Searching for normality

Taylor begins vestibular therapy. Photo from Taylor Austin
Taylor begins vestibular therapy. Photo from Taylor Austin

By Cori Ritchey 

When a car accident left 25-year-old Taylor Austin in a year-long physical recovery, her career goals had to change with her new self.

On a fateful day in July of 2020, Austin was driving to grab food on her lunch break when she was rear ended on a right turn. Her head hit the steering wheel, and bounced back into the headrest. She was wearing her seatbelt, but a fault in the system caused it to not click into place when it should have. 

She thought she was fine, as was her vehicle, other than a few minor scratches and a dent on the back bumper. She drove back to work, and her coworkers convinced her to take the day off and rest. The days following the accident, she realized just how serious the situation was. 

Pain started to build. Sensitivity to light and sound grew. Aches throughout her neck and back felt deep and sharp. Nausea came on strong and hard randomly. 

Austin, a former division one athlete from James Madison University, is no stranger to concussions. She has had several. She knew almost immediately from the symptoms that this was another one. 

“A few days of resting and I knew I would be fine,” said Austin, adding that this wasn’t any more severe than any other she’s had before. 

But the pain worsened. “Actually, every symptom worsened,” Austin said. Any form of sensory input was painful. All she could do was lay in her bed with the lights off and the blinds shut, pillows around her ears blocking whatever faint noise from the street floated in. Nothingness was the theme of her days. 

These days led into weeks, and these weeks led into months. The doctors and therapists told her she had a severe concussion, and they weren’t sure how long it would take her to heal. She quit her job, and moved back into her childhood home so her mother could help take care of her. 

With the exception of her countless medical appointments she had a week, her days consisted of waking up, grabbing an icepack from the fridge, and returning directly to the couch to lay all day. Her body wasn’t capable of more than that. 

“She couldn’t do anything,” Austin’s mother, Madeleine Austin, said. “I would go to work, and I felt so bad, because she would have to sit here on the couch, or her bed, because she still couldn’t look at the TV or a computer or her phone.” 

Months rolled into a year. Austin, now a year and a month out from the accident, is finally starting to feel a little more human. Small successes began making her feel more and more hopeful. She began driving again, though only for short distances. She is seeing friends and family more and more often, and is finally enjoying socializing in groups without fear of the headache that is likely to resume afterwards.

Though her symptoms have gotten better, she is still undergoing different therapies to progress her 

“After about 90 days, we change the diagnosis to Post Concussive Syndrome,” says Monika Stolze, program manager at Inova Loudoun Hospital’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Clinic. This is Austin’s diagnosis, one she may live with for quite a while. 

“They are still dealing with deficits even though the brain tissue has healed itself, and the chemical changes that happen after a concussion have healed as well,” Stolze said. “There can be a lot of different things going on, like problems multitasking, photosensitivity, or sensitivity to light, or sensitivity to sound, or continuing to deal with visual disturbances or vestibular issues such as dizziness.  

According to Stolze, there is no telling how long these symptoms will last for Austin. As the future of her condition and her health remains unknown, Austin was anxious to get back into normal life. 

“All I wanted was a sense of normalcy,” she said. She began to contemplate what work for her was going to look like. 

When choosing what to do, she knew a few things: no computers or screens and nothing overly active. 

Baby steps were key to Austin. She was unsure how her body was going to react to a newfound stressor such as having a job. She began looking for part time jobs in just about anything she could find that she thought would be doable given her condition. 

“Even the application and interview process was overwhelming,” Austin said. Dealing with the stress of preparing, traveling to, and executing the interviews she was invited to was taxing on her body. She was applying to everything from dog watching, administrative work, to a waxing studio. 

“I even took a job with the waxing studio,” Austin said. The online training she was required to do was enough to realize she wouldn’t be able to spend the amount of time on the front desk computer as she was going to need to. Only a week in, she was forced to tell the manager she wasn’t sure she could handle the position, and she quit. 

The trial and error of this process left Austin stuck for some time. Eventually, she landed a job at an acupuncture center, where she does some cleaning and front desk work. 

“I’m only there four hours a day, two days a week,” Austin said. That’s all she is able to handle for right now, and she is okay with that. She said she is thankful she has come this far. A few months ago, she could have never fathomed having a job, nonetheless getting off the couch. 

As she thinks about her future, she said she dreams of writing a book or creating a podcast someday to tell her story. Concussions, and post concussive syndrome, are an undiscussed disability that she would like to shed some light on. She said she believes that talking about her experience can help those who are undergoing any kind of long recovery process from some type of injury or later in life disability. 

Austin said she would love to eventually help people like her, who had to uproot their lives because of some kind of accident. She is not quite sure what that looks like as a career yet, but she is hopeful. While she may not be able to pursue what she once wanted to do, she is thankful she is able to do anything at all. This new found job, even if not in the field where she ultimately wants to be, has helped her get back the sense of normalcy she was craving. 

“Everyone’s recovery is different, and if you have a goal to get back into the workforce, just do it,” Austin said. “Have your goals, don’t get down, and don’t lose hope.”

Hear more from Taylor on our podcast, Moving On. Listen here.