When Bad Things Happen to Good Kids

A day on which a life changes forever always begins as ordinary – so ordinary that thereafter, daily life is a deliberate celebration.

Carolyn Roy-Bornstein writes about an ordinary day gone awry in her new memoir “Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude.” In her engrossing narrative, Bornstein divides her life “into two unequal parts. A line, like a crack in the glass, which carves time and events into two: those that occurred before the crash and those that tumble and falter in its wake. There is the one moment after which nothing is the same. It occurs in a heartbeat.”

And so begins Roy-Bornstein’s extraordinary account of the minutes, hours and days following her son Neil’s accident with a teenage drunken driver. On the night of Jan. 7, 2003, 17-year-old Neil and his girlfriend, Trista, set off on foot for the short walk between his house and Trista’s. The driver who ran down the two of them sped away from the scene. Neil survived the accident. Trista did not. Nine years later Roy- Bornstein garnered enough perspective to tell the story of the accident that changed her family’s life with humanity and love.

Roy-Bornstein, a pediatrician practicing on Boston’s North Shore, demonstrates her gifts as a writer as she unfurls one of the illuminating quotes that introduce the book: “We must embrace pain and burn it for fuel for our journey.” In a recent interview with the Jewish Advocate, Roy-Bernstein pointed out that she and her family burned gallons of emotional fuel, particularly during the immediate aftermath when “[t]here was something called temporal lobe agitation,” said Roy-Bornstein, “which occurs in many brain-injured patients where they can become very disinhibited, very irritable and act in ways that are totally not like them.”

Neil, a shy and contemplative young man, uncharacteristically lashes out at his mother as both his parent and a doctor. This brings the reader to a poignant quote that gets to the heart of Roy-Bornstein’s story: “No amount of doctoring can prepare you for being a patient.”

She elaborates that “even though I knew it was [Neil’s] injury talking, that was very painful to go through. Months later I found him reading my diary at the dining room table. Before I could decide whether to ask him to stop or let him continue, he looked up at me and said, ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you in the hospital, Mom.’”

Roy-Bornstein’s memoir makes it very clear that first and foremost, she is a mother to Neil and her older son, Dan. And she tilts at windmills during her encounters with the healthcare system. Her frustrations are memorably dramatized in a chapter titled “He’s Gonna Be Just Fine.” Roy-Bornstein recalls, “When we were in the ER at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, we were told by the emergency room physician that Neil was ‘gonna be just fine.’ But that has not been our experience. Almost 10 years later he still sees a therapist, suffers from anxiety and has petitioned the disabilities office at his graduate school program for a distraction free environment for test taking.”

Roy-Bornstein notes that even as a physician she was unaware of the subtle long-term effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI). After Neil’s accident, she educated herself about TBI and over the years has become a de facto ambassador for the Traumatic Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. Her role includes educating other health care professionals as well as the general public about TBI. Roy-Bornstein’s advocacy on behalf of TBI patients and their families also extends to education about concussions: “I’m trying to get the word out about concussion and its long-term effects on kids. In July of 2010, Massachusetts instituted new guidelines for public, middle and high school students that require coaches who suspect a concussion in their student-athlete to sit them out for the rest of the game or practice. We’re trying to change the culture in youth sports and the old mantra of ‘If you can walk, you can play’ to ‘When in doubt, sit them out.’” Roy-Bornstein has shared her expertise on the subject on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” and on the lecture circuit where she educates healthcare professionals and social workers about concussion and traumatic brain injury. “It’s become my passion,” she says.

Roy-Bornstein’s passions also include advocating for victim’s rights and health issues related to teens and drinking.

“When the accident occurred there was a lot of chatter in the media about under-aged drinking and drunk[en] driving,” she notes. “A vocal minority of parents stuck by their practice of letting their teens and their friends drink in their home, believing that they were keeping them safe by taking away their keys. But even if kids aren’t drunk[en] driving they’re still drunk.”

And as Roy-Bernstein knows all too well, “Bad things happen to good kids and drunk[en] kids.”

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