From the VETERANS series:
The Bronx, NY, Army, Medic, 91-B Bravo, 74th Field Hospital
Years of Service: 1976 – 1987
"I have traumatic brain injury, which makes life hard, but I’ll just keep trying. I’m not taking this laying down. It ain’t happening like that. I just gotta keep working on it."
I was born and raised in NY to a Puerto Rican family. My mother was from Ria Piedras and my father was from Caugas. I grew up in Manhattan, and then at 12 we moved to the Bronx. We moved from living in an apartment building to a new house at Gunter avenue, near Park City.
I was interested in music since I was a little girl, but I didn’t act on it until later in life. My influence was my father who liked music and singing. In those days you’d get those tape recorders and crank them up. Those movies with Fred Estaire -- I loved those songs.
At 16, for Christmas I got a tape recorder so I started taping myself and later on I started taking music classes. My girl is Ella Fitzgerald. Everything she sings is right. She has perfect pitch – all her songs.
I enlisted in the military because I wanted to go to college and I thought that would help me. I did basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Right after you finish basic training you go to whatever skill you want to do. At that time the war was going on and on television they would show all these amputees and I thought it was really sad, so I thought maybe I could help them. It was just something I thought I’d be good at. And I did, I passed the test to become a medic. They sent me to Fort Sam in San Antonio, Texas. It was beautiful.
They teach you to draw blood, which you do on each other. You have to be able to stop bleeding, all the things you would need to do as an EMT. A lot of people who were medics worked in the emergency room with the training they got in the military. The big difference is that in the military, you learn that when someone comes into the emergency room during wartime, they teach us “don’t go after the person that’s dying.” You would think that’s the first person you go to. You go to the one you can save because that’s the person you are going to send back out. My first job as a medic was at the VA hospital. We’d relieve the nurses in the ward. The troops were coming back from Vietnam and there was a need for medics. I would sit and talk to the patients and ask them if they were all right and they would tell me their story. There were a lot of amputees.
Our unit was supporting the Marathon in New York City, and we were in our truck, what they call a deuce and a half, a big truck that sits people on two sides, to set up a medical unit to support the marathon to provide first aid for runners. We had supplies – a tent, and even a spare tire inside. The truck stopped short to avoid hitting a cab, and everyone fell on top of me, and all the supplies fell on me. But my foot stayed locked in, and all the weight went on top of me and I hit the side – a metal piece that was part of the canopy of the truck. I felt a pain because my foot was stuck, and I tried pulling my foot to unstick it and I hurt my own self by trying to do that. I was in so much pain. They took me to Roosevelt hospital and they said I had a torn meniscus.
I continued to follow up and they said they would have to go in, so they send me all the way out to West Point for surgery. I got the surgery, but there were other problems. I was getting headaches, and I just couldn’t handle work. At that point they just treated me for my knee and it wasn’t until years later that I found out I had a traumatic brain injury [TBI]. I had good jobs but I just couldn’t keep them. I had migraines and had to take days off. I would be unable to do simple things like fill out forms. I got some testing done and they thought it was a learning disability. I was like “wait a minute, I have a bachelor’s degree.” It was very frustrating the whole thing. I kept going to doctors and finally another agency did an evaluation and they said that they figured it out – they did testing and found out that I had a TBI. They did other testing and found that my eyes weren’t working well. They started to connect all the pieces. I went through neuro-psych evaluations. It was five different tests. It was exhausting. They were really complicated tests and I didn’t even know how to handle it – I was like “can you give me a clue? Can I buy a vowel or something?”
With brain injury, some people have different things…not everyone has the same problems. With me it has to do with my short-term memory, and certain words I can’t remember. This is my problem that has shut me away from a lot music stuff is that I cant remember lyrics. I’ll just draw a blank. That’s just the parts of the disability that I have and I just have to deal with it. I sang last Friday and I thought I knew the song, but then it was like there was nothing there. I made it a part of the song – I sang “I forgot the words.” I thought I knew the words. I went over and over it for two months. I just couldn’t remember the words at one point but someone said part of it and I was able to finish the song. I try to pick songs, ballads that only have what they call A and B. You sing the A part, and then after the bridge – the B -- you repeat the A. I think that’s why I like Ella Fitzgerald, because they say that she used to forget the lyrics to the song and just make things up as she went along. Like scat.
Lots of times TBI causes depression. But I keep working on that. I go to the brain injury association meetings and I see people that are working with it. They’re like “no, I’m not stopping.” I want to be like that. That’s why I go to school, and I try to do everything I have to do. It’s like a full time job.
Now I’m in school because I have to be doing this – everything is new to me, spelling and stuff like that. People are walking around with glasses right, because they can’t see? It’s something they have to use. And you’ve got to understand, it’s like these extra accommodations that I need to carry around so that I don’t get stressed out. A tape recorder for classes. I realized I don’t need to get an A and once I got over that part, I decided I’ll just keep trying. Yeah, it’s going to be hard, but I can’t be holding onto that. I can’t figure out certain things at this point. Obviously you knew how to do it before but its not working now. But if you work the rest of the brain, it’s just going to compensate. And knowing that I felt like I had a fighting chance with this sucker. I wasn’t going out like that. I’m not taking this laying down. It aint happening like that. I just gotta keep working on it.