May 2013 Commencement Speech

A few weeks ago, I was chosen as a commencement speaker. On a windy day in May, I offered the following words to graduates, their family members, their friends, college administrators, and school faculty. The presentation did not go exactly as planned, but all attendees shared plenty of laughter. If anyone has a good quality video of the event, please let me know; I will include the video in this post.

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I am a survivor – not because I’m above ground and breathing, but because I lost everything that was important to me and I learned to start over again with the help of family, friends, neighbors, social workers, peers, and therapists. My name is Scott and I approved this message.

In the Beginning

My journey to recovery began approximately 10 years ago when I was driving from California through the Rocky Mountains to Minnesota. During the drive, I started seeing strange images. Everything I saw appeared as if it had been torn into hundreds of pieces and cast into a mean and chaotic wind. Images of my arms, the steering wheel, and the road were replaced by fragments of pictures that I could not piece together. Moments later everything changed. My car began a backward, diagonal, and uncontrollable slide down the icy mountain. Eventually, my car slammed into something, the descent stopped abruptly, the strange images disappeared, and I could see nothing. I was not sure if I had fallen off the mountain and crashed into a tree that was not happy about meeting my car during its rapid decent to the valley. I was not sure if my car slid into a truck that had flattened me inside my car. My first thought was “I cannot see because I am dead. “ Thankfully, the blindness lasted only a short time and a well-placed barrier prevented my car from slipping off the mountain. I was alive, so I shrugged off the vision issues and continued driving to Minnesota.

Diagnosis

When I arrived in Minnesota, my friends recognized something was wrong before I mentioned the events of my journey. According to my friends, I was unbalanced, uncoordinated, slurred words, and responded poorly to questions and instructions. I thought I was fine, perhaps a little tired from the trip, but my friends insisted I immediately see a doctor for proper diagnosis. The doctor recommended I schedule an MRI of my head. I agreed to the MRI not because I wanted to find the cause of my vision issues, but because I had never seen an MRI.

Post MRI

The morning after my MRI, the doctor called and asked me to bring a family member to her office right away. I still didn’t realize my problems were due to something other than fatigue. My family lived 2,000 miles away, so a friend went to the appointment with me. The doctor revealed I had a rare brain tumor and that testing, surgery, chemo, radiation, and therapy would be necessary to improve my chance of survival.

Physical, Occupational, Visual, Speech, and Cognitive Therapy

After a year of throwing up several times per day and sleeping almost 20 hours per day, I moved from Minnesota to California with significant help from my brother.  Shortly after arriving in California, I began a residential therapy program. When my insurance company stopped paying for residential care, I began an out-patient therapy program at the same location. When my insurance company stopped paying for out-patient care, I assumed I was better and began working almost immediately. Approximately one year later, I called the therapy center and asked for a referral to a cognitive therapy program. They referred me to the best kept secret in Orange County.

Cognitive Therapy

There are no words that could properly express my gratitude to the faculty, teachers, aides, and students of the program. Participating in the program changed my life immeasurably. I entered the program believing I had no future, but I left the program with confidence, a plan for the future, and the flexibility to alter my plan as circumstances changed. The people involved with the program didn’t just teach me cognitive strategies or how to exist, but how to start over again.

Future Planning and Transitioning Into the Community

During my transition from cognitive therapy student to valuable community member, I earned four professional certifications; completed several face-to-face and online classes; volunteered regularly at a children’s hospital, Habitat for Humanity, a science center, Make A Wish, an alumni association; and two professional organizations. I also started a business focused on helping people with brain injury (and the people with whom they interact) overcome adversity and enjoy life. My success would not have been possible without the encouragement, support, instruction, suggestions, and guidance of family, friends, and people involved with the program.

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