traumatic brain injury

Borculo woman experiences the healing power of nature

There’s a pinkish tomato in a cluster of green tomatoes that’s partly visible in a staked tangle of green vines.

The harvester must judge whether the tomato is red enough to be ripe, even as breezes move the leaves and fluctuations in daylight due to cloud-cover change how the fruited vine appears.

The decision whether to pick the tomato is further complicated by distractions of chirping of birds and passing traffic.

The picker must possess the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to twist the desired fruit from the vine and place it gently, to avoid bruising, in a basket.

This is why picking a tomato can be difficult for someone who has suffered brain trauma.

Borculo resident Vickie Wiersma Priebe, 60, says gardening aided her in healing from a head injury five years ago.

Priebe was working in a gift shop in Saugatuck when a heavy wooden sign fell, striking the upper right side of her face.

There was no blood. Priebe applied an ice pack between customers hoping to minimize swelling in her eye area.

But her head was throbbing and she felt too dizzy to stand without leaning on something sturdy. She couldn’t count change correctly or remember how to run a credit card.

Priebe was working alone and couldn’t reach the shop’s owner by phone to obtain permission to close the store. So, she summoned her own daughter to help her finish a 10-hour shift.

Then Priebe’s daughter drove her to Prime Care, where an orbital contusion on her right eye socket and concussion were diagnosed.

As brain injuries go, doctors were hopeful that Priebe’s was minor.  After a year she was still experiencing migraine headaches with vision anomalies, dizziness, and slow cognitive functioning.

Getting herself out of bed, bathed, dressed and fed in the mornings became a four-hour ordeal, because she’d forget what she was doing and repeat steps.

She couldn’t follow a recipe.  Shopping overwhelmed her, especially in large stores with fluorescent lights. Reading was difficult – unless the text was upside down!

Doctors then diagnosed post-concussive syndrome, symptoms from structural damage to the brain, or disruption of neurotransmitters, as a result of the blow that caused the concussion.

Vision problems increased. Layered patterns of shimmering shark teeth persisted across her visual field, although muscle tissue around the right eye appeared healthy.

Priebe continues to pursue becoming more functional, but wishes progress was swifter.

“Through stubborn determination, I’ve come back this far,” Priebe said. “Of all the things I’ve done, working on the farm helped the most.”

She’s speaking of CJ Veggies, a small local organic vegetable farm operated by Chuck and Judy Johnson.

Priebe had been a regular customer of CJ Veggies at the Holland Farmers Market. Chuck Johnson asked if she’d like to help on the farm when they saw each other at Harvest Health Foods in Hudsonville in March 2012.

“At that time I wasn’t talking much,” Priebe remembers. “It was frustrating not being able to pull the right words from the file cabinet of my brain. I’d shut down around people.”

She wanted to accept Johnson’s offer because she remembered reading a fascinating book titled “Earthing” by Clint Ober. Premise of the book is that direct “grounded” contact with the earth’s surface provides humans with many health benefits.

Priebe explained that she was coming back from a head injury that was compounded by an eye problem. She sighed with relief when Johnson chuckled, “Shoot. Everybody’s coming back from something.”

Looking back, Priebe imagines she was a difficult farmhand. The farm manager had to repeat instructions, which her mind slowly processed into different words that made sense to her.

She wore wrap-around sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block bright light from her right eye. The eye’s response to light triggers her migraines.

She often wears earplugs to muffle sounds and help her concentrate on the task at hand. Weeding around lettuce and spinach plants requires keen powers of differentiation.

Standing and stooping while working in fields gave her experience orienting her body in open surroundings. Slowly she overcame the tendency to lurk and lean on perimeters.

Priebe came to appreciate repetitive tasks, believing they gave her space for emotional healing. Her injury had changed her, and her relationships.

She believes her status with her daughter and son was diminished because now they were often cast in the mothering role, driving her to appointments and checking on her welfare.

Yet, Priebe said she found a sense of accomplishment in washing produce and packing boxes to fill orders from local restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture customers.

She attended Farm-to-Table dinners at other organic farms and felt accepted and encouraged by the farmworkers. She was knitting a new network of social support – another key to living with a disability.

“The farm helped me relearn how to function in the world,” said Priebe, who previously worked as a paralegal secretary and dental assistant. “I also learned to tolerate my limitations and be grateful for gains I’m making now.”

Is nature therapy for you?