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Brain injury survivor works hard to give back
Are you still a genius?
The question lingers in my mind as I ponder a riddle set out by Greg Goldberg. I’m not feeling like a genius and my grey matter isn’t serving me especially well, but I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Seated around Goldberg are four guys whose brains betray them on a daily basis. They tend to forget things, struggle with problem solving, and can have fits of anger and impulsiveness.
But on this night, they’re concentrated on brain-bending cognitive exercises while recording a Internet-broadcast game show called “Are You Still a Genius?,” one of Goldberg’s programs to help people recover from traumatic brain injuries.
He lays out the question: Make “new door” one word. The four men chuckle a bit as I struggle. The answer is “one word.” Goldberg smiles as he tells me they can always add more contestants to the game show.
“We try to use all areas of the brain for cognitive ability,” he says. “This question is the logical going against the spatial.”
Goldberg hosts his game show at Mary Cridge Manor, a nondescript apartment block on Yates Street that houses a dozen brain injury survivors, and is operated by the Cridge Centre for the Family.
The men enjoy an easy going camaraderie – they have dinner, chat and tell off-coloured jokes. For the broadcast, Goldberg audio records their answers and stitches together a video using the men’s photos and slides of the questions. Now finished its second season, the game has a dedicated following and a stable of sponsors – Safeway, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, Arby’s and Thrifty Foods.
“’Are You Still a Genius?’ has caught fire. Last year we had 30 or 40 (online) visitors. Now its up to 150 to 160. Last week it was over 200,” Goldberg says. “It forces you to think outside the box. A lot of people who watch the show think its easy to compete against brain injury survivors. I get emails saying ‘they do a lot better than me.’”
Goldberg declares Bill Cawker, 51, the evening’s winner, although as Cawker says, it more about “food, fellowship and camaraderie.”
“You come here and realize you’re not the only one with problems,” Peter Brozik, 62, who suffered a stroke. “It’s fun. I like to laugh. It’s fun to see how different guys relate to this kind of thing.”
“I like interacting with other survivors with traumatic brain injuries. I know I have a place to go to and relate to other people without discrimination – except for that guy,” jokes Adam Rich, 35, pointing to Ben Smith, a stroke survivor. They have a laugh.
Goldberg, 45, a resident of Oak Bay, developed the game a part of the Blue Sheet Club, his free volunteer service to help brain injury survivors and their families cope with the inevitable and long-term changes to their lives. No two brain injuries are exactly the same, but personality changes, mood swings, impulse control and memory problems form a common thread.
The B.C. Brain Injury Association estimates about 22,000 people in B.C. suffer brain injuries each year. A 2011 study by the Cridge showed at least half of the homeless population have brain injuries, and most of those suffered the injury before becoming homeless.
“Changes after a brain injury are significant. It effects relationships, controlling anger, maintaining a job, basic life skills,” says Geoff Sing, manager of brain injury services at the Cridge Centre. “Personal relationships break down, you lose your job. There is significant loss. A brain injury ... can have a huge cost to society.”
As a school teacher working in Ontario, Goldberg suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after a gravel truck slammed into his car in 1998. He had a new wife, a job he loved and “the white picket fence.”
“I’m married, I have a house, I’m the happiest guy in the world. Bam – it’s all gone,” he says. “Life can be altered in a flash.
“I made a promise that if I got healthy again, I’d do everything I could to give back to brain injury survivors and make the journey as smooth as I can.”
Goldberg spent years in recovery and therapy, going through a typical arc of a TBI survivor. His marriage dissolved and he couldn’t concentrate enough to maintain his teaching job. He was angry and confrontational – stores across Toronto banned him from entering. “I got into a lot of trouble with a very, very short fuse. I got mad at anything.”
He moved to Victoria about 10 years ago while writing a book about his recovery – Time with the Temporal Lobe – in co-operation with the Canadian Brain Injury Association.
Physical exercise and blind determination allowed Goldberg to reach a point where he can help others, although effects from his injuries linger. He has nerve damage on the right side of his body, a permanent numbness, along with short term memory problems and fatigue.
Through the Cridge, Goldberg is the social co-ordinator for brain injury survivors – events such as movies, outings, chatting and the game show. Goldberg’s recovery was marked with long periods of isolation – he knows socializing is a key facet on the road to recovery.
“(These guys) aren’t hard to work with. I know what they are going through,” he says. “They have outbursts, they won’t show up, they’ll be late and forget things. I know. I forget too. It’s about acceptance, knowing there is no judgment and understanding they can be themselves.”
Goldberg’s latest project, “helmet hair,” is an effort to raise awareness about wearing a helmet while cycling and engaging in other risky activities. His inspiration emerged from a news article about people refusing to wear bike helmets for short trips, as it messed up their hair.
These days he’s spreading around stickers bearing “Helmet hair or long term care” and “Helmet head or hospital bed,” and is speaking at elementary schools across Greater Victoria.
As a prop, he drops four tomatoes that represent the lobes of the brain on the floor, with and without a helmet. Bruise your parietal lobe? Perhaps you won’t be able to taste Christmas dinner, he tells the kids, or smell that turkey coming out of the oven.
“When they see the tomatoes get crushed, they know. They get excited and become part of the cause,” Goldberg says. “They know the brain is a valuable organ. Kids put on helmets. They believe in it. They aren’t about judgment or looking cool.”
The “helmet hair” campaign has picked up steam and found sponsorship, and should keep Goldberg occupied well into 2013. Last year he remarried and through 15 long years of incremental recovery, has built a new life for himself.
“A big thing is to work within your limitations and accept that it’s OK to fail,” he says. “A patient won’t get better tomorrow or next week. It’s a long process. You just have to do the best you can every day.”
To see the Are You Still a Genius? game show see www.tbitalks.com. To contact Goldberg about the helmet hair campaign email firstname.lastname@example.org.