Tammy D’ercole is the first to admit that she is not the victim, but rather her family members are.
D’ercole, 48 and a Saratoga Springs native, suffers from an anoxic brain injury caused by an ischemic stroke that occurred on Jan. 29, 2006, when she was living in Pittsburgh with an ex-boyfriend. After a night of heavy drinking, D’ercole noticed blood in her urine and went to the hospital.
Doctors quickly found a tumor in her heart (atrial myxoma) and told her she needed emergency surgery, otherwise she might not survive for very long. Before the surgery, a piece of the tumor broke off, went into her bloodstream and essentially stopped the flow of oxygen to her brain.
“Essentially, the right side of my brain stopped functioning” afterward, D’ercole said.
Brain injuries are broken down into two categories: Anoxic and traumatic, which is caused by a physical head injury such as a concussion. March is Brain Injury Awareness month.
Problem was she was unaware that she had suffered a brain injury until a neurologist saw her in 2009 after she began suffering debilitating bouts of pain. After surgery for her tumor, and the ensuing stroke, D’ercole was in a wheelchair for nearly six weeks before being released back into the world.
It’s a story that those with anoxic brain injuries know all too well. An anoxic brain injury, basically, is when the brain is starved of oxygen, thus limiting the way the human brain can function with each passing second without oxygen. If a doctor doesn’t think to run tests, said injury can go undiagnosed for a long time.
D’ercole moved back to Saratoga Springs in 2009 for what she deemed “better treatment.” She admits that looking back upon the way she was treated in Pittsburgh, she wasn’t very happy, and said the doctors around here provide a better level of care.
“There were a lot of things I was changing about myself, and I wanted to see them through,” she said.
Reflecting back on her life’s experiences, D’ercole said she caused many of her own problems. In 2000, she weighed almost 300 pounds, so she decided to have gastric bypass surgery. She is half her size today. Yet after the surgery, she and her husband of 10 years divorced, and that’s when she said her biggest demons reared their heads.
“I was grieving the loss of food in my life,” she said, before a brief pause. “But then booze replaced it quickly.”
She started relying on alcohol as a mechanism to cope with what was happening in her life. Soon, her husband decided he had enough and left the relationship, which only allowed D’ercole to spiral further out of control.
She had four daughters from the marriage, which she said was a lot of responsibility for someone suffering from alcohol addiction.
Then, the stroke happened.
“When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t use the left side of my body,” she said. “And the first thing I did was go out drinking.”
D’ercole said she came to the realization that she is an alcoholic when she woke up from her surgery.
“I opened my eyes and my family was there,” she said. “We weren’t really all that close and a lot of that was my doing. I started to see all of the hugs and kisses I didn’t get from my dad growing up. When my eyes opened, I said, ‘Dad, I’m an alcoholic.’ He said: ‘I know,’ and that’s when I understood I had a bad problem.”
D’ercole began her slow road to recovery, both physically and emotionally. She has sought help for her alcohol addiction and currently lives a sober lifestyle in an apartment complex for seniors and people with disabilities.
If she has a negative attitude, then she’s pretty great at hiding it. Every word out of her mouth was positive and forward thinking, and she doesn’t make excuses for anything that has happened.
“As I’ve grown, I realized that I put my family through hell with my drinking and everything that has happened,” D’ercole said. “My kids were the victims, because they had to deal with me all those years.”
In dealing with her brain injury, D’ercole said the biggest thing for her was becoming her own advocate. She took the time to research and fully understand what happened to her brain, so that she can help herself make the most of her life.
Things that come easy to those without brain injuries – filling out paperwork, finding an apartment, even relearning how to eat – became chores. So to get back to where she can live a healthy life, D’ercole said she used all resources.
“We (with brain injuries) become engineers in our own life,” she said. “I have adapted to my environment and worked out a routine that fits best for me. And look at me. I am living the best life I can, but it has taken a lot of years. Many people think that because I have a brain injury, I need someone to do everything for me. Really, I will just ask if I need help, because I am able to take care of myself."
D’ercole has an aide that she can use for up to 23 hours per week, but that she tries to use the aide sparingly.
She is very active on social media support groups, and has become an advocate for others with brain injuries. And she feels that awareness about brain injuries is lacking, but also tries to help out families of those who are suffering, so they can carve out an easier path to recovery.
D’ercole said she calls into an internet radio station that focuses on brain injuries multiple times a week to lend support and give advice. She said she has been approached about the possibility of hosting her own show, but would not say if she is going to do it.
“I guess I want people to know a few things: There are many, many different types of brain injuries out there,” she said. “I also want families and friends of brain injury victims to know that with the right amount of support, and also patience and understanding, that they can live a healthy and productive life."
D’ercole said she is trying to go back to college to get a social work degree and one day hopefully work with brain injury survivors and their families. She also wants to help shed the stigma she says is associated with brain injuries.
“I could say that the injury hurt my life, but it really spun into a blessing,” she said. “My life is a blessing. All life is a blessing. What happened to me isn’t so tragic. Even before the injury, I never dreamed of being where I am today.”