A Car Crash, Grey's Anatomy, & the Power of Neuroplasticity
Recovering from a brain injury as a teenager has lead 21-year old college student Casey Waggett to pursue a career in medicine. (Profile Piece for Feature Writing, GWU, 2021)
On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of her final semester at The George Washington University, 21-year-old Casey Waggett takes a break from her assignment for Developmental Neurobiology. Her laptop is open to a blank document titled Med School - Personal Statement and an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that she has seen countless times before plays on the TV across from her. Surrounded by the familiar comforts of the show’s over-dramatic storylines and the potential prospect of working in a hospital like the characters of Grey’s, Casey is confronted with years of challenge, recovery, and resiliency which has led her pursuing a career in medicine.
On Black Friday nearly seven years ago, Casey was driving to the mall with her aunt, looking for holiday sales and hopefully a new dress to wear to her formal that winter. She stopped at an intersection, looked in every direction at the empty roads, and proceeded forward in her large SUV. Within seconds, a car sped through the stop sign at nearly 90 miles per hour. The impact of the crash was felt throughout the car, as Casey and her aunt rotated in their seats and the SUV did the same through the sky, landing once more on the street - compacted.
“It felt like my whole body was exploding… like every cell in my body was radiating… and then like I was being pulled apart, but that was from the motion of the car spinning out of control,” Casey said. At the time she was only 16 years old, concerned more with the grade of her recent physics exam and the unread texts from a boy she met in class. She wasn’t thinking about having to relearn how to walk, speak, and read. But in the next two years, that would become her only purpose. “I really thought I was going to die.”
Three days later, Casey awoke in the hospital surrounded by her concerned parents and a team of doctors. If she were unconscious for any longer, she would have been in a medical coma. Luckily, Casey had no major brain bleeding or hemorrhaging. Her official diagnosis was a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
“I woke up on that third day really confused and really tired, I didn’t understand what was going on and had no memory of what had happened,” Casey said.
Upon returning from the hospital to her home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Casey was subjected to lonely days spent in dark rooms without her computer or phone. She couldn’t read books or do puzzles. All she had were her thoughts, and she couldn’t escape the reality of her situation.
“I felt… like I had nothing to live for… everything was taken away from me at once.”
Before the accident, Casey had been a three-sport Varsity athlete. She had played on her high school’s hockey team since the eighth grade, and was being recruited to do so on a collegiate level. After her injury, Casey had to be wary of how high her heart rate rose over fear of fainting and a weakened heart. She had been an honors student and active in school organizations, but had to withdraw from her junior and senior year as it impeded on her frequent doctor appointments. On Thursday nights she would gather with friends to watch the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but after the accident she lacked the energy or mental capacity to converse with peers. She couldn’t watch Grey’s anymore or any TV show for that matter; instead she was living like the patients she watched onscreen. She had been a role model for three younger sisters, all of whom looked to her for advice on boys or what makeup to use. After the accident, Casey was left to reconcile with all she had lost, and struggled to look forward.
“In the blink of an eye everything changed, and the worst part was it wasn’t even my fault… it was an accident. So it was hard to be angry, but still I was mad… at everyone, at everything,” Casey said. “I questioned my situation a lot, I think most people would… like why was this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”
For months, Casey looked for ways to combat her circumstances. While she doesn’t remember much about her time at home, she does recall updoing her sisters’ hair with the ‘teeniest tiniest’ braids. Doing this took time, and brought Casey even the slightest bit of entertainment when there was nothing else to do or anyone to speak to.
“My sisters felt horrible for me, but it was that type of horrible that made me angry and not really comforted,” Casey said. “Still, they just let me do whatever I wanted if it was safe for me to do, and coming from them that was enough support.”
Her sisters would tell her about the latest episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and the relationships between Meredith and Derek, along with the ongoing medical crises the characters faced. Since she couldn’t watch TV due to the TBI, listening to her sisters talk about disease and death from the show allowed her to visualize a world of medicine that she, herself, was enveloped in. This recurring theme of medicine in Casey’s life led her to seriously consider becoming a doctor, though her circumstances made this feel more like a dream. When she began watching Grey’s Anatomy at age 12, the idea of working in a hospital and saving lives felt foolish. She wanted to be a doctor because she had been watching them on screen for years. Once her treatments began, Casey’s curiosity of the medical world grew. But these desires were taken out of the forefront for some time; first, Casey had to get the proper treatment in order to begin recovery.
“It was a really dark time for my family, especially my parents. They saw their daughter not even know who she was anymore… they didn’t really know what to do,” Casey said of her parents’ efforts in helping their daughter. “I think they watched me feel as though I lost myself, my future, and I kind of had nothing to live for.”
Still in recovery from her TBI, Casey’s mom - a nurse at the local hospital in Cape Cod- searched for the best doctors to treat her daughter. Five days a week for months, Casey made herself comfortable in hospitals across Massachusetts, where she saw a speech therapist, vision therapist, Neuropsychologist, physiatrist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, an herbalist, and a physical therapist.
It was in these daily sessions that Casey was engrossed in medicine. With little else going other than the accident and those long months of isolation, her connection to the outside world came from visiting doctors and putting their treatment into practice.
“I literally could not read, and it wasn’t like dyslexia where a ‘b’ would turn into a ‘d’, it was more than that. It was like whole sentences blended into the sentence below, and inflected,” Casey said of the effects from her TBI.
Her vision therapist was world renowned and had developed a form of cognitive therapy that helped to fix the symptoms of TBI in young children. Casey was the first teenager that he had successfully treated, which intrigued her enough to start researching his process. Since she was still young and her brain was developing, neuroplasticy allowed for a quicker recovery. Her neuropsychologist was famous for working with The Patriots, and was in charge of treating Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes. At each appointment, Casey would ask how the treatments of the players were going.
Casey went to physical therapy each week, where she worked to heal her body after damage from the accident. She developed scoliosis from the way her body was impacted by the crash, as well as problems in her neck and shoulders. Because of her injuries, Casey had required the help of multiple disciplines and treatment plans.
“I ran that hospital,” Casey said, laughing over the amount of times she was in Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital over the course of a few months. “Me and my mom would hang there for hours for my treatments, I wasn’t exactly sure what they had me doing at the beginning but it was fun to learn over time.”
Casey also opted for unconventional treatment to help with her recovery - acupuncture. Having needles stick out of her extremities and into her forehead served as one the greatest sources of relief after the accident.
“After three months, that stuff changed my life,” Casey said of the treatment. But more than that, the woman who administered her acupuncture - an anatomy major in school - became the first doctor to motivate Casey towards her future goals. “She was one of the first doctors I encountered who told me that I would recover, and I would do so successfully. She helped me to realize that I did want to pursue medicine and that there were many ways to put that into practice.”
In all of Casey’s visits with doctors, only two had ever encouraged her to pursue a profession in the medical field. The first was her acupuncturist. The second, a small man in stature named Dr. Andrew Judelson, a physiatrist helping patients recover from Traumatic Brain Injuries.
“Dr. Judelson is still my doctor so I see him frequently. I actually have to reach out and ask to be his intern this summer, and I know he would let me because he has been…,” Her voice falters a bit as she grapples with the lump forming in her throat. Tears begin to form in Casey’s eyes and she struggles to search for what to say next. “I’ve never really thought about this before… he was a doctor telling me I could still be a doctor, and nobody else was telling me that. No one - not even my mom at this point - believed I was capable of it. But he kept telling me, you could do this. To this day I’ve carried that with me.”
Over the course of two years, Casey steadily built herself back up - both physically and mentally. She was told that she wouldn’t be able to exercise anytime in the near future.
“I had to continually build my head back to where it was, the way you would train yourself for running,” Casey said. “So I would start going on really long walks, which turned into jogs, which overtime turned into runs… then I ran a marathon!”
She challenged herself in applying to college at a time when she hadn’t been in a classroom for two years.
“My high school tutors told me I shouldn’t graduate on time, that I should stay back a year. I had private lessons and I literally told people I went to Starbucks University. Now I go to Zoom U and very much feel the same, so I guess you could say those two years prepared me for this,” Casey said, laughing again.
Again and again throughout her recovery, Casey was reminded of the difficult road ahead. She was given a prognosis and was expected to succumb to her injuries long ago. She was told by countless doctors, tutors, and even her parents that she would have to suspend her enrollment to The George Washington University the following August.
“Rejoining the classroom freshman year [of college] was a huge culture shock,” Casey said. “I did poorly that year, and have been building myself up academically ever since.”
As a Neuroscience major, Casey has taken courses like Biological Psychology, Memory and Cognition, and Developmental Neurobiology. She’s struggled throughout the years, but has remained passionate about learning medicine. In some ways, learning about the brain in her studies has helped Casey to better understand her own injuries.
“I didn’t understand my injuries when I was younger, but I wanted to. Learning Neuro made me understand why I recovered quicker than everyone was telling me I would,” Casey said.
In one of her courses, Casey learned about neuroplasticity, the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and re-organization. So when a 16 year-old suffers a brain injury, she can recover much quicker than someone who is older.
“I have to work harder now than before the accident, which has been difficult because I really valued my intelligence in high school,” Casey said. “It’s like I had to relearn how my brain works, but that is why I wanted to study neuroscience. I wanted to study the effects of my TBI on a more intimate, scientific level.”
Through her vision treatments and physiatry appointments, Casey was constantly re-training her brain to gain the strength it once had. In her studies, she learned more about this process, and how her brain had been reconnecting synapses and rewiring the circuitry that had been damaged in the accident. Despite concerns over her inability to adapt to college learning after the accident, Casey has held straight A’s for the last three years and has found research jobs in numerous medical labs.
When she watches Grey’s Anatomy, she watches for the scientific logic presented in each epsiode, making sure to tell her friends the correct procudeures and treatment plans for every patient in the ficitonal hospital.
Now, Casey is determined to continue studying medicine. She has spent her final semester of undergraduate school applying to graduate programs and looking for other research positions. After two long years of recovering from her own medical trauma and four years of Neuro-intensive courses, Casey wants to help patients like her to better understand their ailments - something she wishes she had received more support with. Casey hopes to use her own story of recovery as inspiration for the patients she will one day treat.
“In some ways, I could argue that my passion for neuroscience was a coping mechanism for understanding my own injury,” Casey writes in her personal statement. “As my knowledge of neuroscience grew, my interest in the scientific understandings of behaviours and feelings grew as well. In the last four years I have been enamored by neuroscience because, as a scientist, a concrete explanation of these feelings I experienced after my accident brought me comfort.”