Head-injury victims find help from Headback

July 26, 2000

Head-injury victims find help from Headback

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - Nine years ago Ralph Berkstresser was struck by lightning while shingling the roof on his garage.

The fact that he can even talk about it today shows how far he's come since that June 30, 1991, day. The accident left him with severe brain injuries.

"I lost it all, but now it's coming back," said Berkstresser, 45, one of about 25 members of a head-injury survivors support group called Headback, the only one of its kind in Franklin and Fulton counties.

It took Berkstresser three years to learn to walk again.

He recently moved into his own apartment - his first home in nine years. He spent four years in hospitals, then moved to group and retirement homes. Next month he starts lessons to get his driver's license back. "Then I'll really be independent again," he said.


A Fulton County sixth-grade teacher at the time of the accident, Berkstresser now works as an egg picker for a Chambersburg area egg farm.

Like Berkstresser, members of Headback share common denominators of courage, determination and years of therapy. They survived head injuries from accidents, debilitating strokes or brain surgery.

Wednesday night they held a pot-luck picnic at Caledonia State Park. Family members of the survivors also belong to the group.

Headback was founded in 1994 by Karen Dubbs, Kenna Dee Swan and Carmelita Stevens, all head-injury survivors.

"We're very informal. We don't have any officers or anything like that. We're just a group of people who get together because it makes us feel better," Dubbs said. "We start every meeting with a prayer because it's only by God's grace that we're alive," she said.

The group meets monthly at Chambersburg Hospital. Physicians, therapists and neurologists are popular speakers for the group.

Dubbs, 42, was a medic nurse who "used to pick people off the road," until she herself was injured in an auto accident in October 1992. She was in a coma for two months. Determination and years of therapy paid off. Today she's a public health nurse at Grove Worldwide in Shady Grove, Pa.

Swan was a bank teller before she was struck down in a pedestrian accident in 1989. She's a cashier in a convenience store today.

"In this group we find out that we're not alone, that there are others like us. We find out what each other has to go through," Swan said. "We all had to learn how to walk, and talk and go to the bathroom again. We had to learn everything all over again."

"That's why we call ourselves Headback because we're heading back to the world again," Dubbs said. "When I got out of rehabilitation I found out that the whole world went back to normal, but I didn't."

"No one will ever understand what we go through. We all lose a lot of friends because they can't accept us as we are," Swan said.

Terry Dailey, a rehabilitation counselor with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, has befriended the members of the club and often attends their meetings. She was at the picnic.

"There aren't many support groups like this where people take you for who you are now," Dailey said. Survivors not only lose friends, but families too, she said. "Some families abandon them because their personalities change so completely," she said.

"There are so many people out there like us who don't realize that they are not alone," Dubbs said. They just have to connect with the right people."

Organizers say that anyone interested in learning more about Headback can call Dubbs at 1-717-263-5721.

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