By David Ryan
After more than a decade of crippling headaches, alcohol and drug abuse, a psychiatric appointment unlocked a decade of mystery for Army veteran Kenny Baca.
Baca, 45, had lived for 15 years with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury inflicted in a tractor trailer accident when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve in Arizona.
In the years after the accident in 1991, Baca spent months in jail for multiple DUIs. He couldn’t keep a job framing and painting houses because the more he worked, the worse his headaches became. He was aggressive and at times, would call his mother – lost – unable to figure out where he was.
While traumatic brain injuries primarily have been associated over the last decade as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every year more than 1.7 million Americans suffer a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“The TBI is such a hard thing to diagnose, it’s not something physical. It’s not like a limp, it’s an invisible injury,” said Baca, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I’m sure if I was walking around for 15 years not knowing, then there are plenty of people out there undiagnosed.”
In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist agreed to review the original medical records from Baca’s accident. She found a note about significant head trauma that never was diagnosed or treated as TBI by military or VA doctors. A VA neurologist later confirmed Baca suffered from TBI.
“Knowing that something is wrong, but nobody can tell you what … it finally brought some hope into my life,” he said. “That was the beginning of a lot of changes for the better.”
Baca’s accident happened on a two-week mission in Pomona, Calif. Baca was driving a soft-top tractor trailer carrying construction equipment on a freeway during rush hour when a driver cut him off. The tractor trailer slammed into stopped traffic.
Baca remembers the sound of metal hubcaps scraping against pavement and the smell of rubber burning before the trailer rolled and grated to a rest on the pavement with the passenger’s side facing the sky.
“I wasn’t in a seatbelt, and that’s probably what saved my life,” Baca said. “I probably would have gotten decapitated.”
Baca found himself partially ejected from the truck, pinned between the truck body and burning canvas top. His passenger was in a seatbelt and called Baca’s name.
“My name was the last thing that he said,” Baca said. “I was pinned under the truck and couldn’t help him, I couldn’t respond.”
Baca was pinned for 27 minutes. He suffered a broken left femur, broken ribs and deep gashes to his face.
He spent six weeks recuperating. The damage to nerves in his legs was extensive. Doctors told Baca to get used to a wheelchair.
But with the help of a physical therapist, Baca began his recovery. It was two years before Baca took his first step, and three before he walked for the first time.
One day during a family gathering, his mother and sister looked up from the couch to see him standing. He walked from the family room, out the sliding door and jumped in the pool.
“I don’t know if he practiced at physical therapy,” said his mother Linda Madrid. “But it was just amazing to see.”
At 26, Baca moved out on his own and was working construction. But some days, he wouldn’t show up to a job and was fired.
Over the next 12 years, he said he was drinking multiple six-packs a day, and at times mixing alcohol with marijuana, cocaine or meth.
“I was self-medicating, trying to fit in, trying to work… trying to be a working person, somebody that contributes,” Baca said. “Self-medicating is a scary place to be. If you’re drinking, you have chronic pain, you can’t see things any other way. It’s hard to imagine not coming home and drinking beer.”
Eventually he mixed beer with hydrocodone, an opiate painkiller he was prescribed for chronic pain.
“I was really tired of my life,” Baca said. “I think I got really tired of it when I got my last DUI and went to jail. I wanted to change. I didn’t know how, and decided to get counseling.”
Baca’s new doctors worked out a treatment plan, but warned him if he continued to drink and use drugs, he was a prime candidate for Alzheimer’s at an early age. Baca hasn’t had a drink since.
He moved closer to his family and got married.
“If I didn’t get diagnosed with the TBI, who knows if I’d be here today?” Baca said. “Sometimes I wonder that.”