By September of 2016, Mindy Whisnant returned home following a craniotomy and a coma. Her husband Greg returned to work while their daughter Ashley settled into the sixth grade. Mindy’s recovery at her home hospital, Decatur Memorial Hospital (DMH) included regular physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Mindy progressively got stronger, first walking without assistance, and then resuming household tasks.
Mindy took on cooking and vacuuming, but she wasn’t interested in dusting. “Ain’t nobody dusted this house when I was asleep,” jokes Mindy. “And we have big deer heads. There are like seven in the living room. The catfish? Rags will get caught up in its little teeth. I wondered, How much would it cost for someone to come dust?”
She gladly hired someone to do her dusting. “Yeah, they still dust for me. That’s part of growth – being okay to outsource things. You aren’t a deficit mother or wife because you’re delegating work.”
In addition to gaining a clearer understanding of what matters to her, Mindy gained physical strength. “My physical therapist said, ‘Mindy, you’re about eight months ahead of schedule. We’ve maxed out everything we can do. It’s time for you to go to outpatient care.’
“My occupational therapist (OT) was a CrossFitter. She was a great match for me, because we had the same [training] language.
“During an appointment, my OT called Barnes. ‘Mindy wants to bench [press]. What can I tell her?’ They said I could go ahead as long as it didn’t give me a headache. This meant I could deadlift, bench, squat, and more even at the gym.
“My OT ended the call and set up a deadlift station – a PVC pipe with ankle weights on the ends. Probably a grand total of seven pounds. My hips hit where they were supposed to, knees hit where they were supposed to. It was my thing. I got back to my thing.”
After Mindy’s appointments, her OT communicated progress to the DMH affiliated Specific Performance Enhancement Center (SPEC) trainers. When Mindy went to the SPEC gym, she picked up where she left off at therapy.
Open communication combined with Mindy’s drive made for safe and rapid progress. Yet, starting completely over with lifting frustrated her more than anything else throughout the entire journey. “I knew my numbers. I knew what I was capable of, and now where am I starting? A PVC pipe. I had a 180 pound squat [before].”
Determined to get back to using a barbell, Mindy told her SPEC trainers they’d better have a bar with her name on it once she graduated from the PVC pipe. On October 21st, Mindy arrived at the gym to discover they’d honored her wish. “I lifted sixty-five pounds that night,” grins Mindy.
Through everything, including her workouts, Mindy continued wearing her helmet.
She took it to Giggles, a local gift shop, to have it customized. Since she couldn’t leave the store without it, Mindy waited as her helmet became Wonder Woman worthy. Hearing Mindy’s story, they decorated it free of charge, wishing her a speedy and successful recovery. Mindy especially loves their interpretation of Wonder Woman’s “big ole squat thighs”, as she puts it.
“I wore the helmet total from July 5th until the skull cap placement surgery on Nov 28th.”
Back at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mindy underwent her final surgery of this journey. She returned home the next day bandaged and swollen, but with her spirits in tact.
Following that final surgery, Mindy signed into her Barnes’ online patient portal. Seeing “mild cognitive dysfunction” listed in her records startled her.
“Maybe other people see something that I don’t and maybe nobody has told me. I asked my doctor if he felt I have cognitive impairment. He told me I’ve made tremendous recovery from all I’ve been through. That I may have some mild cognitive dysfunction but am very highly functioning.
“It’s a part of my medical history just like anything else. One of those tags that will always be there. It’s a piece that I haven’t embraced. I don’t want to. But that’s the box they need to put me in. Even when I went for my driving evaluation in February, it was brought up.” In total, Mindy went eight months – from June of 2016 to February of 2017 – without driving.
After being cleared by her doctor, on December 27th – six months following the craniotomy – Mindy resumed her position as a Clinical Research Associate at DMH.
Today, Mindy still deals with side effects. “Brushing my teeth is sound overload, but I power through it because I’m home, not at a nursing home, and because I’m getting ready for work. Most people with brain injuries/trauma are on disability because they’re considered a liability.
“Also brain freeze. When it hits titanium mesh, it don’t let go. Since there’s no vascularity to titanium, cold kinda lingers. For like a minute. Dang it, ice cream!”
Mindy’s affect has changed some too. “I’m more cut and dry than before. I don’t think it’s a neurological thing, I think it’s a perspective thing. I don’t deal with BS at all anymore. I’m not in the business of bullshitting.
“I don’t entertain doubt as much as I used to. Even in strongman competitions, I used to think, Oh, I’m only going to do this much weight. I don’t do that any more. Instead, I think, I’m going to set this goal, and if I don’t hit it, I don’t hit it.”
“Even with home goals, I don’t set myself up for failure with I have to have items one through ten done by noon. No, if I get one through three done, let’s be happy with that and move on to the next day.”
If given the opportunity to go back and change any of it, it would be her family’s struggle as she healed. “I would do the recovery fifteen times if I could avoid what Greg and Ashley went through doing their part.”
While home recovering, Mindy found a note Ashley had written during the coma. “She was trying to figure out how to get through the sixth grade without her mom. I wish I could make that go away. Those are feelings that no husband, mother, or child should have to cycle through,” says Mindy.
“But, just like the experience changed me, I think it also changed them. So maybe it would be selfish of me to take that experience from them in a way.
“We faced our greatest obstacle a year ago. There really isn’t much that could be worse than all of that. There’s very little Team Whisnant can’t handle.”
Today Mindy’s life looks as it did prior to her surgery. A small tracheotomy scar is the only visible evidence of what she endured over the past two years. She’s back to her usual routines and hobbies. Most recently, Mindy successfully pulled a truck outside of the SPEC on July 25, 2017.
If you didn’t know her story before, you would never guess it. But now you do know it. And maybe, like Mindy, you’re a little better off – not despite it, but because of it.
Update: Surviving a Brain Tumor and Coma: Mindy’s Story, is a three-part series.