Brain injury survivor learns to live again

ST. HELENA — Glancing into the rearview mirror, Peggy O’Kelly, owner of the St. Helena Olive Oil Co., saw a car behind her but thought little of it. The traffic ahead had stopped on Highway 29, a normal event. O’Kelly had noticed it and slowed to stop, but the driver behind her didn’t. When the vehicle crashed into hers, it was traveling at 45 mph, totaling her car and upending her life.

When she awoke in the hospital doctors told her the external scratches and bruises would heal, but what they diagnosed as a minor concussion at the time still remains as a haunting reminder of the traumatic event.

“After the accident doctors told me that I’d be fine with rest,” she said. “So I went home. I was busy with my business and was in the middle of negotiating a deal with investors to expand. But within a few days I knew something was really wrong. I just couldn’t think straight and I often felt emotional and unable to focus. Then one day I was driving with my daughters, and they said, ‘Mom, there’s something wrong with you, you’re not making any sense.’ That’s when I told myself, ‘I don’t care what these doctors are saying, there is something really, really wrong with me.’”

After repeated visits, however, O’Kelly’s doctors assured her that the effects of the concussion would not last much longer and that she’d soon be back to normal. She waited and tried to carry on.

Yet within a few months of the accident O’Kelly’s entire life had changed: She was forced to relinquish her downtown store in St. Helena and part with her longtime employees, and she was unable to complete her plans to expand the business, forgoing what had been a nearly completed investment deal. Bright light and even a few minutes of concentration had the potential to result in migraine-type headaches and intense fatigue. She remained undiagnosed and concerned.

“With a brain injury it’s not like a broken bone,” said O’Kelly. “There’s no outward sign of the condition and so people just see you and think, ‘Well, you look fine, so things are OK.’ But they’re not. Not at all.”

What O’Kelly eventually came to learn was that she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a TBI is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain with the severity ranging from a brief change in mental status or consciousness to an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia after the injury. In the United States alone TBI contributes annually to a substantial number of deaths and cases of permanent disability, and in 2010, 2.5 million TBIs occurred either as an isolated injury or along with other injuries.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes reports that TBI is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults in the United States. Depending on the severity, TBI can have a lasting impact on quality of life, causing impaired thinking, decision-making and reasoning, loss of concentration, memory, movement and/or sensation (vision or hearing), emotional problems (personality changes, impulsivity, anxiety and depression) and even epilepsy.

O’Kelly’s old life had disintegrated and she felt unable to function. She was growing more desperate for answers.

“I finally called up a friend who’s a doctor in San Francisco,” she said. “He told me about Dr. Olcese. Working with Dr. O has been wonderful and brought with it a new level of healing.”

Rick Olcese is a clinical neuropsychologist with a private practice in Santa Rosa.

“My work with patients often begins with a neuropsychological evaluation,” he said. “Primarily I see patients who have suffered neurological injury, such as stroke, aneurism or brain tumor.”

According to Olcese, of the estimated nearly 1 million concussions that annually occur in the United States, 80 to 90 percent will resolve within six months to a year, but for the 10 to 20 percent of them that don’t, longer-term strategies are critical.

“Even those patients who have concussions that may resolve within a year, there are tools that can be used early to help improve brain function,” Olcese said. “Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a three-phased approach that we refer to as our ‘life after neurological injury program’ that addresses cognitive, emotional and physical effects of the condition. As part of our approach, participants join a 16-week workshop to learn more about, then help rebuild the affected neurological functions.”

O’Kelly began her new treatment in earnest.

“A big part of my healing started as soon as I knew what my condition was called,” she said. “Part of the frustration was never being exactly sure what was happening to me.”

“Over the years we have developed powerful tools to help our clients maintain life-long strategies for healing,” said Olcese. “Peggy was already well-versed in many of the practices, such as good nutrition and meditation, so we were able to build from there relatively quickly.”

“Ultimately I’ve learned how to have a better relationship with my own body and mind,” said O’Kelly. “Working with Dr. Olcese, we went about methodically addressing and refining six key areas: improved nutrition, consistent meditation and exercise, better sleep habits, journaling and maintaining a life pace that allows for healing. Developing specific strategies and approaches within each of these key areas has provided me a new life without the need for medication or surgery.”

Although the techniques developed by Olcese are directed at those with neurological injuries, many of the techniques are applicable for anyone with a stressful life.

“Brain health is something we can rebuild in the injured but can also be improved in anyone whose stress tolerance is compromised,” Olcese said. “For example, utilizing mindful meditation practice can be useful in reducing stress and allowing improved health, both in mind and body.”

Along with O’Kelly’s slowing healing, she is also rebuilding her life and her business.

“After the accident she seems like a different person,” said Art Berliner, founder and managing director of Walden, a Bay Area venture capital firm who has a second home in St. Helena and is a friend and an unofficial business adviser to O’Kelly. “Ironically she seems more concentrated and deliberate now. I know she is taking a different approach to her business, and Peggy’s always been a survivor, but I am actually more confident in her, somehow — I feel like she might take on less but that she’s more realistic and deliberate now, in some ways, not biting off too much. And in many ways she seems more content, even though she has some limitations. I see her as a more settled person.”

“Although I’m still not ready to have a company like I used to, with lots of employees and shops, I find my work making hand-crafted olive oils and essential oils … to be an extension of my practice of healing,” O’Kelly said. “Many of my old customers have been patient and supportive and continue to purchase my products.”

When asked if she thinks her life is better or worse now, O’Kelly pauses.

“It has been a hard and continuing journey,” she said. “And I know my work has just started, but for the first time in my life I am learning how to be my own best friend, and I feel like I am coming into union with my body and mind, which has allowed me to just be present, sitting, just being, allowing some stillness in my life. I’m not there yet, but I feel I am moving toward peace.”

St. Helena Olive Oil Co. products can be purchased through O’Kelly’s website, https://sholiveoil.com/, by contacting her directly at orders@sholiveoil.com or by calling 707-815-0563

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Originally published in the Napa Register, September 2016