Derry: After a 2003 brain injury cost her the use of her left side, Kathy Gauthier is now excelling in her job at the Aurora Senior Living home.
By: Barbara Taormina, Union Leader correspondent
Kathy Gauthier figures it was her ability to laugh at just about anything that helped her make the long journey back from a severe brain injury that she suffered in 2003.
“If I didn’t have my sense of humor, I would have been toast,” she said as she sat on a bench and enjoyed a few minutes sun before the start of her shift at Derry’s Aurora Senior Living home.
It’s not as if Gauthier’s life is back to what it was before a late winter afternoon when she pulled her car up next to her mailbox so she could grab her mail. Another small car traveling down the road sideswiped her car, and the force of the impact was brutal.
“I remember a neurologist gold me can’t compare yourself with the person you were before the accident,” she recalled.
Back in 2003, Gauthier was a busy single mom working as a physical therapist at Parkland Medical Center. But the accident caused a severe brain injury that cost her the use of her left side.
Gauthier spent years in rehab learning how to live with her new reality. When she was finally ready to start rebuilding her life, she discovered her disability left her with few, if any, options.
But late last year, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England helped Gauthier score a job as an activities assistant at Aurora. Goodwill’s Workforce Solutions program matches people with disabilities to available jobs within their communities.
“Kathy is doing great here; she’s really thriving,” said Gail Sederquest an employment counselor for the Workforce Solutions team based in Concord. Sederquest has been helping Gauthier with on-site job support, a key part of the Workforce Solutions program.
Gauthier is officially scheduled to work two Saturdays a month but she actually puts in many more hours by picking up shifts from other workers who need or want time off.
And Gauthier loves her job helping with activities for the 60 or so seniors at Aurora.
“We play board games, we have a lot of musical entertainment and we have discussion groups,” she said. “We try to do things to stimulate people. We ask them to describe their day, or the weather or the things that they’ve done with their kids.”
Gauthier is happy she can put some of her knowledge and experience as a physical therapist to use at her job. The only other work she was able to find after the accident was a volunteer position teaching English as a second language.
And Sederquest said Gauthier is not only good at running activities, she’s also a role model for the residents.
“They see her walk in with her cane and they figure if she’s here doing this, they can try things too,” said Sederquest.
A long, hard recovery
Acquired brain injuries are different but healing almost always requires years of slow, incremental steps.
Goodwill Industries offers different services and treatment programs geared towards helping people with brain injuries regain independence. Recovery often involves overcoming physical challenges, memory loss and difficulties with problem solving and organizational skills. Unlike people who are born with different types of disabilities that become integral parts of their personality, people with acquired brain injury often face losses in abilities that require significant adjustments.
Sederquest facilitates support groups for people with brain injuries that allow them a place to work through the social and emotional challenges that come with that territory.
Gauthier only remembers bits and pieces of her accident. The impact shook her and caused her brain to violently bang against the inside of her skull. At first she thought she was all right, but as her brain bled internally, she began to lose consciousness.
She recalls standing outside and she has a memory of voices in the emergency room. Beyond that, the details are vague.
They transferred me to Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Mass., and then to Northeast Rehabilitation,” she said. “I don’t remember anything or anyone, but my mother tells me they were all wonderful.”
Gauthier eventually realized that she couldn’t move her left arm or leg, and that she was hooked up to breathing and feeding tubes. After months of care and rehab, she finally went home in July to be with her daughter, who was 9 at the time, and her ex-husband, who she said was a great help.
“All of my old co-workers from Parkland were incredible,” she said. “They bombarded me with cards, and they came to cook and clean my house.”
Although she appreciated the support, Gauthier knew her recovery was up to her.
“You have a choice,” she said. “You can roll up into a ball or you can say, ‘I need to do something.”
Gauthier chose the latter option. Managing her own medications was a small but important step towards independence. Then came walking and grocery shopping. About three years after the accident, she was able to get an adaptive driver’s license for people with disabilities.
“I was always the one who was pushing,” she said. But despite enormous strides, she wasn’t able to push open a door to a real paying job – until Goodwill stepped in with some help.”
Different health care and social service agencies refer people to the Workforce Solutions program.
“I work with all kinds of folks,” said Sederquest who also helps low-income seniors, people with criminal histories and young people who have dropped out of school find jobs.
The process begins with an assessment and then a search for the best fit for employers and employees. And Gauthier seems to be a near perfect match for the staff and residents at Aurora Seniors Living.
“After the accident I became more spiritual, and I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said, adding that she now sees other people recovering from brain injuries and strokes in a different way.
“My background gives me a perspective, and I think I can helps,” she said. “I’m pretty sure there’s a reason I didn’t die in that accident.”