Hometown: Greenwich, CT, although currently residing in San Diego
Sustained a traumatic brain injury when she was a senior at Greenwich High School, 17 years old
In the fall of 1994, Nicole Ward was a standout field hockey player at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. As the captain of the team and in her senior year, she was being actively recruited for college. However, her life changed forever when she got into a car accident on her way to practice. Nicole sustained a traumatic brain injury that would keep her in a coma for months.
Immediately after the accident, Nicole was taken by ambulance to her local hospital. When her family arrived, the doctors and nurses told them that her situation was grave and it would be best if they got her “affairs in order.” Unwilling to accept the dire news, Nicole’s mother, Debbie, asked anyone she could find in the hospital for help and answers. She ultimately found a doctor who was willing to spend time speaking with her. Although this particular doctor specialized in cancer and would not be able to provide guidance on brain injuries, he suggested Debbie reach out to a friend of his, Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a neurosurgeon specializing in traumatic brain injuries at the Weill Cornell College of Medicine in New York. Within less than 24 hours, Nicole was transferred there to seek care under Dr. Ghajar.
Dr. Ghajar told Nicole’s family that if she were to come out of the coma, she would show the family by doing “something” – some small movement, such as a finger moving or an eye opening, would signify that she would be able to recover. Shortly thereafter, Nicole wiggled her toe, which showed her family that recovery could be a reality. Gradually, after two months of being in the coma and with her family by her side every day, Nicole slowly regained her alertness and ability to function. She began intensive rehabilitation efforts focusing on speech and mobility.
Michael Welsh, 49, Sergeant Major, former warfighter onboard the BAE Systems team working on the Joint IED Task Force (Department of Defense Joint IED Defeat Organization)
Hometown: Washington, DC metro area
Sustained a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan in September 2006
Sergeant Major Welsh sustained a traumatic brain injury while serving overseas in Afghanistan. On September 2, 2006, Sergeant Welsh was the gunner riding atop a Humvee, with four comrades, on an operation in Jalalabad (16 miles from Pakistan) when a white Toyota parked on the shoulder of the road detonated as the Humvee was approaching. The Toyota vehicle, which was carrying more than 500 pounds of high-grade explosives, exploded just four feet away from the passenger front door of the Humvee. The Humvee was thrown into the air and all four tires exploded. The vehicle slid 145 feet and crashed into a poll.
When Sergeant Welsh awoke, the vehicle was empty and the explosion had proven fatal for one of his men. Sergeant Welsh crawled through the driver’s door, not immediately realizing the extent of his injuries. After checking on the safety of his men and applying air and IV units to one of the wounded, he assessed his own situation. There were metal fragments located in his head, face and hands, which were also severely burned. His ears were in severe pain and profusely bleeding. His vision was blurry and “he felt like someone was pounding him with a hammer.” For immediate treatment, Sergeant Welsh was flown to Germany for surgery to treat his traumatic brain injury, and he was eventually transferred to Walter Reed for long-term care. During his 8-month stay at Walter Reed, Sergeant Welsh was only able to see his wife and sons on weekends.
Sergeant Welsh’s life has changed dramatically since his traumatic brain injury, and he recognizes that he has become a different person. The long-term effects of his injury have impacted his short-term memory and his ability to perform routine tasks, and he finds himself more irritable and likely to be belligerent. His wife and sons have had to assume more responsibilities to compensate for the new family dynamic. His wife, who was a substitute teacher, now works full-time as a software developer and handles the family’s finances.
Since his injury, Sergeant Welsh has undergone five surgeries. Navigating the military and veterans health programs has been a complex process and he now volunteers as a subject matter expert with various veterans’ organizations to help others in similar situations get the treatment and aid they desperately need. He has also been appointed to the Department of Defense’s Traumatic Brain Injury Panel and has developed a tailored guidebook for caregivers and military families of veterans dealing with loved ones who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.