Living with TBI: Veteran injured in Iraq in '07 is on to a second career as a teacher
By MARCIA MOORE | The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. | Published: December 4, 2017
SELINSGROVE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — A large calendar filled with appointments and important dates has a predominant place in Wally Blair’s Monroe Township home.
The reminders not only keep the lives of Blair, 40, his wife, Jasmin, and their four children, ages 9 to 17, in check, but are necessary for Blair, who is living with a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The retired Marine Corps captain suffered the injury about three weeks into his deployment to Iraq in September 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded near a vehicle he was riding in.
Eight years passed before Blair was diagnosed with TBI and today he is thriving, even working toward a second career as a social studies teacher.
Recalling that moment when he was injured in Iraq, he said, “It was a day like any other. Out of nowhere, I saw flashes through the driver-side mirror. It felt like a football or hockey hit. I was a brand new second lieutenant, so my concern was to carry on.”
He didn’t notice he was injured until the next day when he had a chance to take his suit off and saw the left side of his body was dotted with blisters. A physician also diagnosed him with a concussion.
Blair doesn’t remember phoning his wife, who was pregnant with their fourth child and living in North Carolina.
Jasmin remembers the call and feeling “sheer and utter panic. He seemed out of it.”
Blair appeared to recover and continued his military duties, even serving subsequent deployments to Afghanistan and other areas around the world, before retiring from the military as a captain in June 2016.
Jasmin noticed a difference, though.
“He was more irritable, on edge. He had sleep issues and trouble with his memory and speech,” she recalled. “That went on for years. I chalked it up to stress.”
Blair said he had no interest in anything, including joining his children for a game of soccer outdoors.
“He had been an attentive dad before,” said Jasmin, who described his life after the accident as joyless.
“I was completely numb to it,” said Blair.
The symptoms worsened when Blair began taking medication to combat insomnia, causing him to experience depression and anxiety.
At that point he was still employed in the military and though initially reluctant to seek professional help for the depression he was feeling, he decided it was necessary.
The turning point came in 2015 when he developed numbness in his arm which lead doctors to discover damaged discs in his neck that required surgery. From that point, Blair ended up at the Wounded Warrior Battalion in North Carolina and was referred to the Intrepid Center at Camp Lejeune where an evaluation resulted in a moderate traumatic brain injury diagnosis.
“When we finally figured out what was wrong, I felt fear, relief, anxiety,” said Jasmin, of the diagnosis that prompted her to learn as much as she could about TBI.
For the next six months, Blair worked with a speech pathologist, neurologist, physical therapist psychologist, psychiatrist and yoga instructor.
“The mindfulness was probably the best for me,” he said of the breathing and relaxation techniques he learned.
To help Blair, who still suffers some memory loss, the family keeps track of daily appointments and events on a large calendar; his car keys are stored in the same place near the front door and he uses tracking tiles to make sure he doesn’t lose important items like a wallet.
His recovery has been good and Blair is now preparing for a new career as a teacher. He currently student teaches at Selinsgrove Area School District.
“It is possible to be completely functional” with TBI, he said.
The couple is now telling their story to help the U.S. Defense Department raise awareness about TBI and the importance of getting the proper medical care.
“Where I went wrong was treating the symptoms for (nearly) 10 years instead of identifying the cause,” said Blair.
He and his wife are currently featured in a video released by A Head for the Future, a U.S. Defense Department traumatic brain injury initiative.
The bottom line, said Jasmin, is that anyone is at risk of a TBI.
Two weeks ago, their son suffered a concussion playing with the family dog. Armed with the knowledge they gained the hard way, the family knew what symptoms to look for and, along with the school nurse and teachers, have been keeping a close watch and Bannan is recovering well, she said.
“Concussions can occur at any time. People have to get informed of the risks,” Jasmin said.
©2017 The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.)
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