Audrey Nelson’s life changed forever on Oct. 24, 1981.
It was on that date that another vehicle struck a car the then-18-year-old Nelson was riding in head-on, trapping her and the driver, and completely rerouting her young life.
Nelson suffered a serious brain injury in the crash, which occurred on an icy stretch of Highway 27 between Cadott and Cornell, and needed a surgeon to implant a metal plate in her head.
“I had a depressed frontal lobe fracture,” Nelson recalled this week. “That’s not good. That’s the part of your brain that helps you think and plan.”
While the brain injury affects Nelson somewhat to this day — she has a hard time following a rigid schedule and occasionally mixes up her words — she didn’t let it stop her from devoting her life to helping some of the estimated 1.7 million Americans who sustain traumatic brain injuries annually.
Nelson, now 52, will be recognized with a silver award Monday at a Milwaukee luncheon for her remarkable comeback story by Disability Rights Wisconsin. She is one of several individuals statewide who will be honored at DRW’s Spirit of ADA Awards in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The awards recognize people and organizations who are positively changing and improving the lives of people with disabilities in Wisconsin.
Nelson is the owner and director of Reality Unlimited, a company operating two group homes for people with brain injuries or neurological issues, and has been a co-facilitator of a brain injury support group in Eau Claire since 1983. She is president of the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin and a member of the Long-Term Care Council for the state Department of Health Services, the Eau Claire B.R.A.I.N. Team, the Mayo Clinic Traumatic Brain Injury Model System Regional Advisory Board and the Treatment Instead ofPrison Task Force of JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope) in Eau Claire.
“She’s a real firecracker,” Jodi Hanna, director of DRW’s Rice Lake office, said of Nelson. “She just has a lot of energy and she cares so passionately about this issue.”
Hanna said she believes Nelson’s injury and recovery prompted her to work hard so others can have similar opportunities.
“That is at the heart of what she does,” Hanna said. “She wants others to enjoy a full life after brain injury.”
For her part, Nelson said her experience put her in a unique position in terms of advocacy — she struggled enough to understand the pain of brain injury but recovered enough to be able to speak for those who can’t.
After her accident, a neurosurgeon told Nelson, a freshman at Northwestern College in the Twin Cities at the time, that she probably would never be able to give birth or return to school. She could read but was unable to comprehend or remember the words, and she had a hard time controlling her temper.
“The outlook was pretty grim at the time,” said Nelson, a Cornell High School graduate.
But Nelson defied the experts by refusing to put limits on herself.
She attended UW-Eau Claire the following year, majoring in social work, and managed to earn a bachelor’s degree despite only reading one textbook. She later earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation at UW-Stout in Menomonie, got married and had three children, now 26, 22 and 18.
“The No. 1 thing people say about people with brain injuries is that they have unrealistic expectations. Well, thank God for unrealistic expectations,” Nelson said, adding with a chuckle, “The good thing about a right frontal lobe injury is that you can’t really understand everything, so you don’t take no for an answer.”
When it comes to brain injuries and expectations, Nelson said, “I always say, ‘Never say never, and never say always.’ I believe in taking baby steps until you get where you want to go.”
While she was still a student at UW-Eau Claire, Nelson met a woman, Dorothy Wilson, whose son suffered a brain injury after being hit by a drunken driver and who was advocating for a grant to start a group home catering to the specific needs of people with brain injuries.
In 1983, Nelson, Wilson and Carol Joles started a brain injury support group in Eau Claire. The group has met once a month ever since.
When asked about this long-standing gift to the community, Nelson humbly replied, “It’s really been more of a gift to me.”
When Nelson and her husband opened their first group home 20 years ago this week for people with brain injuries, Nelson named it the Mike Wilson House after Dorothy Wilson’s son, the inspiration for the facility. Mike Wilson died in 1991, 12 years after his accident, and his mother was clearly touched by Nelson’s tribute.
“That was so nice of Audrey,” Dorothy Wilson said. “She has really done a lot for people with brain injuries.”
The recent flood of attention to concussions in sports symbolizes the positive change in attitudes about brain injuries in the United States, Nelson said.
Nelson recalled being involved with the former National Head Injury Foundation when the organization approached the National Football League in the 1980s to discuss head injures associated with the sport. NFL officials refused to acknowledge the problem.
“For the kind of awareness we see today to be happening is amazing,” she said. “Now when I tell people I had a brain injury, they kind of understand what that means.”
That awareness, she believes, can lead to better care and treatment for people with brain injuries.
And for Nelson, that’s what it’s all about.
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Other Area Recipients
Other regional winners to be honored Monday with Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Spirit of ADA Awards:
• Former state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, gold winner.
• Arcadia-based Ashley Furniture Industries, bronze.
• Main Street of Menomonie, bronze.
• Katherine Schneider of Eau Claire, bronze.
• UW-Stout’s Vocational Rehabilitation Institute, bronze.