There are many defining moments in one’s life. They make us who we are, and may change our lives for the better.
Some days are dark, and difficult but hope, love, compassion and motivation can change you for the better.
My name is Gina. I am a 42-year old wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend and a survivor.
Ten years ago, I would have written, that I am Senior Pharmaceutical Executive-Regulatory Affairs, Chemistry, Manufacture & Controls, who has contributed heavily to the reduction and eradication of infectious disease. My life was changed in three seconds on August 20, 2001, at 6:01 pm. I was moments from home when I saw a car, counted to three and heard what I thought was a gun shot. It wasn’t. The noise was my vehicle being struck head on by a drunk driver who was going 55 miles per hour. It seems like this all happened yesterday, but as I celebrated my 10-year Alive Day on Aug 20, 2011, I realized how my life has changed and how lucky I am.
The motor vehicle accident disabled me. I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, fatigue, and my central nervous system, back, and neck are in a chronic state of pain, strange phenomena, or just new oddities. What broke the worst, was, ME. That’s right. I was not ME. My identity was gone and it took years of psychological support for me to accept myself. I relearned how to walk, talk, fall, eat, use assistive technology, and most importantly try to remember my brain and my occupation are now different. Actually, I had no occupation, as my company, “let me go”, and it was determined that I was disabled in all occupations. At first, that was one of the most hurtful and devastating things that I ever heard.
That is something that many people with disabilities are made to deal with. Processing, grieving and accepting this fact take some time, and a lot of work. Ten years later, I can say with confidence and pride, that I am disabled in all occupations, but an occupation does not define me. I define me, and I am a good person who does the best she can.
My life is not easy, and some may call it tragic. I call it, a new beginning. Post motor vehicle accident, and my three years of self pity and shame, I was introduced to recumbent cycling and fun adventures for disabled and TBI survivors. In this time, I had gained about 70 pounds, walking hurt my back and I got on this crazy bike called trike, and something clicked and I got my life back. I know it sounds strange, but I could cycle and be active again and it was fantastic. Sports were back and I needed them badly. About this same time, I cycled more and advanced to a two-wheel recumbent, and started to find the new me. Funny thing is that my doctors told me, I would never cycle on two wheels again. Ok, I did wear my daughter’s hockey equipment, my helmet and a mouth guard for about 3 months as I learned, “how to ride that recumbent…” My balance and body fought me, but I am pleased to say that after a few months of practice riding, I became a recumbent cyclist. I currently have thousands miles (on two and three wheels), smiles and donations banked to show those doctors, that some times, you have have to get back into life and take a chance. That is my style and my story, but I also pay it forward.
I was becoming “New Gina” more with every pedal stroke and it was liberating. I started going to group activities, recumbent rides, kayaking, ropes courses (through Statewide Head Injury Program) and surrounded myself with positive support groups, not doctors, but real people. I found that though my organization skills and some cognitive function was diminished, I was still able to speak about my injuries and experience to help others. This also gave me back so much and in turn helped people with disabilities and the doctors who were learning about treatment of TBI and PTSD, etc.
I volunteered as a speaker for the Massachusetts Brain Injury Association, a Speech and Language Pathology College course, to sudents in schools (“What is Cancer?” and “What is TBI, concussion, sports injuries and prevention”), at YMCA fundraisers, and who ever needed a speaker. I still enjoy speaking and I learned that I still have a voice and can make a difference in this world regardless of my title, or ability.
With help of friends, I started a blog and a Face Book group called,“electronicBRAINedgement,” and a twitter account called @BRAINtechPLEASE. These were first introduced for the purpose of helping disabled, TBI, military and elderly find affordable assistive technology. I became a volunteer moderator for the Symbian Foundation (Nokia), and lobbied hard for positive changes to mobile accessible devices. Many of my thoughts and ideas have been integrated into Nuance/Talks/Dragon software in the Nokia/Symbian operating systems. I am a disabled insider in the electronics and applications development community and my commitment is to help others.
Today @BRAINtechPLEASE has morphed into 800+ followers, who can learn about assistive technology, military, accessible sports, mental health, positive living, recreation, fund raising, and cancer.
Cancer was added as a topic on@BRAINtechPLEASE (and THE WAITING ROOM on Face Book) as unfortunately, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, April 2009. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and another new beginning. The cancer survivorship brought a new sensitivity and element to my life. I was shocked and concerned, but I had already been through so much with this disabling motor vehicle accident and mishaps, and had great support, and a fabulous team of oncology doctors. It was mainly in their hands, but my family and I pulled together and we are tough. I am 2-years cancer free on October 5, 2011.
While I was doing chemotherapy, I would go for walks, and lift one pound weights, just to fool myself into thinking that I was hurting because, I just worked out. This was a helpful strategy, especially post the Neulastin (White cells injection) which made me feel achy. My family and I used techniques to cope and overcome some of the physical discomfort of cancer treatment. It was my way of coping and it seemed to work. Radiation was dreadful, and I do not wish that on anyone. The burning is not nearly as painful, as being 40-years old and seeing friends die. But I have cancer and cancer does not have me.
With this, “new beginning,” I already had some experience with coping and staying out of depression. I was “there” before and was not going back. So, bald, fat, and burnt, I got on a treadmill and walked, lifted weights, and rode a stationery recumbent bike because I was now determined to cycle 110 miles in two days for World T.E.A.M (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sport, in the Face of America (FoA) Ride. I wanted to do this ride benefitting military healthcare and recreation sports for years. The ride is from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, and I wanted to challenge myself and cycle with my disabled military friends with TBIs, PTSD, and prosthetics etc. Finally, barely out of cancer treatment, April 2010 was my first year for FoA and I was smiling the entire ride. I met so many wonderful people and we succeeded together on our hand cycles, recumbents and modified bikes. I was happy cycling locally, but this event changed my life. I was a disabled athlete riding 110 miles. I was empowered. This was truly a catalyst for me. Each April, I ride my recumbent and my family volunteers for the FoA. Along the way, we meet new friends and realize that life is awesome and we are symbols of America, ability and success.
When the FoA is done, I continue blogging, and sending out resources for military assistance, TBI, PTSD, Trauma, mental health, accessible sports, healthy tips and cancer. I ride my recumbent as many days as I can and then the cancer advocacy and fundraising rides occur.
I cycle proudly for a group called Cyclists Combating Cancer (CCC). We are a very large group of survivors, co-survivors and people whose lives have been touched by cancer. I enjoy this group also. You see, we are not sitting home, worrying about cancer, we are visiting sick people and flying a flag called the Spokes of Hope (SoH). The Spokes represent all the various types of cancer and the unity we have through the good and bad for our cancer warriors and angels. CCC and SoH also fund raise, lobby Congress, and cycle together in every state (I made three state ride so far this year). This year, I was the first DISabled and PINK Spokes of Hope jersey ever to lead a ride. This was a huge deal. I am one of three SoH members with a TBI. The fact that I started the parade lap on my recumbent was well-publicized and well-received and I was proud to do it. I am referring to SoH Rhode Island. What a fabulous group and we combined with TEAM M-POWER, which is the Mandeville family who lost their brother to brain cancer last year. This collaboration was wonderful and a positive step toward combating cancer and helping people who have cancer as a disability. The culmination of these events, is the Philadelphia LiveSTRONG Challenge. My family and I fund raise, volunteer, and they run the 5K, while I ride my recumbent 45-miles through those lovely Pennsylvania hills. This is my second Philly LveSTRONG, and we will continue going, as long as we can. This Challenge brings together people of all abilities and of various stages in their cancer journey. We all walk/jog/cycle, but most of all, fund raise, celebrate fitness, life, family and make new friends.
I attribute a lot of my success to my husband and daughter. They have been with me through some very dark times. Without their love, support and patience, I would not be the woman I am today. To reiterate, my name again is Gina, Ex-Senior Pharmaceutical Executive. I am a survivor of body and brain trauma, cancer, and more. I am disabled, however, I have and will continue to advocate, raise awareness and money for multiple disability, fitness, YMCA, military and cancer communities.
My new life mission is to help facilitate successful interactions and inspire people with disabilities and cancer to be comfortable with who they are, get out, have fun, make healthy choices, and enjoy the life they are lucky enough to have post a trauma or cancer.
Me on the podium. :0) Nautica Malibu ParaTri 2011
Acceptance..of many things..disability, cancer, love, friendship , family and friends who are awesome, and the award and medal.
2011 Paul Mitchell Spirit Award Recipient
2011 Winner Nautica Malibu Paratriathlon-Woman’s division