27 June 2016

the time i bonked my head and lived to tell about it.

Everyone poops. Everyone gets sick. Tanzania has really emphasized both of those points for me, to an extreme and frightening degree.

But this is not a blog post about pooping (thank God), and it’s not a rant about my latest tropical disease. Instead it’s a little reflection on three things I learned during my most recent and longest illness, one that cannot even be blamed on Tanzania.

This is the story of me hitting my head and learning something valuable along the way and writing it down here.

At the end of April I knocked my head really hard against a metal cage. I was visiting the ministry site of a fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioner taking photos of her Kindergarten class for use in advancement (communications and fundraising) materials. For a brief moment, I sat in a chair to rest, and then with the excitement of a teenage girl wanting to plant a smooch on Justin Bieber, I exploded up out of my chair to snap the perfect photo….only I didn’t. What I did not realize was that a sixty-pound TV was sitting in a metal cage bolted to the concrete wall just a few feet about my resting head position. Just as quickly as I sprang up, my body crumpled back down, head roaring in pain.

Thus began an eight week descent into a virtual hell, first from the concussion itself then prolonged by post-concussive migraines, tension headaches and whiplash to the neck. During this time, I lay at home in bed, curtains drawn, eye mask on, ear plugs inserted, and a cold pack on my head, with occasional adventures to the toilet or kitchen for basic sustenance. Of course the physical pain was rough, but the mental battle was perhaps the taller mountain to climb: how to maintain hope of recovery and sense of purpose in life when literally and quite absolutely doing nothing week after week, month after month.

Some obvious questions flooded my mind: Why did this happen? Will I ever get better? Why am I even still in Tanzania? Is that what Prince (R.I.P.) was really talking about when he wrote When Doves Cry?

But at the end of all that questioning I found myself left with three main thoughts:

1. Maintain patient trust in the slow work of God, and silent stillness isn’t all that bad.

These past eight weeks have given me LOTS of time to sit and do nothing and allow my thoughts to run rampant and ultimately out of control. For those who know me, I am a doer…to the extreme. Sitting on my butt and wiggling my toes in between bouts of brain punches has been tough on the psyche. Things don’t always happen according to our will and our timeline, but God is faithful. And filling every free moment by watching movies, surfing the Internet, staring at your phone, or even burying your head in a book is not always such great thing. Simply being - that is sitting in silence with a calm and still spirit - is a necessary activity not practiced nearly enough. (Guess that’s why Apple decided to add a “Breathe” app to their upcoming watchOS 3 release.)

2. Don’t wait for a change in circumstances to bring about a change in attitude.

If you wait until such and such happens to be happy or thankful or at peace, forget about it. You’ll end up waiting your entire life. And then you’ll be dead. Choose to have the positive attitude now. It’s amazing what it can do for both mental and physical well-being. It was so hard for me to remain optimistic about my health improving when day after day, week after week, I felt the same. This is where having an outside perspective can really help. Ashley was able to point out the little victories, the small improvements in my health that my negative and hopeless self was oblivious too, and she was also there to keep encouraging me to believe and trust that I would recover and fully engage in life once again. Sort of like Adrian showing up to the fight and giving Rocky the strength and inspiration he needed to triumph. “Yo’ Ashley!”

3. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said it’s good to visit the sick.

"When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?"And the king will say to them in reply, "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." 

The entire time I was laid up in bed, I received numerous visitors, almost all Tanzanian. They came by for one reason: to visit the sick. These were Tanzanian co-workers and even groups of the young mothers to whom I taught business. At first I was not interested in receiving guests, particularly since being in conversation only exacerbated my head pain. But soon I realized the gift they were giving me - no, not the fruit they brought (which they did), but the gift of themselves and their time to sit with me for a few minutes and communicate in both word and action how much they cared for me and were praying for my recovery. I suspect that too often we stop ourselves thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to bother them.” But go ahead and visit the one you know who is sick. Give them the encouragement. Bring them some fruit. Unless you plan on bringing them raspberries. That’s just gross.

With all that said and if given the opportunity, of course I would be inclined to rewind the clock and not smash my head against that damn metal cage. But even in a storm there is still reason to praise God and I suppose that’s what I am attempting to do here.

(For those who have been asking, we quickly exhausted the locally available medical resources in Mwanza, Tanzania and, fortunately or unfortunately, already had a trip planned to Johannesburg, South Africa for vacation that we were able to convert into a week of medical appointments and tests with a neurologist, and the standard of care was easily on par with the United States.)


  1. I'm glad you are doing better. I only learned about what happened when you were already in Joburg, and then yes, we were told not to visit you because of the intense pain. So sorry you went through all of that, but it sounds like the experience had its own positive outcomes, as do most. I hope to see you this weekend and hear more about it!

  2. Thank God you are on the mend now! Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, too! We were advised to hold off on visiting....otherwise even more of us would have found our ways to Mabatini. Bless you as you continue strong.

  3. I read this post a month ago with eyes wide open and planned a big response but for some reason never got around to writing it, I don't know why. Perhaps because I fear head trauma. This fear developed when I broke my front teeth ice skating in Chicago my first year there and has been with me ever since. I had a friend who was hit by a car and hit her head on the ground - also in Chicago - and your slow recovery sounds pretty similar to hers.

    The closest thing I ever did to this was one time in high school I was running through a parking lot that was surrounded by one of those steel cables about 3 feet high that runs through wood posts, and I ran right into the cable. I slowly woke up doubled over with a searing pain (and red burn) across my waist and a barely suppressed urge to throw up. Unfolded myself from the cable, staggered back, and went on.

    Very good lessons you took from your recovery, especially concerning the value of solitude and positive thinking. Apparently Pedro Arrupe, the superior general who revolutionized the Jesuit order in the late 60's, was a prisoner in Japan during WWII and spent months alone in his cell, sometimes going 10 days without being fed, lying on a concrete floor. He marks this as his deepest period of prayer and closeness to God. God has given you quite a journey in your three years in Tanzania and I can't help but think that this too was part of the script, an invaluable lesson learned. Kind of like how I'm sure that our hitchhiking adventure in Arkansas the weekend before I started dating Rachel was somehow scripted. You will bring much insight and understanding back with you to the states.

    1. Wow, yeah our adventure in Arkansas was really something. Every now and then I think of it and smile because of how ridiculous it was on multiple levels. I also share the feeling that this head experience was somehow part of the script as you said. It really has been quite a journey in Tanzania, and it can be really tough in the midst of it to not totally lose it, but if you look closely there's some good.


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