What it feels like to live with a traumatic brain injury


One night, in the summer of 2021, Ava Sprenger’s life changed forever. 

It began when I was working at a summer camp in Nebraska. Towards the end of the summer, two of my close friends and also my co-workers were going to take her car around to the other side of camp. While we were doing that, my friend recommended that we go get ice cream. I was in the back seat buckled and my other friends weren’t. We were driving down a road, and it was dark. We came up over a hill and suddenly two deer jumped into the road. My friend swerved and clipped one of the deer but swerved into the other lane of traffic. Luckily, there were no cars, but then she swerved back into our lane and then back into the other lane. That’s when we flipped the car down into a field.

 This was one of the scariest moments of my life. As the car landed upside down, I was hanging upside down because I was buckled. I was unconscious at the time. I hit my head on the window of the car, which cracked the window. This is why I have post-concussion syndrome. 

I woke up to one of my friends screaming my other friend’s name because she was unconscious as well. Eventually, we all regained consciousness. I got down from the seat belt and reached for my phone. We tried calling 911 multiple times but the call wasn’t going through. At that point, all we could do was pray.  We huddled in the middle and held on to each other.

 We couldn’t get the car doors open because the dirt was wedged in the doors. Suddenly, a man, who we think was our angel, came to the car and used his bare hands to dig the dirt around the door. He got it open just enough so we could come out.  After we got out, we walked up to the road. Some cars had pulled over. A young lady was standing there. I was crying, and she just let me hold on to her and hug her until the paramedics came. I am so thankful to her for staying with me.   

At the time, the only thing that we could do was just hug each other. That night the police officer told us that we should be planning funerals and not be in the hospital. That was the night when it all started. My family and I were shocked that I made it out alive. It was a miracle.

I live with post-concussion. It’s when you have persistent systems of a concussion after the time frame of when it should be healed, or when those symptoms start to show up long after the accident that caused them. This illness is not physical, like a broken arm or a sprained ankle. I live with this in silence. 

This illness presents struggles in my everyday life. I think the number one challenge it presents to me is headaches. I get headaches quite often, both mild and severe ones. I also sometimes have trouble focusing. I have fogginess and a little bit of memory trouble from the accident. Luckily, I have a team of neurologists in Iowa City that helped me manage and cope with this injury. 

People are not so forgiving of this invisible illness. It has been a challenge to help my teachers understand what’s going on and why I often miss school. If I want to get accommodations, I can ask for more time. 

At first, I got the feeling that my teachers didn’t believe that I needed it. Or maybe they just thought it was a way for me to do better. It was frustrating because before I experienced a learning disability, I was like, “Oh, lucky them, they get extra time,” but now I understand it. I understand why those accommodations are put in place. No matter what they are, I think that if you do have a certain accommodation, you shouldn’t feel ashamed of it.

I’m looking forward to college life and beyond. The future looks like hope, and not just because I want to go to Hope College in Holland, Michigan. I have this renewed sense of hope for my life because for a while, it felt like things weren’t possible. It felt like I wouldn’t be able to do it. But now, with amazing friends, family and teachers, I know that I’m capable. I think I’ve proven that to others, but most importantly myself. I will find out in a few weeks if I’m accepted to Hope, and I feel really good about it. It’s 5 hours away, which is scary. I know it’s scary for everyone who’s moving away from home, but I just get nervous about my headaches. I also worry about not having my parents there for me when I am having a bad headache, bad back pain, or whatever it is.

I want students, faculty, and all people to know that it’s so important to give grace to people. You don’t know everything going on in people’s lives. You should also never be afraid to advocate for yourself or to ask for help. Never be ashamed or embarrassed to have support in your life. Never let anyone, including teachers, friends, or family, tell you that you can’t make it in life because of an injury.