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Jennifer Kuchinka perseveres through brain injury

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Jennifer Kuchinka (right) recently spoke at the Brain Blitz gala that was hosted by the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association. Also speaking were two-time Olympic gold medallist speed skater Catriona Le May Doan (left) and CFL Hall of Fame quarterback Matt Dunigan. (Photo submitted)

Regardless of whether she is planning an event for the community, sharing her story with students, speaking at a provincial convention alongside two legendary athletes, or penning her memoirs, Estevan's Jennifer Kuchinka wants to share several messages with the public.

People can suffer a brain injury, and still lead a rich and fulfilling life, she said. They might be able to return to the life they led previously. And they might embark on new endeavours during their recovery.

Kuchinka suffered her brain injury in 2010 when she was struck by a truck while walking. The accident left her in a coma for eight days. And she scored just a three out of 15 on a Glasgow Coma Scale test.

Her score reflected a deep state of unconsciousness.

“Most people that score that low on a Glasgow Coma Scale don't return to their normal lives to such an extent as I have,” Kuchinka told Lifestyles.

People who score a one or a two usually won't emerge from a coma, she said.

Doctors believed that there was an 80 per cent chance she would become a vegetable. Kuchinka set out to beat the odds, and she has succeeded.

But the injury changed her life.

“I have really had to learn to deal with a brain injury, and kind of compensate for my weaknesses,” said Kuchinka. “I wanted to understand it, and I wanted to raise more awareness about the impact it has on you, too.”

Her desire to return to teaching fuelled her recovery. So did her desire to raise her daughter, who was only three months old when the accident occurred.

“I basically had to relearn the process of doing everything – walk, take care of myself, (use proper) hygiene, feed myself and pay the bills,” said Kuchinka. “I had to relearn how to do everything, but I remember thinking 'I have to learn how to walk before she does,' and I was really motivated to be a parent.”

Kuchinka organized a community event last year, in which Kuchinka, some friends and their families teeter-tottered for 12 hours at the Rusty Duce Playpark in Estevan. They wanted to create awareness about brain injuries, and raise money for their entry in the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association's (SBIA) annual Brain Boogie Walk in Regina.

The team raised about $2,400, which was tops at the event.

Thanks to her fundraising success, Kuchinka was invited to speak at the SIBA Brain Blitz Gala earlier this month. She delivered a five-minute speech on her injury, and how she has recovered.

“Since my brain injury, I've done a lot,” said Kuchinka. “I've taken university classes, I've scored marks in the 80s, I've raised lots of money for the brain injury association, I've travelled a little bit, I've gotten a place of my own, and been a parent to my wonderful daughter.”

Another memorable moment happened at the gala: she had breakfast with one of the gala's keynote speakers – CFL Hall of Fame quarterback Matt Dunigan, who was forced to retire in 1996 due to the affects of repeated concussions.

“We were able to share our stories, and how he struggles with certain things, still, as a result of his injuries, and we talked about how there are days when you shut everything off, and you just lay down,” said Kuchinka.

Kuchinka and Dunigan agreed that brain injuries can be silent in nature. Many people don't grasp that those who have overcome a brain injury can't always return to their pre-injury lifestyle. People who suffer brain injuries can also suffer from mood swings and other mental health issues, she said.

Dunigan hasn't allowed his injuries to define him, though, and Kuchinka said her injuries won't define her, either.

The other prominent speaker at the gala was two-time Olympic gold medallist speed skater Catriona Le May Doan. She hasn't suffered from head injuries to the same degree as Dunigan, but she did discuss her battles with depression and other mental health issues.

Kuchinka noted a couple other reasons she was able to speak at the gala. One was that she shared her story on a provincial radio interview that grabbed a lot of people's attention.

The other was that she had been in contact with Ellen Kolenick, a friend and former Estevan resident who does a lot to promote SIBA and its initiatives. Kolenick then spoke SIBA executive director Glenda James, who thought that Kuchinka would be a good speaker for the gala.  

Kuchinka has resumed her teaching career at Spruce Ridge School, although she only teaches in the morning. Most days she needs a nap in the afternoon. Other days she'll shut off everything in her home, put her phone away, and lay down for a couple hours.

“From what I have read, that is as healthy for you as napping,” said Kuchinka. “It rejuvenates me and keeps me going.”

She would eventually like to return to teaching for the full day, or she would like to be able to work at times other than in the morning.

Kuchinka will occasionally draw on her experiences to motivate her students.

“My mom told me they bought me baby books, fairy tales and nursery rhymes at the beginning, when I was in intensive care, to get me to read again,” said Kuchinka. “I tell the kids I work with that I had to learn how to read again, and I could have just laid there and said 'No, I don't want to (learn anymore).'”

Fitness has also played an important role in her recovery. She has already participated in a Spartan race in Phoenix, and she has another one coming up in Red Deer, Alberta. Kuchinka looks forward to obtaining all of the different medals available through the gruelling Spartan meets.

She will be publishing a memoir book, After the Truck Hit, in the summer. Final edits are taking place. The 180-page book chronicles her life before the accident, the aftermath of the accident, her recovery and her other experiences in the last four years.

“It was very cathartic for me to write,” said Kuchinka. “

After the Truck Hit is slated to be released on July 15.


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