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In his shoes

Sixth-graders get lessons on what it's like to go through life with a brain injury

By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2009
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How do you button a shirt or put on socks using only one hand? What’s it like trying to get around in a wheelchair if you can’t see? How isolating is it to not recognize or remember people’s faces?

These are just a few of the questions sixth-graders at the John C. Page School in West Newbury explored during a recent two-day program on brain injury.

Presented by the Krempels Brain Injury Foundation of Portsmouth, N.H., the program was presented in conjunction with a schoolwide yearlong campaign titled We Can Make a Difference.

"It's about how one small act can turn into something magnificent," said Susan Van Etten, counselor at Page. "And it's the idea of understanding people with differences and that we can reach out and not shy away."

Van Etten said foundation founder David Krempels, who spoke to the students, epitomizes the far-reaching impact of one person's actions.

On June 8, 1992, Krempels and his bride of two days were driving on the Maine Turnpike during their honeymoon. Traffic was stopped for a construction project, but the tractor-trailer behind the couple didn't brake and slammed into the car. Krempels's wife was killed. He was left in a coma and brain-injured.

Krempels had a long, difficult recovery and was emotionally and financially drained for years. Eventually, with rehabilitation, he improved and remarried.

Meanwhile, he won a monetary settlement relating to the accident. He used a portion of the money to start Krempels Brain Injury Foundation, which includes SteppingStones, a community-based day program for people with brain injuries, and a family support program.

"Here's a man who could have taken the money and moved on with his life, but he decided one person could make a tremendous difference in the lives of so many others," said Van Etten.

As part of the Page School program, organized by Barb Kresge of West Newbury, program coordinator for SteppingStones, students learned about the causes and physical, emotional, and social implications of brain injury; how to recognize and respond to someone who is brain-injured; and injury prevention, such as wearing a helmet while riding a bike and skateboarding.

They also had a chance to interact with several people with brain injuries.

But much of the impact of the program came from students participating in interactive activities that allowed them to experience what it's like living with a brain injury.

Throughout several classrooms, stations were set up where they were asked to perform dressing and eating activities, with limitations and with adaptive equipment.

They were asked to pick small matching objects from gift bags without looking and with mittens on, to simulate decreased sensation in the hands and fingers. And they completed memory and cognitive tests on computers.

"Challenging," "impossible," and "frustrating," were students' reactions to chores such as cutting grapes with a butter knife or peeling a potato using their nondominant hands; trying to navigate a maze on paper by looking at it in a mirror, so up is down and left is right; and telling a joke to another person by tapping out letters on a communication board rather than speaking.

"It was hard to understand what the other person was trying to say," Kelsie McNamara said of the joke-telling exercise. "It's harder than talking face to face. It shows how lucky we are that we can communicate."

"I can't believe people have to live like this every day," said Caroline McDonough, after sitting in a wheelchair and steering it through an obstacle course using only her nondominant hand. "It must be hard."

But there was also recognition of what can be done to improve the lives of the brain-injured.

After meeting Jarrod Limbert, 29, of Newmarket, N.H., who was hit by a car when he was 7 and is in a wheelchair and unable to speak, Hannah Tew commented on the Dynavox that helps him communicate. "It's really amazing they have those tools," she said. "Even though he has a brain injury, we can communicate with him. It's nice we can treat him like a normal person."

For more, visit www.krempelsfoundation.org.

H ow do you button a shirt or put on socks using only one hand? What's it like trying to get around in a wheelchair if you can't see? How isolating is it to not recognize or remember people's faces?

These are just a few of the questi ons sixth-graders at the John C. Page School in West Newbury explored during a recent two-day program on brain injury.

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