You’ve probably all heard the phrase about a chapter closing in life. It’s a beautiful and quick way to allegorically exemplify what it feels like when we proceed onward from a particular time in our lives. The process of moving on can happen deliberately or accidentally, and it can make us feel a wide range of emotions, both happy and sad. As my time in college has come to a true close, it has made me reflect deeply on this particular time. I want to share this beautiful piece written by my dear friend, Hayden Caves. She wrote Beauty Unbroken in the fall of 2014 when I was returning to school after a year of recovery. I hope when you read this story, it gives you the strength you may need to overcome any obstacle in your very own life knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel. Xo
Her long loose curls danced while she glided coolly in front of the bathroom mirror. Her big hazel eyes and long lashes fluttered, as she looked down at her tan soft skin, her lips painted perfect with pink. She was wrapped up cozy in a loose sweater, big shades, the scent of Elizabeth and James and all that is a girl. The elephant in the room was silenced for the moment as she continued decorating her new room, draping twinkle lights and photographs of loved ones that were arranged on her walls. The mood both cozy and chilling, Carson Barenborg laughed while apologizing for being such a hot mess.
After spending one year recovering from a traumatic brain injury, 22-year-old Carson Barenborg has returned to Loyola Marymount University, a miracle and goal that once seemed impossible to overcome.
“You always hear about those horrible stories and never think they could ever happen to you,” said Barenborg before describing the day that changed it all. On October 10, 2013, Carson was visiting her friend Stephanie, a student at USC. The two girls grew up together as best friends in their hometown of Mercer Island, Washington. When Stephanie came to USC, Barenborg soon followed her friend to L.A. by transferring from the University of Colorado, Boulder to LMU. Being together in California has been a dream of theirs since high school.
There were so much chaos and excitement in the air just like any other USC football game day Stephanie mentioned. Carson remembers being overwhelmed with how crowded the fraternity house was upon arriving. There was a large dance platform where girls were already dancing. Carson and her two friends made it to the top of the platform for fresh air. In a flash, Carson was pushed off by a young female. Stephanie, a witness to the fall, says that the look the young girl gave Carson moments before the fall was pure evil. When Carson’s back was turned, she pushed her off.
The left side of Carson’s head landed with full impact on the concrete floor. Blood immediately began flowing from her head and out of her left ear. As crowds gathered around Carson, the girl responsible vanished and the booming music shut off. Blood and an unconscious young girl did not spark fear as much as the fear of getting in trouble for paraphernalia and underage drinking for the members of the fraternity. Because of this, it took around 20 minutes before someone stepped up and finally called 911. “I will never forget the feeling inside my stomach after the paramedic turned to me and asked me if Carson has always had facial paralysis. My heart sunk,” remembers Stephanie.
While elements of Carson’s case make her story unique, serious injuries and even death are more common at fraternity parties than one might think, as a young college student, she is one of many that suffer from brain injuries linked to fraternities. More than 60 students have died in the circumstances connected with fraternities, according to The Atlantic. According to The Brain Injury Association of California, in 2009, around 250,000 children under the age 20 and younger were treated for traumatic brain injuries in the US.
Carson’s older sister Kelsey, who was the first family member to get to the hospital, recalls the first moments she saw her little sister. “When I got there I broke down as soon as I saw her because I knew it was serious. I will never forget how I held her hand so tightly like she was going to disappear, sobbing and praying to a God I didn’t believe in to make everything alright. I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words the feelings I felt that night. It was the worst night of my life.”
Carson’s mother Kimberly was attending her weekly book club meeting at their home in Washington when she stepped outside to answer one of several phone calls. She had received around 7 o’clock p.m. she was notified that her youngest girl was gravely injured. Kimberly and her husband didn’t know how serious it was until later that night when they were able spoke to the neurosurgeon. “He told us if she survived past 2 a.m. then hopefully she would survive and be able to have surgery.” The doctor ended up being Carson’s surgeon for her seven-hour surgery on the Saturday morning after her accident.
The impact of the fall shattered her temporal bone which destroyed her eardrum and inner ear severing her facial nerves. Two days after the accident Carson went in for a nine-hour brain surgery. Metal disks were placed where the skull shattered, and her facial nerves were to be connected back together. She was transported to St. Vincent’s hospital where she spent two weeks being monitored. She was then released and privately transported to UW Medical Center in Seattle where the remainder of her intensive therapy would take place.
Carson recalls she slowly began to realize she was no longer an LMU sophomore living in Los Angeles but, a patient at a rehab facility in Seattle. With the permanent hearing loss in her left ear and severe facial paralysis, she remained hospitalized for a month before returning to her home in Mercer Island. For the next year, Carson endured several forms of therapy both physical and mental, as she continued to work, grow and heal.
“In a flash, your entire world can turn upside down and taken away from you,” Carson said. Between relearning how to talk, smile, balance, close her eyes, cook, shower, count money and other simple activities, Carson did not have time to look back and feel sorry for herself, instead she fought forward relentlessly to get back to her old self. Because of her lack of balance, she threw up almost every day for three months, “Imagine feeling hammered for three months straight” said Carson. In the beginning, the anger and frustration felt unbearable.
While the physical challenges were extraordinarily challenging, they didn’t come close to the emotional issues Barenborg faced on her long-term recovery, “The hardest part after my accident was my face and the insecurities I have had with my paralysis,” explains Carson. Relearning to do all the things people take for granted seems easy in comparison to relearning how to love yourself. Emotionally, she feels confident she has matured and transformed into a better human being. Coming back to LMU and facing healthy people her age was in many ways more frightening for Carson than the accident itself. Her frustration with her ear has turned into a reminder of how lucky she feels. Carson fell in the 5 percent of people who survive after shattering a temporal bone. Because Carson’s ear was shattered, the blood from her brain was able to be released which ultimately saved her life.
Kimberly said, “I think the hardest thing for Carson to deal with has been her face. To wake up and see that half your face is no longer moving because the nerve was entirely severed during the accident.” Carson’s mother feels that out of her three kids she is thankful this happened to Carson. She says this with love, knowing that Carson is the one that would be able to push through like she has. Her strength and spunky attitude had its impact in the healing process. Her sister recalls, “Even in the first night in the hospital she tried to fight her way out of her hospital bed. That’s just Cars.”
What often times seemed like an unbearable journey, this new path led her to realize how precious every moment is. “I learned to not take my health for granted. I used to take everything for granted. Being able to smile, hear in both ears, close my eyes at night, but now I know how this can all change in seconds”, Carson said. She went on to explain that at times she can feel vulnerable and insecure but, this has helped her focus on who she is internal, not externally.
Carson made adjustments in her circle of friends. She changed how she spend her free time. She created what is now a successful Instagram account tailored to females with facial paralysis titled “beauty with paralysis.” By posting advice, tips and sharing her experiences, she hopes to inspire and give comfort not just women with paralysis but those dealing with a range of insecurities. Although the account shares beauty tips, Carson feels strongly, “Inner beauty is the most important and girls my age must be reminded of this. I have to remind myself every day.”