Mar 21 2016
By Emily Autenrieth

International model and businesswoman Kay Stephens’ life changed drastically in an instant one windy New York day in 2003. As she walked to class, gale-force winds hurled a 60-pound pole from a poorly secured construction zone fence into the left side of her head. She saw the wind knock down the construction materials like dominos as she blacked out. Her life has never been the same, but Kay hasn’t let her immense challenges get her down. Instead, she embraces each day as a fresh start and is empowering other brain injury survivors through her Faces of TBI campaign. 

Before my brain injury, I found success and fulfillment in many ways. Not only was I an international fashion model with work in my home country of Jamaica and in London, but I also had done public relations for public, private, and governmental entities, had run a grooming and modeling school in Jamaica, and published a book that sold 20,000 copies in the Caribbean. My wonderful daughter had just started high school in New York, where I was attending Queens College. 

My concussion happened as I went to class one day. Right as I was feeling thankful that I’d made it to class in one piece, a metal pole from a makeshift construction fence struck the side of my head. My neck went one way as my body went the other. In the emergency room, doctors told me I had short-term memory deficits from the concussion that would remedy themselves within a few weeks. They said I was fine otherwise and did not do an MRI or CT scan. But the truth was that I had suffered many injuries, including herniated and bulging discs in my cervical spine, a torn rotator cuff and tendons, hip and right shoulder bursitis, pelvic injuries, and more. Some of these would not be discovered until years later.

The problems I experienced after that did not make sense to me, and I hid them for a long time, thinking I was going crazy. I couldn’t smell for three years. I had problems with my vision, hearing, and urinary systems. I could look, but I couldn’t interpret what I saw or read the words on the page in front of me. Sounds that are in the background for most people, like a clock ticking or a refrigerator humming, were suddenly loud and overwhelming for me because I couldn’t filter them out. I had terrible neck spasms and blinding headaches. 

The true nature of my injuries was not uncovered until 2008, when I finally took control of finding out what had happened to me. I underwent neuropsychological testing, which revealed a “mild” traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which caused short-term memory and attention deficits and emotional deregulation. Parts of my brain had very low oxygen flow. I had to focus on each injury one at a time, and to date, I’ve had more than 1,300 appointments stemming from this one accident. My brain injury may be categorized as mild, but its impact on my life has been immense. 

Life as I knew it stopped that day in 2003. My type A personality had to retire early, and surviving my TBI became my primary focus. I underwent so much treatment that I experienced secondary health issues; medications that helped me with aspects of my injury caused gastritis so bad that I wanted to die as I lay in the hospital. Help came in the form of a homeopathic nutritionist who gave me some critical advice: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” I cured my gastritis through an intestinal cleanse, dietary restrictions, and a commitment to the right foods. Combining this with my routine physical therapy and other treatments has allowed me to return to some of my old activities and manage my emotions. 

I strengthen and center myself every day through quiet time and prayer. This time connects me with my inner strength and my spiritual sense of a higher purpose. Music is therapy for me, and I connect socially in small group settings with the people who have rallied around me. These things have helped me make my dream for the Faces of TBI campaign a reality. This campaign will raise public awareness of the invisible disability of brain injury to increase understanding, tolerance, funding, and emotional support for those with brain injuries. 

I encourage others with brain injuries to accept yourselves. I couldn’t have gotten here without finding the courage to accept my new, disabled self and making changes to support my own success. Find someone to share your feelings with who is objective, while also building your support network of friends and family who accept you the way you are. Envision your new goals, renew your love for yourself, and do what brings you joy! Like me, you can choose to make each day a fresh start.