New Ulm woman dedicated to helping brain injury survivors
Brain injury survivors Sharon Gieseke, left, director of Minnesota Brain Injury Force Inc., and Sandy Lund, right, share a moment with Gieseke’s family dog, Rufus, also a brain injury survivor after someone shot him in the head with a gun four years ago. Photo by Steve Palmer
In 1995, Sharon Gieseke was a pedestrian walking across a New Ulm city street and was only a few steps away from safely reaching the curb. “Then a van that didn’t yield hit me in the crosswalk and changed my life forever,” said Sharon, who was 38 years old at the time.
The blow was traumatic. She had a closed head injury, a cervical cord contusion, a bruised kidney, broken ribs and hand and leg injuries causing severe swelling. “My brain hemorrhaged, and I had spinal fluid coming out of my eyes, ears and nose,” she recalled.
But Sharon survived, and her husband Randall believes she was kept alive for a greater purpose. With his assistance, they founded Minnesota Brain Injury Force Inc. (MNBIF), a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation in 2010.
Working from a small, crowded office in their rural New Ulm home, MNBIF provides knowledge and support to brain injury survivors and families. Sharon serves hundreds of people in the southern part of the state and does it all as an unpaid volunteer.
With all the donations she receives and fundraising efforts, she’s able to help others cope as they continue to overcome the affects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from car accidents, falls, sports concussion injuries, violence or military service incidents.
TBI is defined as damage to the brain resulting from an external mechanical force, including rapid acceleration or deceleration, and males sustain TBI more frequently than females.
“There also are acquired brain injuries (ABI) which include strokes, aneurisms, anoxia, edema, hematoma, meningitis, brain tumors and illnesses like encephalitis,” Sharon explained. “These special survivors live among us, walk alongside of you, and we usually don’t know that they are brain injured.”
As the director for MNBIF, Sharon coordinates and helps conduct over 30 fundraisers a year. Along with the donations, she also leads three monthly support groups in New Ulm, Hutchinson and Mankato bringing in speakers for workshops. Or, she helps brain injured people on a one-on-one basis when dealing with government agencies or other concerns.
“At many of the workshops I’ve also learned from those who attend as we share what we know to get better,” Sharon stated.
Sharon is passionate about her fundraising efforts. “Fundraising helps local brain \-injured people continue to live a better life. It provides extra monetary help with medical bills, costs of living and giving them support and resources to live another day with their brain and body,” she said.
Before her brain injury, Sharon had a strong financial background as a tax accountant. “After my accident I never went back to doing taxes. I was extremely dizzy for a long time, and I wasn’t able to help my husband on our farm. I’m better now, but I haven’t recovered my math skills. Adding numbers is hard for me so there’s some anger and frustration that comes from knowing you can no longer do what you used to do. Imagine someone talking to you and you hear the words but you don’t comprehend what they’re really saying,” she explained.
Sharon said brain-injured people wake up each morning knowing they have to fight through another day with a brain that’s not functioning properly. “Then they go to sleep at night, and some have problems getting proper REM rest. So, I call them my ‘Brain Injury Marines’ as they are fighting and surviving with their brain injuries 24/7,” she commented. “Flashing lights and loud noises can be especially hard for some survivors.”
Sharon said “We’re mostly unaware of brain-injured survivors, and they need help to find strength to cultivate hope and faith in living with their new lives. But many survivors have limited incomes because they may not be able to work and that’s where I try to provide some assistance with the fundraisers.”
Sharon said MNBIF volunteers log over 250 hours a week helping support brain-injured survivors. She personally solicits the many sponsors who have generously provided assistance in numerous ways with funds, gifts, gift cards, food and fundraiser assistance.
She says a good example of the help they’ve received comes from the Sewers for Charities group at St. John’s Church in New Ulm who have handed out over 20 quilts to brain injury survivors.
While the events and fundraisers obtain needed funds and provide brain injury awareness, MNBIF wants to provide survivors with even more assistance, but it needs additional help.
“Ways to help would be to donate memorials in memory of loved ones, volunteer at fundraisers, or businesses can display a ‘Change a Brain Injury Survivors Life’ coin jar,” she explained.
She added that a business may donate their own promotional items to the public at MNBIF fundraisers or sponsor an event. Tax deductible donations of old vehicles, boats, trucks, or farm machinery can be sold as scrap with proceeds going to help area survivors.
Besides the Brain Boosting Workshops that encourage participants through brain health/brain injury, MNBIF has a Brain Bookmobile available at meetings for survivors to borrow free books, DVDs, tapes or access other helpful topics.
In addition to distributing Brain Injury Grants from money raised at fundraisers to survivors who are involved with the events, MNBIF produces the “News 4 You” newsletter listing current information, legislation and articles relating to brain injuries.
Brain-injured survivor Sandy Lund, of Sleepy Eye, was stricken with encephalitis after she was bitten by a mosquito while swimming at a lake when she was 11 years old and living near Fairfax in 1961.
“At that time doctors thought I had the flu when I got sick in 1961, but I went into a coma and then was bedridden for a year. They didn’t know what I had,” she recalled.
“I couldn’t walk and went from using a walker, to a wheelchair and then I used underarm crutches to present day half crutches,” she explained. “The encephalitis affected my nervous system, which is controlled by your brain, and I never walked again without aid after the mosquito bite. I had to have some real self-determination and become self-reliant to get through the years,” said Sandy, now 67. “It was a struggle at times being accepted by others because of my disability.”
Sandy said she became interested in MNBIF when she saw a newspaper ad to become part of the group. “I was always looking to have someone to provide support and get together with other BI survivors, hear their stories and learn something that might help me because I’m determined to feel better.”
Now she’s one of Sharon’s most active volunteers in the office or at fundraisers. “I wish I could help her more…she’s a good facilitator, the best,” Sandy commented.
Adolia Roth, left, spends many hours helping care for her brain-injured husband, Richard. Photo by Steve Palmer
Richard Roth, of Fairfax, 55, also was infected with encephalitis three years ago in January 2012. “He spent three months in the hospital before they sent him home and basically told me to prepare for him to die,” said his wife Adolia, who has been at his side and his helpmate, caretaker and advocate ever since his illness.
He’s been diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalitis, and he was in hospice for three months at home before he survived,” she said. “We never found out the cause for his illness and not until I found him sleeping in the same position for 16 hours one day did we realize something was wrong,” she recalled.
“Now he has very low cognitive skills with reasoning, writing and speaking. He has a lot of compulsiveness, and he gets restless,” she added. “He has chronic pain, his short-term memory is not there and needs constant family care supervision.”
As a Navy veteran (1979-81) Richard receives VA medical benefits, but Adolia said they don’t cover a lot of other medical needs.
“That’s when I discovered MNBIF and started going there in 2012. Sharon has helped us the most because she’s had a brain injury herself and helps me understand what Richard is going through and why he does the things he does,” said Adolia who now serves on the MNBIF board of directors.
The Roths are also fundraiser volunteers, and the grants they’ve received help with the cost of medical laser treatments for Richard that’s not covered by insurance.
“It’s a cold laser applied to his brain that helps him feel calmer for about two weeks at a time,” Adolia said.
Sharon’s daily activities are demanding, and her dedication is evident when she says: “Brain injured people need help every day. There’s not many places available for them that specialize in that area.”
“But I have a degree in hard knocks, I was run over in a crosswalk,” she joked. “Seriously, a brain injury upsets life – physical, psychological, social and even spiritual.
“So, we never give up on hope. We go above or below, go around or go straight through our problems but never give up because I believe in making minds matter,” she stated.
For more information visit www.mnbif.org.