Chase Gottlieb and his mom joined me in a room away from the den of activity in the Patricia M. Brown Center at Annandale Village in Suwanee.
Like the 20 or so other participants, they had come to somehow give voice to a life lived with a brain injury — some acquired from a medical condition such as a stroke or brain tumor and others the result of a traumatic incident like Chase’s attempted suicide.
Six years ago this May, Chase, now 25, was looking forward to graduating from Lilburn’s Parkview High School and then heading to Gwinnett Technical College, where he planned to pursue a degree certification as an automotive chassis technician specialist. He was in love.
But when it looked like that love wouldn’t last, Chase didn’t think he could go on.
Wendy Gottlieb said her son was on the phone with his girlfriend, when suddenly there were noises. The girl hung up and called the family’s home phone.
Go check on Chase, she urged Chase’s father.
It was 1 a.m. Friday, May 13, 2011.
“When we reached him, his face was pure blue,” Wendy Gottlieb said. “I froze. My husband snapped into action. Got him down, started CPR.”
Wendy Gottlieb would soon snap into action, too, and dial 911. The police arrived and together with Chase’s father, they were able to revive him. Moments later, paramedics arrived and rushed him to the Gwinnett Medical Center.
The next six days, Chase lay in a coma at that hospital. He never made it to graduation, but they called his name that night.
Doctors agreed his brain had been severely deprived of oxygen. Chase was essentially in a vegetative state and would never recover.
Memory of his prognosis drew tears from Wendy Gottlieb as it always does, and Chase apologizes.
The doctors were wrong. Chase was able to fight his way back, but sadly his life will never be the same. He knows it. His parents know it.
That’s their story, but there are 20 others with brain injuries just around the corner from where the two of them are seated and an estimated 10 million more across the country.
In fact, brain injury is the second most common injury and disability in the United States, said Paige Havens, a volunteer with the Brain Injury Association of Georgia and founder of Gwinnett County’s New Beginnings Brain Injury Support Group. Every 23 seconds, someone in this country sustains a brain injury. Every seven minutes, someone dies of their injury.
Because of medical advancements in trauma care, more people survive brain injury than ever before only to face a lifetime of physical, behavioral and cognitive impairments that require ongoing support services. At this very moment, there are more than 5.3 million children and adults living with a lifelong disability in the United States as a result of a traumatic brain injury and 1.1 million more who are disabled because of a stroke.
Which gets me to why Havens allowed me to witness Chase and the other survivors create masks that tell their unique brain injury story. The masks, along with their stories, will be showcased at the Hudgens Center for the Arts in March during Brain Injury Awareness Month as part of their Healing Arts Program and then will become part of a national brain injury awareness art exhibition, “Unmasking Brain Injury,” that rotates around the country.
Theirs will be the first masks from Georgia gifted to the national exhibit, Havens said.
Away from the gridiron, you don’t hear much about brain injury and even less about its long-term impact on suicide survivors.
That’s why the Gottliebs wanted to share their story and why they say awareness is so important.
In all, it would take nearly two weeks before Chase emerged from his coma. It wasn’t until after he was finally released from a rehab facility and transferred to the Shepherd Center that the real struggles began, his mother said.
And although he could see immediately after regaining consciousness, his sight faded. Not only could he not see, he could not walk, talk or use proper hygiene.
“It was starting all over with him,” Wendy Gottlieb said.
It would take months, but Chase worked his way back. He learned to walk and talk again. He can see with glasses. But he will never drive again. He will never be able to live completely on his own.
“In some respects, we’ve lost the son we had but have gained a whole new person,” Wendy said.
The Gottliebs, though, are determined to turn their tragedy into something positive. They recently created Chase Life Inc., a local nonprofit that seeks to educate teens about suicide and provide a support network for families who find themselves in a similar situation whether their teen succeeds.
Havens says it’s important to remember that brain injuries don’t just happen to the individual survivors. They happen to entire families.
She knows. She helped found the support group in 2015 after her daughter sustained a severe concussion while playing soccer.
Havens’ daughter, thank God, made a full recovery and moved on with her life, but she has remained because of the need for support here.
“Unless you’ve walked in their shoes, you can’t fathom the struggles and the constant challenges these people face,” Havens said. “We just celebrate life, rejoice in the successes, and cry over tough times.”
Havens said she first saw the “Unmasking Brain Injury” exhibit last year when she visited our nation’s capital to participate in Brain Injury Awareness Day events.
“It took my breath away,” she said. “I knew then I wanted to do this for our community.”
And so she has.