Individuals with ABI by Daniel Windheim - 2007-06-21
One recent day after work, Daniel Windheim strolled through downtown Nyack, the air a bit chilly but with a scent of spring. Passers-by greeted Windheim on the street, and he casually responded, calling them by their first names. Windheim, 44, a traumatic brain injury survivor who has been working for the Nyack Public Library for more than 15 years, has been a familiar figure to Nyack locals. Windheim's recent book, "It's Not All Black And White: A Survivor's View Of Life," is sold at two stores on South Broadway. To check if the shop had enough copies, Windheim stopped by one of the stores, Maria Luisa Boutique. "How could you say no to a charming man who comes around and promotes his book?" said Maria Whittingham, owner of the boutique. "We even had a book signing and poet reading when he published his first book." Publishing his second book was part of his effort to raise awareness concerning traumatic brain injury survivors, said Windheim, who manages a Web site to provide resources for traumatic brain injury survivors and organizes a forum about the disability. The new book, co-authored by his mother, Marjorie Windheim, chronicles Daniel Windheim's life, going back to the days before the accident and giving perspectives on how he, his family and friends handled his injury and recovery. Since the accident about 28 years ago, Windheim has come a long way and has established himself as an advocate for his fellow survivors. But the Garnerville man recently said he was still in the process of accepting what happened to him when he was 16 years old. "I'm still grappling with the new me. I'm the same man, but it's a new me. I've been dealing with it since 1979," Windheim said. On July 3, 1979, Windheim was a passenger in a car driven by his sister's boyfriend. The group was on the way to watch fireworks in Piermont when the car was involved in an accident. Windheim suffered a brain-stem injury that left him in a coma for more than two months. When he woke up, he found that the injury affected his motor functions. He had to relearn how to walk as part of his rehabilitation, he said. He walks with a limp and his hand shakes when he holds a cup of coffee, but Windheim has come a long way toward recovering many of the functions he lost in the accident. "I talk a little different. I walk a little different," Windheim said. "Accepting, grappling with a new me is a lifelong process." The process of accepting his new self started right after the accident. Through hard work, Windheim finished his high school education without delay and went on to get a bachelor's degree from St. Thomas Aquinas College. He has dedicated himself to regaining his body functions, going through different rehabilitation programs. He said the Brain Injury Day Treatment Program at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center was one of the most helpful programs for him. Through his experience, Windheim said, lack of understanding among the public about traumatic brain injury survivors made it even more difficult for him and other survivors to accept their post-injury conditions and to appreciate their lives. Depending on the level and area of trauma, survivors' symptoms vary, but on many occasions, survivors tend to be overprotected by their families and caregivers, and job and other life opportunities are taken away from them, he said. "TBI survivors are conditioned to believe that they are incompetent, but I'm capable," Windheim said. "You have to constantly remind yourself that you are not different from others." Windheim said he hopes his new book, which includes surveys on survivors done through his Web site and contact information for brain injury associations nationwide, will benefit other survivors, their families and people who provide them services. At the same time, he wants to raise awareness among people who didn't know about survivors of a traumatic brain injury, which sometimes is called a "hidden disability" because the challenges they have are not obvious from their appearance. Yehuda Ben-Yishay, director of the NYU brain injury rehabilitation program, in which Windheim participated, said he remembered his former patient as a "very pleasant and motivated young man." "I haven't seen his writing and his Web site, but these kind of things from the person who was being in this kind of problem and being rehabilitated are sometimes quite encouraging to other people who are survivors," he said. The book is certainly widening opportunities for people to learn about the disability, as it did for Heather Sabella of Cliffside Park, N.J. Sabella, an actress who stopped by the Nyack boutique, skimmed through Windheim's book, which was displayed near the cashier. "I was just curious and I looked at it. And he told me that he wrote it," Sabella said, as she purchased a copy. "It seems like an inspiring story. I always like to be inspired." Along with his autograph on Sabella's copy, Windheim wrote the phrase, "Let the grayness in, and it will make you whole," indicating an idea that led him and his mother to name the book, "It's Not All Black And White." Marjorie Windheim wrote in the book that things that cannot be measured in standard definitions can be worthwhile. "Because of his fate, which created him as a head trauma survivor, he has had to move forwards to recognize the grays in life," Marjorie Windheim wrote. "He has discovered, as I did before him, that gray can be beautiful." While admitting he hasn't fully accepted his post-injury self, Daniel Windheim said his experiences as a brain injury survivor have benefited him. "I missed out on a hell of a lot of things, but I think I'm aware of so many things that I might not have noticed. I see what really matters, and I see what is and what isn't that important," Windheim said. "What's important to me is making a difference, through my books, my Web site and my interactions with others. I think I'm on the right track."