Out of the fog
UND Physical Therapy graduate Amy Harmon is on her way to a new job in California after recovering from a traumatic brain injury that brought her years of obstacles, setbacks and uncertainty
Amy Harmon graduated this spring with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of North Dakota.
She didn’t fall this time.
Harmon, a native of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, had surmounted long odds in her trip to the commencement stage.
“She fell on a wet tile floor and suffered a traumatic brain injury which drastically altered her way of living,” said Peggy Mohr, a faculty member in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences’ Physical Therapy program and one of Harmon’s mentors. “Amy lost her ability to smell and taste, to respond emotionally, and she experienced a radical decline in her cognitive abilities and academic performances.”
“I was unable to recognize the severity of my injury immediately after the injury, and when those deficits became evident, I found myself trying to keep the changes hidden from the outside world,” said Harmon, noting that prior to the accident, she’d never failed a college course.
Harmon didn’t receive physical therapy after her injury, which happened in 2009—still, she chose to pursue that major because she wanted to help others with similar issues.
“I know that rehabilitation therapy could have alleviated many of the residual symptoms that took me years to overcome,” Harmon said.
Mohr noted that in addition to regaining her active lifestyle, Harmon was forced to re-learn how to master her coursework and monitor her activity levels to avoid extreme fatigue.
“During her physical therapy coursework, Amy indicated that she has struggled with the volume of content and has often felt overwhelmed,” Mohr said. “She has had to develop, among skills and abilities, an awareness of her academic strengths and weaknesses, time management skills, the effects of having a positive attitude.”
She has thus been able to reset her cognitive processes by incorporating relaxation activities and restructuring her time management plan.
“As a result, Amy feels able to better take care of herself both physically and mentally,” Mohr said.
In retrospect, Harmon says, she can appreciate living a fully functional life—and that includes hitting and surpassing her academic and professional targets.
“I tested and passed early for the (national physical therapy) boards,” Harmon said.
It all adds up to an enhanced career, she says.
“I will be able to relate to my future patients because I experienced a ‘disability’ first hand, so I understand from personal experience what it’s like to face a long, daunting road toward recovery, with many struggles and obstacles along the way,” Harmon said.
“My experience with the frustrations of setbacks, lack of progress and uncertainty will help me to connect with future patients on a different level,” Harmon said. “Not only will I be able to provide a listening ear, but I will be able to connect with genuine empathy.”
What follow are brief excerpts from Harmon’s own description of her accident and long recovery:
Drip. Drip. A two-liter soda was tipped over, pooling its contents onto the floor. It appeared as if it had been tipped over for some time and nobody cared. The liquid had spread its fingers to follow the grout lines of the tile floor spanning the length of the kitchen counter, creating a perfect bubble-jumping, fizzing puddle.
I rushed over for a dishrag to quickly clean it up but never made it.
My feet slipped out from beneath me and then I was surrounded by blackness; lights out.
My journey to becoming a physical therapist started on a warm summer night, a wet tile floor, my brain, the ER and a neurologist.
In 2009, I suffered from a traumatic brain injury(TBI), which drastically altered my way of living. I lost the ability to smell and taste for over a year, and came face to face with the possibility of dropping out of school due to my radical decline in cognitive abilities and academic performance.
I am able to utilize my previous struggles, with didactics, to help drive me toward success. Throughout Physical Therapy school, I have struggled with the volume of content we are responsible for knowing; often times I feel overwhelmed.
Because of my TBI, I have developed a strong awareness for my academic strengths and weaknesses. These include my drive for success, developing time management skills, and having a positive attitude.
Looking back at how lost and confused I was, I can truly appreciate living a fully functional life.
I am confident I can relate to my future patients because I experienced a ‘handicap’ first hand.
I know what it’s like to face a long, daunting road towards recovery, with many struggles and obstacles along the way.
I have experienced the frustrations of setbacks, lack of progress and uncertainty firsthand. My experience will provide me with the ability to connect on another level with my patients.
Not only will I be able to provide a listening ear but also connect with genuine empathy.
Eventually I would like to own my own clinic. I've chosen to work in outpatient orthopedics and specialize in vestibular and sports medicine with the job I took in Santa Monica, Calif.
-- Amy Harmon
Juan Miguel Pedraza
University & Public Affairs writer