Aram Attarian watches his former wife Carol Welsh speak to a gathering at Silver Creek Country Club.
Attarian suffered a brain injury, including a double skull fracture in 1996, when a deer jumped into the path of the motorcycle he and Welsh were riding together.
Through Services for Brain Injury, a San Jose non-profit rehabilitation organization that serves both the Silicon Valley community and returning veterans, Attarian was able to was able to get help when he was most vulnerable and progress to a level where he now lives independently and works part time. Welsh is now Community Development coordinator for SBI.
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There had been fires all that summer around South Lake Tahoe, flushing the wild animals from the places they normally grazed into the open. As Aram Attarian and Carol Welsh set out for their Menlo Park home that morning in 1996, the only smudge on a day Welsh remembers as "postcard-perfect" was the layer of smoke that blanketed the horizon.
They had ridden to Tahoe on his motorcycle to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. Aram took pictures of Carol, stretched out on a rock in her biker chick leathers, and one of himself in which he looked exactly like Jack Nicholson in "Easy Rider." As they started back, a life filled with such heedless, carefree mornings stretched out before them like the road ahead.
There was no time to get out of the deer's way. The terrified animal hit the Harley-Davidson and ripped it apart like a piņata. Attarian never let go during the bike's sickening slide of several hundred feet. When Welsh, who was badly injured herself, got to her husband, she untangled him from the wreckage with the help of a passing motorist.
Still conscious, Attarian wanted to know what happened. "I told him, 'We hit a deer, but it's all right,'" Welsh recalls. "And then he said, 'What happened?' I thought he didn't hear me, so I said, 'We hit a deer, but it's OK.' And he said, 'What happened?' And I knew. I knew that the person I married was gone."
Attarian had shattered his right shoulder, broken four ribs, punctured a lung and fractured his skull in two places. The accident left him with a traumatic brain injury so debilitating that he couldn't walk, talk or feed himself in the hospital. The first night there, his right carotid artery collapsed, causing a second catastrophic injury to the brain.
In 1996, Aram Attarian was riding his motorcycle with Carol Welsh, his wife at the time, when a deer jumped into the path of his motorcycle while he was traveling at 50 mph. Attarian suffered a catastrophic brain injury.
During his early recovery, insurance benefits ceased abruptly and he languished at home for five crucial months without rehabilitation. (BELOW) Welsh attends to Attarian during his hospital stay.
(Photos courtesy of Carol Welsh)
"The stroke wiped out the whole thing," Welsh says.
In Attarian's case, "the whole thing" was a genius-level IQ he was a member of Mensa and a successful career in sales with Apple, Sun Microsystems and several Silicon Valley startups from 1983 to 1996.
During the early months of his recovery, Attarian was permitted only a dozen visits to speech, occupational and physical therapists before his insurance coverage was used up. "I was frantic that he was languishing at home during the first year, which is a very critical period," Welsh says.
Attarian needed an advocate to battle with insurance companies, someone to get him into the right rehab programs and to take care of his most basic needs. As his wife stepped into all those roles, their relationship shifted. And three years after the accident, even as Carol continued to help with Aram's rehabilitation, their marriage ended.
"From the second we hit the ground, I went into caregiver mode," Welsh says. "And my love changed from romantic to maternal. But I definitely feel this has been a step up, not back. I love him now more than I ever have, and we're best friends. I almost feel guilty about all the gifts that I got from this in terms of building character. Because everything I got from the experience meant that Aram had to lose something."
His most obvious loss was in the area of the brain that handles what neurologists call "executive functions," the logic and sequencing skills that the rest of us use without thinking.
It was only after Welsh discovered the non-profit Services for Brain Injury in San Jose that the picture changed radically, and for the better. There, the center's staff helped him relearn to button a shirt, tie his shoes and socialize with others. Before being exposed to SBI's workplace simulations, Attarian often would stand up and walk out of a room in mid-conversation.
"I was like a different person behaviorally," Attarian says. "When I got out of the hospital and started thinking about going back to work, I realized what I had before had changed. Not gone, but I began to understand my cognitive and physical limitations. And making a lot of money working in high-tech was out of the picture."
As he learned to drive a car again (no more motorcycles!), hold a steady job and forge a new relationship with his girlfriend of six years, Attarian has proved that brain injury isn't an ending it's the beginning of a whole new journey.
To help others like Aram, SBI would like to enhance its Life Skills Lab, where people can re-master basic tasks using familiar, everyday objects. SBI would like to add a bedroom set, so patients can relearn how to make a bed, fold blankets and sheets and hang clothes in a closet. Wheelchair-safe flooring needs to be installed. The lab also would like to include such household staples as an iron, broom, vacuum, washer and dryer and tool kit. High-tech devices like a handheld text reader are also needed.
"A fully equipped Life Skills Lab, like all SBI programming, is likely to be the only safe place a survivor has to explore and relearn the very basic functioning we take for granted," says Christine Camara, executive director. "Life skills are the foundation for all other learning and for survivors, particularly, as they begin the crucial process of restoring their humanity."
Donations in increments of $50 will help outfit the lab.
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