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BEYOND Brain Injury: Creating Purpose After Hardship


Traumatic brain injuries represent a complicated and varied range of diagnoses. Among the most severe and life-changing injuries a person can sustain, trauma to the brain is widely perceived as a dead-end, a pathway from which there is no outlet or recovery.

For National Brain Injury Awareness Month, QLI highlighted four individuals in an effort to invert and dispel those preconceptions. These men and women confront traumatic brain injuries in ways both large and small, tackling life-changing challenges and redefining perceptions and possibilities.

Brian Gut is a role model.
Brian Gut is a force of inspiration and insight.
Brian Gut is #BEYONDbraininjury.

As a survivor of traumatic brain injury himself, Brian has become a brain injury awareness advocate and educator, one whose story has touched the life of nearly every QLI employee.

Brian shares his uniquely moving story through poignant presentations, both within QLI and across the Omaha community. These presentations offer a candid and honest look at the dangers of distracted driving and the long-term realities of traumatic brain injury.

But Brian is more than a presenter. He is in many ways the connective tissue for QLI’s rehabilitation program. His contagious enthusiasm weaves incredible bonds between families, rehabilitation clients, and even our clinicians and staff. Brian goes out of his way to make QLI feel less like a healthcare provider and more like one large interconnected family, all growing and learning through the rehabilitation process together.

Songwriter. Entrepreneur. Role model.

Thomas Hughes is #BEYONDbraininjury

Living with the effects of brain injury for over twenty years hasn’t stopped Tom from being a man of action and initiative. Tom dedicates his time and effort to his two passions: music and community.

An accomplished songwriter whose music embraces themes of acceptance, equality, and courage, Tom’s songs have been produced by Nashville-based recording artists on multiple occasions. And in 2004, Tom founded The Hang Inc., an organization that specializes in music industry development, networking, and training in the Omaha area. The Hang, Inc. identifies musical talent within the Omaha area and coordinates with promoters to build a diverse and healthy local music community.

Tom’s resilient persistence in the face of hardship continues to inspire all of those lucky enough to know him. We can’t wait to see what he does next.

There is one word QLI associates with the name Colleen Palmer: Progress. And hers is an incredible, inspiring, indisputable story of progress.

In May 2015, Colleen was struck by a motor vehicle during a morning run near her home in Chicago. Though the truck was traveling slowly, Colleen’s injuries were catastrophic. The ensuing traumatic brain injury confined her to a wheelchair and stripped her of her use of speech or expressive language in even the most basic of forms.

Determination and positivity—these characteristics define Colleen’s journey toward recovery, from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to QLI in Omaha, Nebraska. And with the help and dedication of her therapy teams, Colleen’s determination and positivity have fueled staggering results.

Colleen, now almost two years removed from the accident that changed her life, walks regularly, a major component of her return to independence. And her communication abilities have seen tremendous improvement.

Once seemingly destined to spend her life requiring a near-constant level of care within a skilled nursing facility, Colleen returns to Chicago this week. There, she will live—as she did before the accident—in her own apartment on her own terms.

Colleen’s path isn’t a path of miracles or destinies. It isn’t defined by accidents or injuries.

It is defined by progress.

The story Tess Sunderland tells is of the sort that stretches what we believe to be possible. Her first day at an archaeological site in New Mexico, for what she considered to be her dream job, Tess was struck by a bolt of lightning. Her heart stopped, and Tess suffered an anoxic brain injury—which occurs when the brain goes without oxygen for a period longer than approximately four minutes.

This was the beginning of a domino chain, a devastating inciting event that would effect every part of Tess’s daily life. Her speech, her mobility, and her ability to be independent spiraled into jeopardy.

But now? Now, seven and a half years following her injury, Tess is a force to be reckoned with. The QLI-alum once again lives in New Mexico and has returned to work as a lab technician at her pre-injury archaeology office. The successes continue beyond work, too. Tess busies herself with a wide range of adaptive sports. Rock climbing training sessions, adaptive snowboarding, dressage horseback riding—you name it, she’s sought out ways to do it.

She’s a sterling example of someone who has cultivated meaning beyond survival, beyond tragedy, and beyond brain injury.

“I’m not ashamed of my disability,” Tess says. “And I’ve learned the skills to live a happier, more productive life.”

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