Lives Transformed

Annual Appeal: Dedicated to providing support for brain-injured clients, the Krempels Center in Portsmouth, N.H., needed a series of short profiles to accompany their annual appeals. The clients I met with told me their stories—often haltingly and with great effort. Introducing readers to Shawn, Victor, Nicky, and others offers a glimpse of lives transformed—by tragedy, yes. But also by determination. And by new beginnings fueled with the generosity of Krempels donors.

SHAWN CHRISTMAN was two stories up, working on a roof in Watsonville, Ca., when the scaffolding he was standing on collapsed, carrying him with it. He woke up a week later, and started talking immediately, but even when he asked the same question over and over again, he could never remember the answer. “I just couldn’t take it in,” he says. “The answers meant nothing to me.” Finally a friend posted signs on the walls of his hospital room. One said, You are in the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Another explained, You were on a scaffolding that fell over at work. You’ve been here for two weeks.

What the signs didn’t say was that his head injury was so severe that Christman underwent immediate surgery to remove a golf-ball sized chunk of his brain. The operation reduced the swelling and helped save his life, but it would permanently affect his balance and short-term memory.

Eventually, Christman moved to Strafford, N.H., to live with his sister and her family while he recovered. “The biggest challenge for me was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t do construction anymore.” Part of the answer to that question came with support from his sister, who was determined to help Shawn find a purpose. “She has been amazing in assisting with organizing my new life,” says Christman. “With her help, I got approved for Medicaid and disability. And she found Krempels for me.”

Christman has a hard time choosing a favorite activity at Krempels—he’s done it all, from hiking the trails to meditation sessions, photography workshops to health care support groups. He’s even had a chance to teach a pottery workshop, sharing his new passion with his friends. “This place is awesome,” he says. “Everybody knows what you’ve been through and doesn’t judge.”

VICTOR DeWILDT knows an awful lot about caring for others. He spent 20 years as a licensed nursing assistant tending to patients. But on New Year’s Day in 2005, DeWildt himself suddenly became a patient when a stroke left him immobilized on his right side. The adjustment was tough. He wasn’t used to being the one who needed help.

During his months of rehabilitation, DeWildt learned to speak again. He regained his balance and his ability to walk. And he taught himself to write with his left hand. The process was painfully slow, but it was worth it. DeWildt was determined that someday he would once again be able to paint.

During his years as a nursing assistant, DeWildt’s art was a rejuvenating counterpoint to his long days with patients. It was his therapy. After his stroke, he needed his art more than ever, but he had to give himself time to learn how to hold a brush and regain his technique.  “I really struggled to accept myself,” he says.

Discovering Krempels was an important turning point. “I was happier coming here,” says DeWildt, who especially appreciates the emotional support groups. “Just watching and talking with other members, hearing how they deal with certain situations, listening to their feelings—it helped me learn to accept myself.”

DeWildt takes the bus to Krempels just about every day now. He volunteers once a week doing data entry, as well as taking part in the activities. “Krempels helps me stay motivated,” he says. The walls of the computer room downstairs display evidence of his progress: a collection of small watercolor paintings—a seascape, a sunset, a rolling field—each one a triumph.

NICKY BUTTERFIELD was on the highway, headed south from her home in Derry, N.H., when she blacked out and lost control. Her car rolled five times before her body was thrown clear of the wreckage. It was April 2008. Four months later, she emerged from her coma. Her neck and back had been broken in multiple places. Her knees and hips had all been replaced, as well as some of the bones in one leg. The medical team who put her back together discovered the cause of the accident: an aneurism—severe bleeding in the brain. “I thought I just had a severe headache,” says Butterfield.

With the help of her two grown daughters, who had returned home, Butterfield began her rehabilitation. She learned to speak again. She learned to walk again. And she discovered Krempels, where she found a strong support system. “Krempels teaches you that you are still human, you are still real, and you deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Not long after she became a regular at the program, the staff called Butterfield’s husband, Charlie, to tell him they thought something was wrong. Her speech was slurring. She seemed to be losing all the progress she’d made. “That’s a big thing about Krempels, they really know brain injuries and they understand when something is not right,” says Butterfield, recalling the rushed trip to the hospital. The doctors discovered an infection so severe that they had to remove part of her skull. “One day longer and I would have been back in a coma,” she says. Instead, she’s working on her computer skills, enjoying her friends, and relishing each moment. The folks at Krempels not only help saved her life a second time, they are helping her to live that life with quality—and dignity.