They say accidents happen in a flash.
Not so for Craig Sicilia. With his daughter and a niece, both 8 years old, in the back seat of his Dodge minivan north of Spokane, he watched with horror as the driver of a speeding Lincoln Continental in the oncoming lane slumped in the front seat.
Sicilia jerked the wheel, steering his car into a farm field, all the while knowing something bad was about to happen.
That was 2 ½ years ago, a span in which he lost his marriage, his home, his career and a piece of his personality to traumatic brain injury, a misunderstood problem that kills 50,000 Americans every year and affects 1.4 million others.
In Washington, about 1,300 people died of traumatic brain injuries in 2006; 4,000 were hospitalized for the condition, according to state health records.
Traumatic brain injuries can happen when a person’s head is struck or moved violently, such as a fall, car crash, being shaken, hit or subjected to a concussive blast such as an explosion.
Many patients recover. Some spend weeks or longer in the hospital. Some are affected for life.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates 5.3 million Americans – about 2 percent of the population – have long-term or lifelong needs resulting from traumatic brain injuries.
There has been little support available for brain injury patients in Washington, said Bea Rector, who heads the Home and Community Programs office of the state Department of Social and Health Services.
But a new $1.5 million annual allocation by the Legislature has established an awareness campaign; a telephone hotline and Web site for referral services; money for small support groups; and staffing and travel expenses.
Support networks often are little more than informal gatherings in homes.
Sicilia is changing that in Spokane and claims to have reached out to more than 100 people who have traumatic brain injury or live with someone who does. He is using his own experience as a guide.
“I’m lucky to be here,” he says. “I want to give back.”
In the minivan, Sicilia raised his arms in defense as the Lincoln struck the side of his car. The force rolled his vehicle three times. When the chaos stopped, the smell of gas spurred him to act. He kicked out the windshield, unbuckled the girls and dragged them out of the car in an adrenaline-fueled act of desperation.
Sicilia doesn’t recall the details, leaving that to daughter Alexis and niece Ashlee, along with passers-by and police who reconstructed the crash.
No one was badly hurt – not even the Lincoln’s drunken driver.
Sicilia received the worst of it: a torn rotator cuff, cracked ribs and whiplash.
A couple days later, though, memories began to fade. As he fought the symptoms of amnesia, he became overemotional. Today he calls himself the “drama queen” of his family. He struggled to communicate, the words getting balled up in his mouth. He became unreasonable and frustrated. His marriage failed.
“I lost who I was and I couldn’t figure out who I was becoming,” he said.
By early 2006, after six months of declining mental and physical health, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. It was then, when he knew what was happening, that he could begin rebuilding his life.
Sicilia kept joint custody of his two daughters, moved into a comfortable double-wide mobile home in Greenacres, and immersed himself in the Brain Injury Association of Washington Spokane Chapter.
“It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
That’s saying a lot considering his background as the son of a prison-bound father and mother he accuses of being an abusive alcoholic. Sicilia worked for his father, James Sicilia, in the late 1990s, managing and opening a string of adult bookstores. It was a terrible match, he said, that conflicted with his moral views.
He became a pastor, spreading his moderate-to-conservative Christian message on the Internet and advocating for people with behavioral problems.
It’s a personal path that helped him cope with the car accident.
Said Sicilia, “I have turned this into a blessing.”