progress without bullshit, excuses, or days off. One of the best acute rehab centers in the country was just down the street and Monica’s goal was to build up my strength to a point that they would accept me into their program. I was so determined to recover that I was willing to do anything that my physical therapist made me do. I never declined to do a single therapy session and was always willing to throw my all into each and every exercise. In fact, when another patient refused to do their own therapy, the specialists would eventually come to get me and spend the spare time on my recovery. I started getting so much extra attention due to others’ inability or refusal to do their own work. What I learned was that, if you help yourself, others will view you as somebody worth helping.
Things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows though. During my stay at the facility, I experienced plenty of strange and traumatic events including being attacked by a blind racist, getting dropped in the shower, meeting a potential mail-order bride, and having a roommate who killed someone and thought nothing of it. Perhaps one of the most bizarre situations was when my roommate started smoking a blunt in his hospital bed. When the nurses came in and told him that he could not smoke inside, he claimed that it was his medicine and that they had no control over when and how he took it. The nurses explained that patients could not have any medication that was not administered by the medical staff and that marijuana was not considered medicine in their hospital. Following this, he started playing games and checking himself out of the hospital to smoke his weed before checking back in later in the afternoon. Eventually, he was banned from the hospital.
After all my hard work and the support, love, and encouragement provided by Monica, I was finally able to rewire the connection between my brain to my arms, overcoming the paraplegia in my upper body. At Almaden Health and Rehab, I got to the point where I could start moving my right arm, an event that proved to be the spark for my recovery. I could then begin further arm exercises and ramped up hard on my recovery. Shortly after that, I was evaluated by the acute rehab center down the street and was approved to go. It was at that point that a new phase of my recovery started to take shape. Almaden Health and Rehab had played such a big part in my recovery that the staff and I enjoyed a party before I left. My recovery would not be what it is now without them. My mom and I gave the hospital plenty of food and they provided me with balloons and a congratulatory card. However, it was the lifelong friends I made there that I still cherish to this day.
However, one startling memory from the hospital that will always scare me was the visit of my father. My biological father, the one who had abandoned me as a child, showed up in my hospital room ten years away. He was immediately cold to my situation, although I expected nothing less. As I was lying in my bed, paralyzed from the neck down, he was telling me to stop being a bitch, to get myself up and get a job. I asked him to leave, at which point he laughed in my face and told me that he wanted nothing more than to walk away, just as he did when I was younger. This incident, with my father, taught me the divine meaning of turning points and realized that my time at Almaden Health and Rehab has come to an end and I was ready for the aggressive, and intense, therapy at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center.
I moved my arm for the first time at Almaden Health and Rehab, as seen in the video below.
Hello, my name is Nolan McDonnell, I am 35 years old, and I am a traumatic brain injury Survivor. Welcome to my journey where I am sharing my experience with you of the time when I was shot in the head and my journey to recovery as a result. Feel free to browse around through my other pages and blog posts. I made this webpage as a homework assignment for speech therapy however, I am starting to update it and structure it a little bit more so consider subscribing and stick around for the updates!
My name is Nolan McDonnell and I was born on February 13, 1986. I love dogs, who doesn’t? Italian food, and education. I went to Prospect high school, in Saratoga, California, however, it was not until I got to college that I found meaning in education.