Life After Brain Injury: A Profile On The Denbigh House

By Marie Albiges, Freelance Writer

Shasmin Asbury wants to drive an orange ’67 mustang one day.

So far, her traumatic brain injury has gotten in the way of that, making it physically impossible for her to drive a car. But it remains a goal of hers, along with getting a job, getting married and moving out of her parents’ house.

Shasmin is one of 40 members of the Denbigh House, a program established in 2005 that works under the direction of Community Brain Injury Services (formerly the Community Futures Foundation) to provide innovative services to survivors of traumatic brain injury.

Located on McManus Boulevard, at the site of the original Denbigh Tidewater Physical Therapy clinic, and among the first locations of the now 25-year-old company, the Denbigh House was made possible by Tidewater Physical Therapy’s Founder and President, Wayne MacMasters, thanks to a donation he made to help them start the program.

“I actually have a son who is mentally disabled, so it was personal situation that is similar to some of the challenges that people with brain injuries might have,” MacMasters said.CBIS_Logo

Physical therapy and brain injury patients are closely tied together, Denbigh House leadership said. The majority of the Denbigh House members, for example, have undergone physical therapy at some point as part of their recovery from their traumatic brain injury.

An estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year in the United States, and more than 181,000 Virginians are disabled a result of an acquired brain injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How do people sustain these injuries? Among other causes, many have survived a car crash, falls, blood clots, seizures or, in rare cases, a mosquito bite.

Through its clubhouse programs such as the Denbigh House and the Mill House in Richmond, Community Brain Injury Services helps survivors with their short-term memory loss, refinement of work skills, including speech and communication, and regain self-confidence.

The clubhouse imitates a workplace environment. Literally.

Every morning at 9 a.m., members gather for their morning meeting.

Members are assigned to one of three units: the Kitchen Unit, where members cook meals every Tuesday and Thursday; the Communication Unit, where members write and design the bi-monthly newsletter, maintain the clubhouse budget, organize social programs and conduct funding activities; and the Outreach and Advocacy Unit, where members work on campaigns and letters that reach out the community and to legislators.

Shasmin started coming to the Denbigh House and getting her daily work assignments in late 2013, more than seven years after sustaining her brain injury.

She was 16 when, while crossing the street, she was hit by car. She spent three weeks in a coma

When she regained consciousness, Shasmin underwent extensive physical therapy, among other rehabilitation, and relearned to walk and use her arms.

“It was actually kind of fun,” she said. “They had me working in between the parallel bars” and doing exercises with blocks and the exercise ball.

By the time patients with a brain injury get to a physical therapy clinic, they “are usually weak and deconditioned,” said Kristina Carter, a doctor of physical therapy who treats patient in the Tidewater Physical Therapy clinic in Williamsburg. “Their goals could be to stand longer than two to three minutes, getting dressed by themselves, getting up and down stairs, and basic function and motor skills.”

Or, like Shasmin, to walk again.

Carter starts with each patient evaluating them based on their medical history and goals, then measures their strength, motion and balance. She then works with them to develop a rehabilitation plan that gets them moving toward those goals.

“We can always design a plan to keep them going, with anything from high level to low level exercise programs.”

Living with a traumatic brain injury often means a lifetime of rehabilitation, and Carter encourages survivors to be active in their community,  whether it’s taking classes, exercising or joining a support group.

“People do really well when they have something to keep them motivated,” she said.

Shasmin can walk again, but still feels long-term impact from her injury.

She can’t walk very far and needs a walker because her toes curl up. She can’t remember anything from before she was 13-years-old, and she suffers from short-term memory loss.

“I have to write everything down now so I can remember,” Shasmin said. “I could tell you something, and five minutes later I’ll forget it.”

But despite her brain injury, and thank to the Denbigh House, she’s learned how to work the register at the Denbigh House’s snack bar. She confidently answers the phone, writes down everything on the whiteboard for the next day, and is currently working on a presentation in which she shares her story of her accident for a high school driver’s education class.

Shasmin’s also greatly improved her resume and calls it “beautiful.

“I’m actually better at communicating with other people now,” she said. “After my accident, I was quiet. I basically was anti-social.”

Now, Shasmin talks to everyone.

“It’s just amazing to see people persevere and be so incredibly resilient through so many challenging moments in their rehabilitation journey,” said Denbigh House Program Coordinator Alex Watson.

The Denbigh House currently has two support groups that meet on a monthly basis at the Denbigh House: the survivor support group, led by Sarah Lewis, and the Cognitive Communications group, led by Dr. Leah Frazier.

For more information, visit http://www.communitybraininjury.org/ or contact Program Coordinator Alex Watson at 757-833-7845.

Marie Albiges is a freelance writer based in Newport News, Va. Second only to writing, Marie’s passion is running.