Brain-Injured Student Hitting Books in N.H. Doctoral Program

Brain-Injured Student Hitting Books in N.H. Doctoral Program

News Nov 28, 2012

Nowadays, Neil Bornstein is immersed in a doctoral program in mathematics education at the University of New Hampshire.

His mother, Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, noted during an interview the other day that the program is rigorous. Her son is struggling, but working very hard and earning straight A's.

"We have to drag him out to eat to get him away from his books," Dr. Roy-Bornstein said with a gentle laugh.

Then she added, "If you met him you would not think anything was amiss."

Neil has traveled a rocky path to overcome a brain injury that caused short-term memory loss, as well as chronic anxiety and depression. Dr. Roy-Bornstein, a native of Oxford who attended the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has detailed the psychological and physical pain that her son endured and has gradually accommodated in a vivid new memoir, "Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude" (Skirt! 214 pp.).

The ordeal began when Neil and his girlfriend, Trista Zinck, were walking beside a road in Newburyport, headed toward her home on a cold January night in 2003. The two were struck by a teenage drunk driver who fled the scene. Trista died of a massive head injury.

At first, Neil appeared to have escaped with a badly hurt leg. In the emergency room, he greeted his mother by saying, "Hi Mom." Dr. Roy-Bornstein was filled with relief. That changed moments later when Neil repeated the words as if he was seeing her for the first time. She became even more fearful when her son could not stay awake. A CAT scan revealed a fractured skull and bleeding in the brain.

In her book, Dr. Roy-Bornstein recounts the accident and its aftermath from the perspective of a devoted mother who is also a pediatrician. At a Boston hospital, a trauma specialist told her, "Just looked at your boy. Don't worry. He's gonna be just fine."

"Even experts, they meant it and believed it," Dr. Roy-Bornstein said. "They just don't see those subtle, long-term, almost unapparent effects of brain injury."

With her medical background, she soon understood that Neil was not going to be "just fine." Still, it took her a while to recognize that his ongoing depression was organic, rather than solely connected to the death of his girlfriend.

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Today, she said, she feels humbled by how little she knew about brain injury back then. She is now an ambassador for the Massachusetts Brain Injury Association and often speaks to audiences ranging from young people to health care professionals.

When Neil returned to high school, he was on crutches and in pain from the leg injury; his emotions and his mental state were shaky. Dr. Roy-Bornstein made certain that special arrangements were in place. For instance, Neil was exempted from midterm exams for medical reasons. "None of us knew at this point how Neil's brain injury would affect his abilities. Neil, who had gotten a perfect 800 on his math SATs, would now need extra help, modifications and accommodations to finish the school year," she wrote.

Neil went on to Skidmore College but continued to struggle with debilitating depression. One night, Dr. Roy-Bornstein was so worried that she jumped in her car and drove more than four hours to Skidmore, in upstate New York, to be sure he was OK.

Her son had always wanted to teach. After graduating from Skidmore, he was thrilled to land a job at a school in Vermont. But he was not asked back because he was too depressed.

Dr. Roy-Bornstein said that writing the memoir was "like scratching scabs off a wound every day." Yet she needed to do it, in part because she felt guilt at grieving over what her son had lost while knowing that Trista's parents would never see their daughter again. Telling her story helped her gain control over what happened, she said.

The memoir reveals Dr. Roy-Bornstein's myriad ties to Central Massachusetts. She and her husband, Saul, lived for many years in Worcester, where both Neil and their older son, Dan, were born. She was a nurse at several Worcester hospitals. She attended Clark University for her pre-medical education before going on to UMass Medical School. The family moved to Newburyport after she completed her training. She now has a private pediatric practice with a partner and, she noted, they even make house calls.

The Bornsteins do not expend much energy thinking about the teenager who hit Neil and Trista, although they have attended all the court and parole hearings. The driver went to jail and is now in a halfway house. He was not paroled earlier this year, contrary to the expectations of the victims' families. He has shown no remorse. When asked why he should be released, he replied, "So I can get on with my life."

"I made the decision a long time ago that I couldn't let what happened to him determine my life and my happiness," Dr. Roy-Bornstein said. "If he feels remorse and decides to do something meaningful in his life, that would be great. But that isn't something I have any control over."

Ultimately, she said, her story is one of loss. Yet her family has moved from grief to grace in accepting the way things are now. Neil continues to see a therapist for his anxiety, and he petitioned the disabilities office at the University of New Hampshire to be allowed more time to take exams.

"I was proud of that," Dr. Roy-Bornstein said. "Ten years ago, I was petitioning the high school. He's really taken that on. When I asked him what gave him the idea, he said, `It was your book, Mom.'"

Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, author of "Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude"

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 27

Where: Worcester Jewish Community Center, 633 Salisbury St., Worcester

How much: Free. Book signing and dessert reception follow presentation.

Copyright 2012 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc.All Rights Reserved

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