Rebuild Your Mind, Reintroduce Yourself

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How Brain Injury Rehabilitation is granted new life

Origami Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center, located in Mason, is a nonprofit organization that does much more than your typical rehabilitation center. In addition to what you’d expect in terms of medical treatment, the organization fuses professional practices with a variety of interdisciplinary resources that aim to assist patients on the road to recovery. The uniqueness of each brain injury is vast; each journey of rehabilitation is paved with physical, social, spiritual and often emotional hurdles. With so many factors in play for each patient, Origami has stepped up their arsenal by bringing together a community of healers, patients and researchers under one roof in hopes of ultimately improving the recovery process, quality of life and options for recovering patients. At their 11th Annual Brain Injury Symposium of Mid-Michigan, the discussion around treatment improvement continued.

Held on June 16 at the Kellogg Center of Michigan State University, whose College of Osteopathic Medicine is a partner of Origami, the daylong event aimed to enhance understanding of brain injury rehabilitation by educating attendees via guest speakers, exhibits, networking opportunities and more.

Among the illustrious group of presenters and attendees was Whitney Cerak Wheeler, keynote speaker for this year. Her undeniably shocking tale was a highlight of the event, setting the tone as a reminder of the power of brain injury rehabilitation.  In April 2006, Wheeler was returning to campus from Fort Wayne, Ind. with fellow students from Taylor University when their van was struck by a speeding semi. All nine passengers were ejected from the vehicle, and five passengers died instantly. Miraculously, four passengers survived.  

Wheeler, LEFT in attendance of the 11th Annual Brain Injury Symposium of Mid-Michigan

At the scene of the collision, Wheeler was pronounced dead — she was actually in a coma but had been misidentified. As her family embraced the process of grief, believing their daughter was gone and having even performed a proper funeral, doctors soon realized a mistake had been made. Due to her the uncanny similarities in appearance to another victim of the collision, Wheeler was identified improperly as fellow student, Laura Van Ryn. A mix-up had occurred, sparking a miracle in the eyes of her true family and an onset of pain in the hearts of another. It wasn’t until Wheeler was cognitively aware and transferred to Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids that the confusion became clear.

On a difficult road to recovery, which included intense sessions of speech therapy and other forms of cognitive rehabilitation exercises, Wheeler overcame what many doubted as impossible. Having defeated even the unknowingness of awakening from her comatose state, she returned to classes at Taylor University and graduated in 2009. However, the woman that enrolled wasn’t the same one that was handed a diploma.

“Having a brain injury or any kind of serious injury can be frustrating,” said Wheeler. “It brings a lot of changes. During my recovery, I kept trying to be the old Whitney. Saying, ‘this is how I was before and this is how I am now.’ When my sister, Carly, told me that she missed the old Whitney but loved the new one too, it took a lot of pressure off me. Brain injuries change who you are and hearing that allowed me to stop trying to be who I once was.”

Brain trauma of different magnitudes has the ability to completely reinterpret the functionality, process and communication style of its victims. Often, victims of major brain injuries never find themselves again, new or old. Coming to grips with the fact that things might never be the same is more difficult to cope with than what many could imagine. Even the things you once knew best can become alien in the blink of an eye.

“Things may look fine on the outside, but it’s actually about what’s happening inside,” explained Wheeler. “The recovery and the healing that your brain is doing is something that a lot of people don’t realize. It’s about the struggle that’s happening under the surface.“

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in Wheeler’s tale was accepting the realization that she didn’t need who she once was to be happy. Enabled to take control of her narrative, she’s using her rebirthed identity as the vessel to tell her miraculous story, fueling others with passion, encouragement and hope to this day. It rings loud in showcasing the healing power that resides in the work of brain injury rehabilitation centers across the country, without which we might not have ever discovered the Wheeler of today.

“I think Origami and places like it are such a huge help. People came up to me following my speech and told me story after story about how much of a difference it’s made in their lives, how they’ve helped them,” recalled Wheeler. “It’s a support group: it brings knowledge to people with injuries and their caregivers. All therapies are great in their own different way but I like that they enable you to push yourself and motivate you. My end goal was to get out of the hospital and return to school.”

Wheeler speaks at events similar to Origami’s from time to time, but today she’s living life on her own terms. Despite the hardships of the past, she now finds comfort in the security of her health, family, career and, most importantly, knowing herself.

Stories like Wheeler’s are just a glimpse into the world of brain injury rehabilitation, and local organizations such as Origami are leading the charge for patients. Just last year, Origami — alongside partners at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and Peckham Inc. — celebrated the unveiling of a $3.5M facility expansion which is now being used to expand patient care and continue developing advancements within the industry.


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Adam Lansdell

Adam Lansdell is an Alumni of Grand Valley State University, and currently a Communication Specialist with M3 Group of Lansing. With a passionate for all things creative it comes as no surprise that he’s also a musician, movie buff and graphic designer. Adam spends his down time biking, and spending too much of his personal income on concert tickets or vinyl records