Transforming tragedy into success for CSU students with brain injuries

Story by Cynthia Tate

“Between the two of us, we’ve had nine brain injuries. Does anyone know what that means?” asks Brandon Kidney, a senior at Colorado State University.

“It means that it took two of us to remember we had a TEDx presentation today,” answers Lauren Migliaccio, a 2016 CSU graduate.

Their recent CSU TEDx talk, Living with Brain Injuries Taught Us Advocacy, was a great success, compelling audience members to see beyond the visible — to glimpse the invisible world of brain injury.  Not only did they elucidate the challenges of a brain injury; they drove home the point that by becoming a good self-advocate, deficits can be overcome and strengths can be accentuated which, in turn, paves the way to full participation and enjoyment of life.

Kidney and Migliaccio are close friends and co-founders of the CSU Brain Injury Community, a new student organization at CSU.  They met in the Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program, a transition support program for students who are experiencing unique academic and/or campus life challenges. The OPS program is part of the Center for Community Partnerships in CSU’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

A life interrupted

Brandon Kidney

Kidney was 16 when the most serious of his three brain injuries occurred. At the time, he played varsity baseball and football for his high school. He also was an excellent student, on track for early graduation and a scholarship to play college baseball. His plans were either to enter the Air Force Academy or to pursue a degree in engineering.

Things changed dramatically for Kidney one afternoon while playing in a high school football game. He sustained not one, but two successive head injuries, and they occurred within 30 minutes of one another. The result was Second Impact Syndrome, or SIS, a condition in which the brain swells quickly and catastrophically after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier one have subsided.

The day after the injury, Kidney woke up a different person. His peripheral vision was gone, he had great difficulty balancing, bright lighting was unbearable, his thoughts were jumbled, and his head throbbed with aching pain. It would be three months before he received a diagnosis of SIS. Nevertheless, doctors insisted his symptoms would diminish or even completely go away.

“About eight months are a blur to me,” Kidney said of the period following his injury.

Instead of enjoying his junior year in high school, he struggled with a variety of challenging symptoms that had resulted from his injuries. He spent the majority of the year in the basement of his family home, avoiding bright lights and in bed most of the time. Going to rehabilitation appointments and relearning what he once took for granted, such as walking and talking without having to concentrate, became his new normal. Slowly his symptoms improved to the point where he was able to attend his last year of high school, but he was still far from a 100 percent recovery. Life as a student had changed for Kidney, dramatically.

Lauren Migliaccio

‘Life is different; I’m different’

Migliaccio was enjoying her first year at CSU. She felt engaged in student life and academics, and she readily maintained high grades. However, all of that changed when she sustained a second concussion in a car accident. Though her first concussion at age 14 had little or no lasting impact, this second concussion left her without reading comprehension ability, intense fatigue and memory loss.

Life became a daily battle of overwhelming stress, with difficulty initiating tasks, balancing wellness and meeting basic academic demands. As if these challenges weren’t enough, she later sustained two more concussions, at ages 21 and 23.  Following her third concussion, due to a bicycle accident, a person who was sullen, depressed and uninvolved replaced the once bubbly, outgoing Lauren. She started failing classes, Migliaccio said, and after two semesters of struggling, she “realized that it wasn’t just my grades that had changed, it was my whole life. My personality had changed; I didn’t laugh at the same jokes, I didn’t really like hanging out with my friends. It was exhausting; I didn’t want to be out in society anymore.”

Self-advocacy and the road to academic success

Kidney recalls his first couple of years at CSU. “I’d just pretend nothing was wrong, not bring it up, and it really hurt my success.”

But that changed when he met Migliaccio.

“It took me four years to meet Lauren. It was just eye-opening understanding that, no, I’m not alone. Just knowing one person that went through it with me, it helped me open up to everybody and be able to advocate for all my needs.”

Once Kidney’s perception of himself shifted from “something’s wrong with me” to “I’m different, but not alone,” and with help from the Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program, he was able to identify and use strategies, tools and resources to compensate for the many challenges he faced. The change in self-perception, combined with new coping skills, has helped him experience greater success.

As Migliaccio acknowledges, “The acceptance piece is one of the slowest and hardest parts of this progress.” Her moment of clarity occurred one day when she was taking an exam under adverse conditions, so adverse that she broke down in tears.

Then her professor came over.

“She did something that I never expected. She sat with me; she asked me how I was doing. She talked about my life, and then she asked me if I would like to have the exam read to me. That’s when I realized you can’t be complacent. I started to change aspects of my life so that I could advocate and accept the outcomes.”

CBIC – You are not alone

For more information on the CSU Brain Injury Community student organization,

see their website here, email, or call (720) 273-8959 or (970) 491-2421.

For more information on the Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program in the Department of Occupational Therapy,

see their website here, email, or call (970) 491-5930.

If you would like to support CBIC or the Opportunities for Postsecondary Success Program, please visit their website here.

Soon after meeting, Kidney and Migliaccio jointly recognized the value of knowing and relating to another person who could fully understand the impact of brain injury and the many challenges it presents. With the mission of diminishing the silent suffering that many people with a non-apparent disability experience, in this case a brain injury, they, along with the help of CSU’s Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program, founded the CSU Brain Injury Community student organization.

Madison Laughlin, a member of the CBIC, was struck by an out-of-control SUV on Feb. 1, 2017, which resulted in several injuries, including a severe concussion. Laughlin admits that at first she was skeptical, but quickly became a believer in the power of community. She sums up the priceless value of the organization for people with brain injuries after attending a CBIC meeting for the first time.

“It was the most peaceful experience I have had since my accident. Every aspect of my life involves me having to fight to convince, fight to prove, or fight to be understood,” said Laughlin. “From doctors to lawyers to my significant other, family and friends. CBIC is the one place in my life where I can say anything I want, any struggle I have, any fear or worry, and I know I won’t have to fight. I know I am 100 percent accepted, 100 percent supported, 100 percent appreciated and 100 percent understood. CBIC doesn’t take all your problems away, but it does provide you with a support that is more valuable than you can imagine.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury annually; many of them may feel isolated and disconnected from friends, family and their communities. CBIC, open to community members as well as CSU students, offers a safe place to establish a sense of like-minded belonging. This, coupled with CBIC’s philosophy of self-advocacy, provides a means to becoming the “most successful versions of ourselves,” said Migliaccio.

CBIC’s message speaks loud and clear — reach out to others, know yourself, embrace yourself and advocate for your needs. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go for it; it’s your life!

Kidney is currently a senior at CSU completing a degree in Applied Computer Technology. He works part-time as a student mentor for the Center for Community Partnership’s Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program and as a funding procurement researcher for Eleos Industries, a Department of Defense contractor.

Migliaccio graduated from CSU in 2016 with a degree in Biomedical Sciences.  Prior to moving from Fort Collins, she worked for the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory as a research associate. She recently was married and is currently settling into her new home.

Speakers addressing TedTalk CSUThe Center for Community Partnerships is a service, outreach and practice arm of Department of Occupational Therapy, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

About the author: Cynthia Tate is a disability advocate from the Center for Community Partnerships in the Department of Occupational Therapy at CSU.