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Traumatic brain injuries challenge marriages

Kurt Olsen and his wife Jennifer.
Kurt Olsen and his wife Jennifer.
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Kurt Olsen vividly remembers the blissful beginning of his marriage to his wife Jennifer.

“We’d like to go out and dance. We’d like to take drives. It looked like we could have a future moving forward,” Olsen said.

But overnight, Olsen went from being a newlywed husband to constant caregiver to a wife who became a different person.

We had “to bring Jennifer back she has to relearn everything that she ever knew,” he said.

Jennifer suffered severe brain damage after a car accident in 2009 and was put in a coma.

“Her outcome, her prognosis would be most likely be between brain dead and vegetative,” Olsen said.

Olsen says doctors doubted she would ever pull out, and even if she did, her road to recovery would be long and uncertain.

Now nearly three years later, Jennifer has part of her brain function back, but has not regained her ability to control basic functions. She still has emotional outbursts, confusion and distortion of reality. Olsen must tend to her every need—he carries her from one room to the next. He also feeds and bathes her and does daily therapy exercises to rebuild mental and physical strength.

But, the around-the-clock care has taken its toll.

“It's a brave new world for us going forward—very few books written about this, [and] don’t have time to read them if you’re me. [To] keep yourself sane one of the toughest things to do because you find yourself making judgment errors all the time. They can be painful and expensive,” Olsen said.

As for Olsen, who recently lost his job, he says he's dedicated until the end because he knows his wife would do the same for him.

VCU psychologist doctor Jeffrey Kreutzer helps married couples like the Olsens with a unique therapy that blends brain injury expertise with marriage counseling. He says the part of what makes TBI so tough for couples like the Olsens is what he calls “ambiguous loss.”

“People aren't sure—how is this person the same or different. [It’s] very confusing,” Kreutzer.

Kreutzer says the keys to bouncing back from traumatic brain injury are communication and rebuilding.

Surprisingly, Kreutzer says only 17 percent of TBI couples end in divorce. He says the longer couples are married before the accident, the better odds they have of making it, according to a recent study.

Raymond and Maryanne Bealle just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary—two years after Maryanne suffered severe brain injuries from falling down steps.

“I can get so lost. I’ve had to depend on [my husband] in so many ways that I never had to before," Maryanne said. Still, the couple says the experience has actually strengthened their marriage.

“I think those challenges have made us stronger. That's the main thingshe still is the person that I’ve always known and always loved,” Raymond said.

As for the Olsens, Kurt says he’s taking it one day at a time.

“If I was in Jennifer’s shoes, I would want someone to care for me and try the best they could,” Olsen said.

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Olsen also relies on a local organization, Brain Injury Services, and the support of family and friends to cope.

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