Recovering — and finding joy again — after traumatic brain injury

— Photo from Abby Maslin 
Starting over: After his attack with a metal baseball bat, her husband had to relearn all the basis skills,of walking, talking, reading, and writing, said Abby Maslin. She will sign copies of her book about the experience at Market Block Books, 290 River Street, Troy on Saturday, March 16 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m

She wrote her memoir, “Love You Hard,” said Abby Maslin, because over the years that she has been helping her husband recover from a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a mugging, she was never able to find books that offered hope to survivors and their families.

“I wanted some hope that our lives could be joyful again, and have purpose. I feel like I wrote the book that I needed,” she said of the memoir that is due out March 12 from Dutton.

Maslin spent her early childhood in the Hilltowns, where her father directed The Institute on Man and Science in Rensselaerville, and she now lives in Washington, D.C. She has been writing a blog about caring for her husband since he was assaulted in 2012.

“It was my therapeutic outlet,” Maslin said. “I wanted to make sense for myself of what had happened.”

Her husband, TC Maslin, a renewable-energy consultant, had been returning home at about midnight after watching a Washington Nationals night game when a group of young men hit him in the head with a metal baseball bat, stole his cell phone and credit card, and left him for dead. He was six blocks from home.

“He was assaulted around midnight, but wasn’t found till 8:30 the next morning,” Abby Maslin said. During those hours, she had called his friends and learned they thought he’d gone straight home. At about the same time he was found, she was reporting him missing to the police.

He had stumbled from one house to another, Maslin said, knocking on doors and trying to find help, but it was summer and people were away; soon he passed out.

“This is a very busy neighborhood. I assume many people saw him and made assumptions that he was drunk or something like that,” she said.

But eventually, she said, someone saw him seizing on the front porch of a house and called 9-1-1, she said. “And thank God, because he was saved just in time, truly. His brain had been bleeding for a very long time at that point.”

The Maslins had been married for three years and had a son who was a year old. She was a fourth-grade teacher in a Washington, D.C. public school. “We felt like we were on the precipice of life. We had just gotten ourselves out of school, and found that first job, and gotten ourselves established, and we were ready to take off,” she said.

 

— Photo from Abby Maslin 
Wedded bliss: Before TC Maslin’s attack, he and his wife felt that that they were “on the precipice of life,” she said. Married three years earlier, they had a 1-year-old son and had found jobs that they loved. 

 

Ongoing recovery

“The recovery will always be ongoing,” Abby Maslin said.

She writes in a blog post, “Six months into TBI [traumatic brain injury], life was pretty grim. TC had just relearned to walk, but his communication skills were greatly impaired, limited by severe aphasia. We were both unemployed, living in a tiny, rented cottage hours from our home in Washington, D.C., and doing our best just to make it through each day.”

The aphasia was going to be her husband’s greatest disability, she soon realized. She knew that he could go back to work with a physical disability, and lead a very purposeful life. “But if he couldn’t communicate, I wasn’t sure how he was going to engage meaningfully in society again.”

TC's Aphasia has two components, Abby Maslin said: It’s a difficulty not only with producing words to express your thoughts, but also with “receptive language, trying to understand words that are spoken to you.”

For caregivers, it can seem incomprehensible to think that the person with a traumatic brain injury might not understand the words spoken to him, Abby Maslin said. She writes in a blog post that she learned that, for a person with aphasia, listening to someone speak can be like being set down among people speaking a completely foreign language. “The words don’t land in the same place,” she said.

“In order to recover the amount of language he had lost,” she said, “I knew he would need a lot more speech therapy than our insurance would cover.”

From the moment that her husband was able to communicate with her, she said, he told her wanted to go back to work, that he loved his job.

He started to work toward it, she writes in a blog post, “one tiny goal at a time.” He relearned the alphabet first, then relearned how to read — a paragraph, an article, and eventually an entire book.

Luck may have been crucial to his recovery, she writes: “Miraculous good luck was probably the leading cause in TC’s success — luck that his injury occurred in the precise location of his brain that it did and luck that his ambitious personality was only marginally affected.” But after luck, she writes, “the next best explanation is unwavering grit.”

Both of them had good health insurance, she said, but she realized he needed far more speech therapy than their insurance would pay for in order to recover the amount of language he had lost. There are only a few programs in North America that address aphasia specifically in an intensive way.

So, Abby Maslin said the couple went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in the spring of 2013 to start the first of two back-to-back intensive five-week sessions of speech therapy, paying out-of-pocket for these sessions using funds that neighbors had spontaneously raised in TC’s honor in the first months after he was attacked.

“It saved his life, truly. He had made huge gains,” she said.

On his return home, he created a structure for his days that mirrored what he had done in the immersive therapy, training himself at home “until he was able to go back to work.”

The book’s title, “Love You Hard,” comes from a statement that her husband made to her about seven months after his injury, she said. He was trying to say, “I love you so much” and instead said, “I love you so hard.” It was an aphasia moment, she said, that “so clearly articulated the struggle in our life and the challenging nature of love.”

 

— Photo from Abby Maslin 
Moving forward: After several years of recovery, the Maslins, who are now both 36, decided to set aside their fears and add a second child to their family.

 

Children signify hope

Their son, Jack, doesn’t have memories from the early years of his father’s recovery, but, Abby Maslin said, he was learning to speak just as his father was relearning. She calls it “an interesting parallel to watch.”

Jack, to whom her book is dedicated, saved her from darkness many times during the first few years of her husband’s recovery, she says. Jack also, she said, saved TC the night he was attacked “when he was on that street.” TC did not want to leave his son, she said.

She went back to work, and they put Jack in a daycare center two days a week. Three days a week, TC watched him. “I wondered if I was the most irresponsible person on the planet,” she said of her decision to have faith that Jack would be OK in his father’s care and that TC would successfully exercise what control he did have.

“How do you chop vegetables or change a diaper with one hand?” she said. “But he compensates in creative ways. He just figures it out. That’s the neuroplasticity of the brain.”

The school where she taught was less than a mile from their home, she said, and she kept her cell phone on and near her all the time, “even though that’s not something teachers should do.” She also believed that they had many supports nearby so that, if anything happened, he’d be able to get help.

It was about two years after his injury that Abby Maslin started to feel like, she said, their family wasn’t complete, but that she was unsure what they could do about that.

“‘I mean, we can’t possibly bring another human into this,” she recalled thinking.

They had always thought they would have another child.

They talked about it “for a really long time, which was a different experience from having our first child, where we felt confident — foolishly confident — about our abilities,” she said.

The Maslins realized that, if they decided not to have another child, they’d be making that decision out of fear. “Fear of the things we can’t control, fear of the unknown. Fear of how his injury’s going to look 10, 15 years down the line, none of which we can control right now,” Abby Maslin said.

They did not want to live a life in which they based their decisions on fear.

Also, she said, “We have so much love to offer another child.

“And what an incredible father, or role model, we have to offer this child: Someone whose persistence and hard work and commitment are just awe-inspiring on a daily basis,” she said. “How could a child not be blessed to have a parent like that?”

Their daughter, Rosalie, is now 2. She never knew her father before the assault and didn’t see his struggle to relearn the most basic things.

Jack can’t remember the early years of his father’s disability, his mother said, but she believes he is “deeply cognizant” of what his father went through, and carries his father’s story with him in an immediate way.

“He’s so keenly aware of what’s happened, of what he’s lived through, of what the people around him have survived, and he’s incredibly protective of his dad, which I think is a natural reaction. It’s also made him incredibly empathetic, too, to people who struggle,” she said.

Their son has learned firsthand that struggle is just part of life, she said. He knows that it “goes hand-in-hand with the joy and all the wonderful gifts of it too, but it is not something that we can avoid; it is not something to be avoided.”

“A gift”

TC Maslin still has limited sight in one eye, limited use of his right arm and hand, and some aphasia.

He is back at work now, in the same company, doing the same job, “with a lot more effort,” she said.

“He is on the phone all day, which is the hardest thing. When you’re talking in person, you have control over the pace of the conversation, and you can get visual cues. Sometimes there can be 100 people on a call. He’s a trouper. He manages,” she said.

She is back at the same job too, teaching the same grade in the same school.

“We were really fortunate to have both had employers who wanted us to return and who were patient and worked with us to make that happen.”

She has learned, she says, that “our identities cannot be wrapped up in our abilities, because if we attach ourselves to the things we do, and not who we are at our core, we are going to struggle incredibly when we can’t do those things any more.”

Over the years, she has had to ask herself what she had loved about her husband: Was it something he had done for her, or something that was embedded in his core?

Who we are is not our abilities, she said, although it is “the tenacity we bring to developing those abilities.”

She calls it a gift to have been forced into that way of thinking “because it feels like such a more meaningful love to me now.”

The recovery will always be ongoing, she said, “but our relationship today resembles any relationship of a young couple with jobs and two kids.”

It’s just the pace of life that’s different, she said. “It can’t be as fast as it used to be.”

She feels a twinge of pain, she said, at the thought that it will always be more difficult for them than for others.

Today, TC communicates so well, Abby Maslin said, that people often do not observe his aphasia until deep into a conversation.

Referring to traumatic brain injury, she said, “This specific disability is unlike others — it’s complex and invisible.”

More Regional News