By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN “Trauma creates change you don’t choose.
Healing is about creating change you do choose.”
This quote by Michele Rosenthal, an award-winning post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) blogger and best selling and award-nominated author, is one to which Cheryl Niemela of Cokato can testify, having suffered two brain injuries and still being in the midst of recovery.
Both incidents occurred almost seven years ago; the first happening while on a family trip to Ecuador in October 2012.
Cheryl and her husband, Paul “Mike,” along with a few other family members, were visiting their brother-in-law’s home country and family, and embarked on a guided river, jungle boat tour as a final hurrah before heading home.
A storm had ripped through the area the night prior, causing the water to become quite rough, and choppy as the boat made its return journey upstream.
The motion of the boat and the pounding of the rapids rocked Cheryl’s head and neck tremendously, causing her to get a whiplash and brain injury to her cerebellum (which is critical for the body’s balance). She didn’t realize that had happened, though.
“All I knew was the very last stop [of the tour], when I got off the boat, everything felt like the ground was moving on me,” Cheryl recalled.
Nobody else in Cheryl’s group was experiencing this, but she figured it was similar to adjusting one’s sealegs and it would eventually pass. But it never did.
What Cheryl didn’t know at the time was that her family has a history of hypermobility, specifically EhlersDanlos syndrome. This meant her ligaments were already lax before she got on the boat, making her more susceptible to the boat’s and river’s motions.
“That’s why I was affected, but nobody else was, because I had this genetic disposition,” Cheryl explained.
When she arrived back in the states, the rocking sensation continued and other symptoms started appearing, so she decided to seek medical help.
At first, she tried chiropractic treatments and vestibular therapy, but after a while found she was only becoming more dizzy. She was instructed to stop, and try other methods.
About February/March 2013, she met with an alternative medical specialist who works with electro-acu therapy.
He instantly recognized the whiplash symptoms and the cause and diagnosed Cheryl with Barre-Lieou Syndrome.
Cheryl was also suffering from vertebral arterial compression, which was limiting her brain’s blood supply. By the time she was seeing the specialist, her limbs felt as heavy as lead, and she was told she was lucky to have not had a stroke.
The two of them worked together for a few months, and were able to reduce Cheryl’s neck compression, but the rocking sensation still didn’t stop. At that point, Cheryl was advised to take more intensive treatment.
She was prescribed prolo therapy injections (which causes inflammation and triggers the body to heal itself in the injected area).
Cheryl searched around, scheduled a consultation appointment at Rejuv Medical in Saint Cloud, and things were looking hopeful.
Before Cheryl attended her first prolo session, however, the second brain injury happened.
Cheryl was lighting the gas grill that July to treat Mike to a special supper before he headed out of town for a business trip when the grill exploded, launching Cheryl 15 feet backwards off their deck.
She landed on her head and neck.
“Being rocketed off the deck was like moving through a time warp,” Cheryl recorded in some therapy writings she titled, “Be Still: a healing journey.” “One second, I was lighting the grill, and less than a second later, I was on the ground, wondering if my head was split wide open, if my neck was broken. In less than a second, and the strike of a match, my life was altered forever.”
Cheryl’s kids were gone, and Mike was working in the field; so, she knew she had to get herself up on her own. She moved very carefully, testing herself to make sure she wouldn’t cause further injury.
After making her way to the house, she phoned Mike to tell him what happened and that he needed to bring her to the emergency room (ER).
Once she was admitted, a series of tests were done to identify any internal injuries.
She did have some external bruising, and the top of her head was singed due to a fireball that erupted from the explosion.
“[Other than that], everything came back looking normal,” Cheryl recalled. “It appeared I was just really lucky. I had no broken bones, no bleeding on the brain, no bleeding internally, anywhere. I was just lucky. So, they sent me home and just said follow up with your primary doctor.”
Cheryl has learned since then, however, that brain injuries are often missed by ER professionals. She said this may be because brain injuries, such as bruising, sometimes take a while to appear, and symptoms may not develop immediately.
“I would love to see ERs a little better equipped with sending patients home that have had an impact or head trauma with [signs] to watch for,” Cheryl commented. “Or maybe [have them] follow up with a specialist, because primary care doctors don’t always know either.”
After a while, Cheryl came to realize her body was, in a sense, “frozen” in its current state which is why no further injuries were detected.
“When you have a severe trauma or experience, your natural instinct is fight, flight, or freeze,” she shared. “If you can’t fight or flee, you can become frozen; and that’s what happened. I didn’t know that. I just thought I just came out of it untouched or unscathed; but really, I was frozen. My psyche and my body had been so traumatized that it could not even begin to let me feel it was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t really feel what had happened.”
After two months, or so, Cheryl started to notice sudden, unusual behaviors happening to her, such as unexplainable grunting or hollering, and uncontrolled body movement such as clamping up or becoming frozen in place.
“I started realizing I was feeling energy,” she shared. “We all have an energy field around us, and mine had been blown to bits in the explosion. I started reacting, I could feel so many things coming at me that I just didn’t have the protective barrier of my own energy field anymore.”
Some of the different energies she had become sensitive to included the dishwasher (she would actually feel sick by it), someone exhibiting anger, and electricity passing in the atmosphere (such as during a thunderstorm).
Cheryl didn’t know how to explain her new behaviors, but she knew she needed to see her electro-acu therapist for assistance with her shoulder.
The therapy they were doing involves using extremely low currents of electricity to help stimulate healing. As soon as the electricity had started flowing into her body, however, Cheryl “went into the fetal position.”
When asked what hurt, Cheryl (who had to wait until the equipment was turned off before she could speak again) said, “Nothing hurts. That’s just something that’s been happening to me lately; that my body does things out of my control.”
It was then that her therapist knew she had a brain injury, and that her long journey of being in and out of medical centers and trying a series of different treatments really took a turn.
“Feeling unbalanced and rocky, and continually fighting gravity while in the midst of a brain fog, brings life to a screeching halt. It demands that one stop and be still,” wrote Cheryl. “For the first time in my life, I was forced to be quiet and still. As a mother of eight children, a farm wife, and an enthusiastic gardener and homemaker, I had always been extremely busy . . . But now, sitting still, home alone and cut off from most of my friends and any semblance of my previous life, I started the real journey; the journey within.”
Cheryl continued visiting her therapist, started going to an atlas chiropractor after having a dream about the atlas bone, and enrolled in a five-level myofascial release therapy and body unwinding class in the Twin Cities.
Her story and the condition of her body often delegated Cheryl to be used for demonstrations, through which she received specialized treatment, too.
During the first class session, Cheryl became aware of just how much trauma her body was withholding, and how much she needed this treatment to be done regularly.
Within a month, she found a professional in Saint Paul, and would continue to meet with her for a couple of years.
Despite all of her treatments up to this point, Cheryl’s symptoms continued to worsen.
“Lights were really starting to affect me,” she said, which is a common result of brain injury. “I could not stand fluorescent lights. I had to wear a hat most of the time (even at home, at night). We had switched all of our lightbulbs to 25 watt, and everyone was [stumbling around] trying to see, and I was like, ‘It’s so bright!’”
Other common sensitivity symptoms she experienced included that of noise, commotion, and frequent movement.
Because of this, Cheryl spent much of her time at home, venturing into town only when necessary and all the while being alert to when her symptoms were onsetting.
“The extent of my held-in emotions and trauma became evident one day, eight months following the explosion,” said Cheryl in her writings. “I felt nauseous and had gone to lay down, when from seemingly out of nowhere, but unquestionably from out of my mouth, came a prolonged howl. I had no idea why I had howled or what it meant. It came from somewhere deep inside of me, and was completely out of my control.”
Cheryl continued to howl, wail, and scream for eight hours that day. When she woke up the next day, she was disoriented stumbling, weaving, lurching dissociated from her body.
“Furious with my body, and furious with my life, I sat on the couch and screamed with fury at God,” Cheryl wrote. “For an hour and a half, I let God have it; both barrels my anger, my disappointments, all the hardships on my life that had felt too much to bear. The sorrows, the injustices, the pain of the accidents, the pain of surviving the explosion and living in a broken body, with a broken mind and a broken heart.”
After getting some insight from her daughter, Julie, Cheryl realized she needed to tell someone everything she had suppressed and screamed at God.
It was then that Cheryl pursued somatic release therapy with a trauma therapist in the Twin Cities.
This form of therapy is also designed to help the body release its trauma, but is done vocally versus physically. It is also done through small, methodical steps that lead up to discussing the traumatic event itself.
“Like you don’t just start talking about it and get yourself all triggered,” explained Cheryl. “The whole intent is to keep your nervous system as calm as possible.”
So, while Cheryl had started seeing the therapist because of the grill explosion, several visits passed before they worked on that moment of the day.
Cheryl would be asked details surrounding the event, such as what the weather was like, and other moments to help her remember all the good things that had happened that day, rather than focus on the horror.
Whenever the therapist saw Cheryl start to become triggered, such as through her breathing, skin color, or movement, they would pause so Cheryl could become grounded again. One of the ways Cheryl did that was by (in her mind) going to her aunt’s camp on Lake Superior.
During one incident of this, Cheryl said she could actually smell smoke from a sauna being lit. This made her therapist excited, because Cheryl was linking smoke to something positive.
“It was fascinating,” Cheryl commented. “The psychology of it, the psyche is so fascinating that I always wanted her to explain to me what we were doing. I love to learn. I’ve always loved to learn. I would have never ever chosen to study brain injuries and the psyche and trauma, but it was absolutely fascinating.”
Cheryl was given a reading list and regular homework assignments, would do her own research, and met with her therapist once a week for years.
When it was time for Cheryl to recount the experience of lighting the grill, she was ready.
“So in my mind, I did [light the grill],” said Cheryl. “And [the therapist] asked what happened, and I said, ‘Nothing. Nothing! Everything’s fine.’ She’s like, “You’re sure?‘ And I’m like, “Yeah, everything’s fine. I’m still standing there, and I’m absolutely fine!”
When Cheryl opened her eyes, she said her vision had significantly sharpened and she began to notice items in the room she hadn’t before.
As she processed her surroundings, she then had a revelation.
“I can feel me. I can feel me behind my eyes,” Cheryl said. “I didn’t know I couldn’t feel myself behind my eyes until now, when I can. I was like, ‘I’m in here.’”
Her therapist said this meant Cheryl had broken her body’s frozen state.
Then, something else started happening.
Cheryl began to feel heat pouring out of the top of her head, and with such literal force it was physically pushing her therapist’s hand away when she tried to feel what Cheryl was describing.
Cheryl knew this energy was negative ions escaping, something she had learned through her other treatments.
“[The therapist] was like, ‘I have never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been practicing!’” recalled Cheryl. “It was really interesting to freak her out.”
Cheryl knew how important this achievement was to her healing process, since her body hadn’t been working properly in its frozen state. She could now begin to heal at a whole new level.
She didn’t know, though, how deep it would actually go.
Cheryl’s story will continue in the March 1 edition of the Enterprise Dispatch.