School bells rang, papers floated in the air from seniors celebrating their graduation, and I was rushing out of school so that I could go to hockey practice in the Twin Cities.
Back then, I was at the top of my game. I recently finished freshman year of high school and I already broke into the singles lineup of my varsity tennis team, was an all-star of my ninth-grade football team and was about to make my high school’s varsity boy’s hockey team. However, I knew that summer was critical to my hockey game. I would need to get on the ice as much as possible to prove to my coaches and future teammates that I deserved to be on the same ice as them.
My parents finally agreed to let a couple of hockey teammates, who just turned 16, drive me up to practice in the Cities. They both were new drivers. To ease my mother’s nerves, I picked the seat behind the driver, thinking it was the safest place I could be. It wasn’t.
I was 15 years old when my life changed forever.
On our way home, our car drifted over the centerline and collided head-on with a semi-truck. My friends suffered severe injuries, but not ones that would last a lifetime, like mine. Thanks to the first responders I was airlifted to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.
I was in a coma. On the Glasgow Coma Scale of 1 to 15—1 being no response to stimuli—my score was 3.
In addition to the coma, I had a skull fracture, bleeding in the left side of my brain, and a broken back, shoulders, clavicle and left humerus—the bone that runs from shoulder to elbow. I also had bruises and cuts on my face and other parts of my body. Machines were keeping me alive, however, the healthcare professionals, family and friends who supported and prayed for me are the reason I am here today.
The healthcare professionals were top-notch and were with me every step of the way. My support group, especially my mother who stayed by my side every day while I was in a coma, gave me the motivation I needed to get through my darkest hours. My friends and community brought food, clothes and supplies to me and my loved ones who were unable to leave my side. I cannot thank these people enough. They let me understand the meaning of unconditional love and I am thankful for them every day of my life.
My Journey Back to Life
After three months, I started to wake up. When I got to Gillette, I was 200 pounds. After the coma, I was a little over 100 pounds. Diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, I had to relearn basic cognitive and motor skills and how to walk and talk. These were huge obstacles, but I was determined to get better. I went through months of inpatient rehab. Every day I had occupational, physical and speech therapy. On top of that, my family and friends, especially my father, added additional rehab to my schedule and pushed me harder than I thought possible.
My family, my father Bob and Jo Alleva both were determined to get me where I am today. I remember back when I just started to eat solid foods, the doctor said I could progress slowly. Well, my father must have thought “progression” meant Chinese food. He took me out to eat at a Chinese buffet. When we came back to the hospital; he decided I was fueled up for rehab therapy in the pool, so we got in the pool with his hopes of teaching me the basic fundamentals of swimming. This was not a good idea. As we were swimming, my father noticed something floating in the water.
Additional details aren’t that important here, but needless to say, you should really listen to your provider.
The following year I started to return to school, but it was difficult. Every aspect of my life changed. I had to relearn how to read, improve my motor skills and understand social situations, such as when it is appropriate to laugh, talk, or even when and how to express my anger. The only thing that was certain about was that I wanted to play hockey again.
After a lot of hard work, I was strong and coordinated enough to begin skating. My favorite times would be skating in the mornings before school with my sister and father because it allowed me to clear my head and reflect on my life. Then, after school, I would go to the Red Wing varsity practices. Since I was not allowed to have any contact due to my brain injury, I was only allowed to skate if the team was only using half the rink. Eventually, my father persuaded the Red Wing hockey coach to allow me to skate in drills with the team, still avoiding contact.
During games, I would be suited up and on the bench cheering on my teammates. Even though my coach said he would allow me to play in a game of no contact, the other team’s coaches would never agree, even if it were for only 10 seconds. As my senior year of high school started to close, it began to dawn on me that my near fatal car accident was going to prevent me from ever playing in a contact sport of any kind.
Nevertheless, my dedication to the team did not go unnoticed. The Red Wing athletic director, Don Featherstone, and Winger head coach, George Nemanich, honored me with a new award called the Josie Alleva Determination Award, or JADA. It represents my dedication, hard work, and love for the team. Today it is still given to the Red Wing boy’s hockey player who best exemplifies perseverance and continued determination to become the best hockey player they can be.
My Life Now
Being part of the hockey team meant so much to me after my injury. It reminded me that I still had a lot going for me. I had a nice social life related to hockey and great parents, coaches and siblings. I even found good personal values through school and my health, which lead me to view and live life in a clean-cut manner.
After high school, I went to college at Minnesota State University – Mankato. There I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degree in Ethnic Studies. During college, I did not want the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) to hinder my passions, hopes and dreams. I also wanted to keep a positive attitude and become a role model for others while studying hard. As a result, I looked to find other activities that kept me active and put me in a position to give back to the community.
Today, I am proud to say that I enjoy giving back to the community and helping others, while I strive to continue to better myself. In the past, I have found avenues in helping the next generation through coaching high school cross country running and tennis, and organizing a local Kids Fun Run to educate others on the benefits of exercise. However, I now enjoy substitute teaching at Red Wing Schools, where it all began.
Every day I work hard to get better and improve some side effects of the TBI. For example, I have noticed that I have trouble with my short-term memory. Sometimes when I see some of my high school classmates or people that I’ve just met, I forget their names. To combat this problem, I exercise and read from a book every day so that my mind is always active.
Another symptom is left side neglect, which means my brain doesn’t notice the left side of my environment as well as the right side. Even though I barely notice it anymore, I still like to practice things with my left hand. For example, I brush my teeth and play Pac-man with my left hand every day. If I let it, every day could be a struggle for me. Instead, I get up in the morning and I tell myself, “You’re alive! You can run 12 miles! You can do stair climbs for an hour! You can do this!” There are some things I can’t change, but I can choose to live my life in a positive way.
In order to maintain my fitness level, I continue to run marathons and do cross country ski races. While training for them, I inadvertently became part of the 4:30 Club at my local YMCA. It is an unspoken “club” of about five people. We all open the YMCA at 4:30 a.m. to start our days off with a good dose of exercise. By now, I have run over 40 marathons and ski races, mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. However, I am looking to start running around the world. This past year I ran in my second New York City Marathon, and I now have my sights on the Boston marathon and one on the Great Wall of China.
Since my accident, my life has been about recovering and staying healthy and strong.
In doing so, I have found that I can help others. I want to share my story, not only because it helps me realize how far I have come, but also be a beacon of hope for others. People cannot learn these life tools in school, only through experience. I have learned to take a deep breath and accept the fact that my life has changed. I have learned to adapt. There is life after a TBI injury; I am living proof of this.
Most of all, I want to show that anyone, with or without similar disabilities, can do whatever they want with discipline and heart.