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Web Extra: A survivor discovers her brain injury, and takes her power back

(David McNew/Getty Images)
(David McNew/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This podcast extra contains explicit details of domestic abuse. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233), or visit https://www.thehotline.org.     

This podcast extra is part of our hour on the hidden epidemic of traumatic brain injury in survivors of domestic abuse. Listen here.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Paula Walters is 48. She’s from Ohio. Paula was able to escape her abuser. But then Paula spent the next decade in and out of hospitals. She was very sick, but had no idea why.

PAULA WALTERS: I started dating basically someone that I saw at work frequently. He was actually an officer, and I was a paramedic working on the fire department and also in a level one trauma center. We started seriously dating in the end of 2005, and I had moved in with him in the beginning of 2006. And there just was like no red flags and everybody loved him.

There was a lot of jealousy and control. But there wasn’t really any hitting until once I moved in. And people, I’ve learned people can hide so much when you’re just dating. And once you’re with somebody so much, and you’re in their household, then I got to see the alcoholism. Then there was more control, I found out that I had a GPS locator on my car, my phone was being watched.

And I knew then that I was in trouble. But I had already given up, like slowly given up control of my money to his accounts. I had given up my house. I was making plans, trying to put some money away. And looking for housing and that type of stuff. In June of 2006, that was the night that changed my life.

The ER staff would often go out once a month. Our residents were graduating. We had an ER night out. And one of the docs hugged me. And when we got home, there was hell to pay, because we started fighting. He started hitting me, telling me how I embarrassed him and how disrespectful I was. I don’t remember a lot of that night, but I remember very vividly him sitting across my hip bones with his knees on my forearms and him putting his hands around my throat. It’s almost like when people say your life flashes before your face, like, all these thoughts. And I remember thinking, This is it, I’m going to die.

And a nosy neighbor saved my life. There’s a lot of yelling. And somebody knocked and he stopped, and I ended up going to the ER that night. I thought that that was rock bottom. And that was just the start of a downward spiral.

Up to that point, I was healthy. A part of me died that night physically, emotionally, spiritually, and it’s been a long journey to find her and get her back. Because, you know, that was 2006. There wasn’t a lot to be known about strangulation. They just did a couple x-rays and I was diagnosed with contusions, basically bruises and sent home and said, ‘Don’t continue the relationship, and return if you need help.’ And I even worked in that ER. And it was pretty bad. Because one of the ER doctors, the first thing he said to me was, ‘He’s such a nice guy. What did you do to make him so mad?’

I did finally get out of that situation. It took me three or four months. He was manipulating the system. He only got a $500 fine, and one year probation. He was given a plea bargain for attempted aggravated menacing. He told me that if I kept pushing it, I would be sorry and I finally left. I actually moved away not too long after that.

I started getting very medically sick. I started having a lot of medical problems after that. So basically, over the next three years, I racked up four or five different medical diagnoses. And nobody could find out what was wrong. I had multiple ER visits, multiple hospital stays. I even ended up getting flown by Life Flight helicopter to the ER where I worked in, because I was having what they thought was anaphylactic reaction. And there was no rhyme or reason for it. And I was going to specialist after specialist after specialist. And nobody could find the origin.

They took away my driving privileges. I wasn’t allowed to work as a paramedic. In the midst of a year, I lost every part of my life. And because of that, I made an attempt on my life. You know, I thought rock bottom happened in June of 2006. I think I just lived there for probably 11 years.

CHAKRABARTI: Paula was at rock bottom. She couldn’t understand what was happening to her, and no one could help. Until one day, Paula found something online:

WALTERS: And I found Amy Zellmer on Facebook. And she has this TBI support group, and she does a lot with traumatic brain injury. She had a slip on the ice and hit her head. But I was listening to her, all of her symptoms, and I was like — I felt like I was hearing my story.

It was basically 2006 when I started having these symptoms — to 2017 — that nobody put together this brain injury component and did a CT or an MRI. And that just floors me. Because at that time in 2017 [and] 2018, by the time that I finally got to a neurologist, and got the CT and the MRI, I had 14 medical diagnoses and I was on 22 medications.

The day that the pieces came together, it was just like it hit me like a ton of bricks, like how could we miss this? How was that missed? It’s crazy. Because I was sharing my story. I started a nonprofit in 2015 talking about domestic violence. Nobody, really just nobody was hitting this head piece in the brain injury. … I just sat there and I was like, How has this been missed?

… Here I am in 2022 with only one diagnosis and I am med free. I think how many people are out there like me who have tried to take their life or have succeeded. Because you feel like something’s wrong with you. The doctors have told me that domestic violence can’t do that. Strangulation doesn’t do that. Can’t cause heart problems and everything, and now we know very much that it can. It can affect every ounce of your body. And I have literally gotten back to where I am without meds, just changing my lifestyle and working on neuroplasticity. And I just — I’m very thankful for the doctors that helped me find that.

That was the day that I took some of my power back. He didn’t own me anymore. I wasn’t sick. … I came back and I got back to being a paramedic. I mean, I got my life back. And I can’t even explain what that did for me. They gave me my freedom.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Paula Walters. Paula is back to being a paramedic. She can drive again, and even ran a half marathon last fall.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, there are resources available at our program’s website here.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.