Finding the strength to survive

Fighting traumatic brain injury head on. Three stories of hope.

Story: James Combs & Leigh Neely


Edgar sites has overcome a traumatic brain injury.

Edgar Sites was enjoying a quiet dinner with his wife in February 2015. Then, in a flash, everything went blank. He doesn’t recall his peculiar attempt to cram a large slice of meatloaf down his mouth. Nor does he have any recollection of his slurred speech that prompted his wife Linda to call 911.

“I just remember waking up in a hospital room thinking I was going to die. This was before I even knew why I was in the hospital,” he says.

Edgar, a resident of The Villages, had just suffered a stroke at age 85.

Photo: Fred Lopez

The rapid response of Leesburg Regional Medical Center physicians was instrumental in saving both his brain function and quality of life. After arriving at the hospital, Edgar was immediately treated with tissue plasminogen activator, or TPA, which dissolves the clot and improves blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood and oxygen. The drug is most effective when administered within three hours of stroke symptom onset.

“Because of the prompt treatment, I never had to undergo rehab,” he says.

But his battle was not finished. While most stroke patients are prescribed blood thinners, the medication caused Edgar to bleed internally. Therefore, five months after his stroke, he had to undergo a surgical procedure to have a small device implanted in his heart that prevents clots from entering the bloodstream.

For Edgar, it was a second lease on life, and he has taken full advantage. Today, he walks 40 minutes each morning, plays 18 holes of golf on cool winter days, and goes ballroom dancing with his wife. The couple is preparing to take a river cruise from the Black Sea to the North Sea.

“Suffering a brain injury is never fun, but it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “Do whatever you can and as much as you can. Just be thankful you’re alive.”


Making Life Matter

Mike Stegall is another stroke survivor who lives by that philosophy. Because of a stroke he suffered in January 2017, the 69-year-old Lady Lake resident has no feeling in his left foot, walks with a slight limp, and endures constant numbness and tingling on the left side of his body. He also faces cognitive challenges such as struggling to process new information.

Still, he says suffering a brain injury is not an automatic death sentence.

Photo: Fred Lopez

“People who have a stroke are more apt to have another one,” he says. “Therefore, I try to eat healthier, walk, and attend therapy religiously. I’m also a very positive person, which has helped me avoid becoming depressed.”

Although navigating life after a stroke can be difficult, having a support system in place has an amazing impact on recovery. Mike has found such support from Paula, his wife of 47 years.

“She has been by my side every step of the way and has encouraged me to remain positive,” he says. “When my doctor looked over my MRI, he said it was a miracle I did not lose my ability to speak. I dodged a bullet, and Paula reminds me daily that I have much to be thankful for.”


One moment in time

Lt. Col. Natalie Vines was a dedicated officer in the U.S. Army until a moment in Iraq changed her forever. Story: Leigh Neely

Though both are retired now, Col. Brian Vines, 54, and his wife, Lt. Col. Natalie Vines, 46, loved serving in the U.S. Army. After meeting at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, they’ve been married 17 years. There have been times apart—once for three years—but Brian says their faith and love kept them together no matter what.

Both were deployed to Iraq for two tours, and Brian readily says his wife was in a career she loved. “She was a fast mover and such a great leader. We were both part of the all-volunteer army, and doing that brought us closer together.”

In 2005, Natalie received a critical blast injury from a mortar attack in Baghdad. As a result, she suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI). When his wife was forced to retire, Brian didn’t hesitate to turn in his papers, too, and they moved to The Villages.

“I was looking forward to being in the Army for 30 years. I loved it,” he says. “But we took our vows very seriously, and I became her caregiver.”

Natalie’s TBI left her with a seizure disorder, severe migraine headaches, cognitive issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“These are things she will always deal with. They were finally able to get the seizures under control with meds,” Brian says. “The cognitive issues affected her short-term memory, and decision-making is difficult for her now.”

Though Brian also suffers from PTSD, he keeps his focus on Natalie and that helps him. Natalie also has another helper—Bugg, a therapy dog named for a World War II soldier.

Brian is a fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an organization that provides support for spouses, parents, family members, and caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured veterans.

“I understand the importance of respite. I go fishing, I run, and I attend Wounded Warrior events,” Brian says. “I have a great support group, so I always have someone I can call or email. PTSD is not unique to post-9/11 vets.”

Source: Defense Medical Surveillance System (DMSS), Theater Medical Data Store (TMDS) provided by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC)


Brain trust

Local support groups help those suffering from brain injuries. 

Dave Loria was an avid motorcycle enthusiast. The feeling of freedom, the sensation of wind whipping across his face, and the bonding with biker buddies enthralled him. However, that changed one afternoon in 2003.

While riding his Harley on a three-lane highway in San Mateo, California, an automobile in front of him came to a screeching halt to avoid being hit by another driver who recklessly changed lanes. Dave, who was traveling 70 mph, made a hard turn that catapulted him into the air, and he landed directly on his head.

Airlifted to a hospital in San Francisco, he underwent brain surgery and spent the next two years in therapy, relearning how to walk, write, talk, and read.

“I still have great difficulty reading and writing,” he says.

Photo: Fred Lopez

However, there’s a silver lining for Dave, a resident of The Villages who has been on disability since the accident. While brain injuries can cause survivors to feel isolated and lonely, he stays connected with friends through the Brain Injury Support Group, which meets on the second Thursday of each month at North Lake Presbyterian Church, 975 Rolling Acres Road, Lady Lake.

Although those in the group have suffered different types of brain injuries, enjoying camaraderie among people who understand the daily struggles is invaluable.

“We get to relax and be ourselves with a room full of friends,” says Dave, who joined the support group after moving to The Villages in June 2008. “For some, it’s the only friends they have because they’ve been abandoned by family members. They don’t understand what a brain injury patient goes through and end up having nothing to do with the patient.”

To compound problems, studies show the divorce rate following a traumatic brain injury is as high as 75 percent. Thus, the goal of the support group is to empower each member, sometimes through educational sessions with keynote speakers such as chiropractor and nutritionists. Other times, by talking through challenges to find effective coping strategies.

Perhaps the most effective strategy is simply listening.

“We allow people who visit our group for the first time to introduce themselves,” Dave says. “Sometimes, they’ll end up talking for 30 minutes because they feel good about pouring their hearts out to people who are actually listening and can relate to what they’re going through. It is important for people with brain injuries to express their feelings.”

In addition, the group has monthly lunch outings the fourth Thursday and an annual Christmas party.

“Suffering a brain injury is a life-changing event,” Dave says. “But being able to meet new people and make new friends opens up a whole new world to brain injury patients.”

For more information about the Brain Injury Support Group, call Dave at 352.750.3828.

Helping each other

While attending graduate school in October 1977 to become a psychotherapist, Barbara Castlow was in an automobile accident. Hit from behind, her car rolled down a 300-foot embankment. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent three months in a coma.

“I had to learn how to breathe, walk, and talk again,” says Barbara, a resident of Leesburg.

Today, she is facilitator of the Brain Injury Support Group of Lake County, which meets at 11:30am the fourth Monday each month in the food court at ViaPort Florida Mall, 10401 U.S. Highway 441, Leesburg.

“We have a great support group because we can find commonalities, trade information, and not feel isolated. We help each other cope with the struggles of everyday life,” she says.

For more information about the support group, call Barbara at 352.617.0541.