By Nicole Bellford
Eager to see familiar faces, family, and sleep in her own bed, Audrey Nelson made the familiar trip from Northwestern College in St. Paul to her home in Cornell, Wisconsin.
An icy patch of road near Highway 27 between Cadott and Cornell triggered a head on collision between the car that the 18-year-old college student rode in and another vehicle.
The crash, that fall of 1981, resulted in some minor burns, multiple joint and bone fractures in her foot, and worst of all: a depressed frontal lobe fracture; a serious brain injury that severely impacts the ability to think, plan, and focus at the rate of an average human being. Doctors predicted Nelson might never walk again, much less return to college.
It was then that Nelson adopted the motto: “Never say never, and never say always.” This mantra has been a pillar for Nelson’s success. She earned a college diploma and has pursued a career path dedicated to advocacy for fellow brain trauma victims.
A determined Nelson left the hospital weeks following the accident. She said that she worked tirelessly with physical therapists to gain enough strength to walk again.
By the following school year, Nelson walked into Schofield Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, tuition money in hand, and signed up for classes. Despite the fact that Nelson could barely read a couple pages of text without severe headaches and fatigue, she was ready to prove doctors wrong.
And prove them wrong, she did. Nelson graduated in 1986 with a degree in social work, hoping to harness her own experiences in an effort to help other brain trauma survivors.
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Nelson said. “I slept all the time, and never got any extra help. I didn’t understand that it was my disability that was impacting me at the time; I was frustrated but I never gave up.”
Nelson gained confidence throughout her collegiate years. She attended an Eau Claire brain injury support group at Sacred Heart Hospital that she continues to co-facilitate today. Her spirituality allowed her to persevere through tough times, she said.
“Some people get mad at God — they feel like they are being punished when bad things happen,” Nelson said. “But, it is what it is. In the end, it (hardship) only makes you stronger.”
The years following Nelson’s graduation were filled with a series of service jobs in the Eau Claire area, until she found her true calling with the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin and Reality Unlimited in 1995.
Nelson, 53, serves as the president of the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization with “a mission to serve individuals with acquired brain injuries as well as their families, and provide a full participation in life for the affected.”
Reality Unlimited, however, is a creation of Nelson’s own making. She founded the organization to provide shelter services for individuals who have experienced brain injury. Through the company, Nelson provides two houses for brain trauma victims in the Eau Claire area: the Mike Wilson House and the Bradley House.
Each house can hold up to six people at a time. Nelson explained that the environment for each individual varies, because company services are designed around individual needs and personal goals. Modification occurs for each person to maximize their abilities and community involvement.
Overall, Nelson said that the houses are meant to allow for people with a brain injury to experience a life uninterrupted by their disabilities.
Nelson’s list of involvement in the community does not stop there. She also is a part of the Long-Term Care Council for the State Department of Health Services, the Mayo Clinic Traumatic Brain Injury Model System Regional Advisory Board, and the Treatment Instead of Prison Task Force, JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope).
Nelson’s JONAH colleague, Mark Ruddy, can attest that she has left a lasting impact on the community.
“Audrey is a powerful, valuable resource to the community,” Ruddy said. “She is trusted, and loyal– she continually maintains high regards for others regardless of circumstance.”
While the Brain Injury Association of America reports that there are an estimated 2 million Americans who suffer from traumatic brain injuries on an annual basis, Nelson said she stands as an advocate to enhance the brain trauma community beyond that statistic.
Above all, Nelson said that her experiences have helped her develop a will to press on through adversity.
“If you want to get something done, then do it,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.”