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Downey Therapy Center Gives Hope : The Slow Road Back From Brain Injury

September 13, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

Daniel Graham got there after he ran his motorcycle into the center divider of the San Bernardino Freeway. Frank Braico made it after the car in which he was riding careened off the road and slammed into a mountainside.

Julian Paniagua's path was different; a jealous boyfriend smashed a liquor bottle over Paniagua's head, kicking and hitting him after he fell to the ground.

All three ended up at the Jan Berry Center for the Brain Injured in Downey, and now spend their days together trying to slowly recover the skills that were lost after a crashing blow to the head.

The center opened its doors in January and now has eight clients. There is no charge, a godsend for the injured whose insurance coverage has run out or those who were never covered by insurance.

"Most of them (centers for the brain-injured) charge $400 a day for what we're doing here," said Charlotte Bly-Magee, programs administrator for Southern California Rehabilitation Services Inc., the nonprofit corporation that runs the center.

The center uses what Bly-Magee calls a "non-traditional, fine arts approach" to stimulate the brain and help victims recover.

Most of the clients were comatose for months following their accidents. They already have undergone extensive hospital-based therapy before they find their way to the center for further rehabilitation to recover lost skills, a process that can take years.

Brain injuries frequently result in loss of sight and hearing as well as paralysis. Other possible problems are loss of concentration and memory, difficulty learning new tasks, difficulty thinking abstractly and strong mood swings, according to experts in the field. Those functional problems can be permanent or temporary. Most clients at the center take medication to prevent seizures, another common side effect of brain injuries.

"When you come out of a coma, your brain's pretty much erased," Bly-Magee said.

While the center provides exercise time, it does not concentrate on physical rehabilitation. Instead, it works on developing cognitive skills, as well as speech and socialization. If sufficiently improved, clients go on to seek jobs or job training elsewhere.

The center, open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, operates in Room 107 of Downey's Apollo Neighborhood Center. The room is equipped with personal computers, a piano, an aquarium, an exercise bicycle, a rowing machine and a Ping-Pong table.

One day recently, the group started the morning discussing current events, and then listened to a tape of "The Illustrated Man." They then fashioned figures from modeling clay to be donated to a convalescent home at Christmas time. Later, some of the clients learned basic operations on a personal computer.

"The brain is stimulated by interesting things, not repetitive things," Bly-Magee said.

The center carries the name of Jan Berry, who along with Dean Torrence, pioneered surf music in the 1960s as Jan and Dean.

Berry suffered serious brain injury in 1966 when he lost control of his speeding Corvette and slammed into the back of a parked truck. Berry still has some speech problems and is partially paralyzed on his right side, but he has resumed his musical career on the concert circuit, Bly-Magee said.

Singers Help Fund Center

It was Berry's interest in helping other brain-injury patients that led to his association with the center, Bly-Magee said. The fund-raising efforts of Berry and Torrence, along with state and federal grants, account for the center's $100,000 annual operating budget, she said.

The center uses art and music in therapy, emulating activities that helped Berry recover lost skills.

"Jan's recovery has largely depended on his music," Bly-Magee said.

The center also tries to encourage clients to enjoy life. The physical and mental disabilities that often result from serious brain injury can leave patients with feelings of inadequacy. Patients also may feel guilty if their injuries were the result of an alcohol or drug-related accident, said Dan Davis, activities coordinator.

"The most positive thing we do here is laugh," Davis said. "Here I try to get them away from their disability. They need to learn to have fun."

Laughing was difficult for Graham after his 1982 motorcycle accident. The 35-year-old La Habra resident was in a coma about three months. Graham, who holds a master's degree in public administration, said he was on his way to work as manager of a recycling plant when the accident occurred. Like many people who suffer brain injuries in road accidents, he had been drinking beforehand.

Graham says he can walk, but spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. He lost some of his vision and has to struggle to speak. But he is quick to smile. His goal is to resume a productive life.

"I want to work with my wife" who opened a travel agency in 1986, he said.

Right Side Paralyzed

Braico, a 29-year-old Downey resident, was 19 when he smashed into the mountainside near Big Bear with a carload of friends. Alcohol and drugs were involved, he said.

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