Veteran Finds New Normal After Learning She Has Brain Injury

ANKENY, Iowa –It took years for one veteran to get the right diagnosis and find a path to her new normal.

You can tell Sonya Brekke enjoys her role at On With Life. "My job here is basically to make sure everybody gets to their appointment on time and gets in the right direction," she said.

With multiple degrees, she might be overqualified, but being a transporter at the brain injury rehabilitation center seems to be the perfect fit for the veteran. "I got in the military at 17 years old. I served 23 years, was deployed a couple different times," she said.

She served in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a Purple Heart for her service.  You can't see any scars, but she is a wounded warrior, initially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"During that time frame, I started forgetting words, forgetting days of the week. I would start swearing,” she said. “I've lost balance, and finally after several years, they figured out it wasn't PTSD. It was a brain injury."

After trying medication and then a program in Texas, she came to On With Life in Ankeny four months ago through the Supported Community Living Program, which helps persons served once they’ve left the center. Supported Community Living Specialist Hannah Joyce said, “We were able to tailor her goals to help her thrive in the best way she can in the community again."

Brekke works on balance and life skills three times a week with Joyce, doing activities like cycling and rock climbing. "All these little activities, they build up to this life she's formed post brain injury, and it's not less than what she had, it's just as full of a life. It just looks different," said Joyce.

Brekke started working at On With Life two months ago. Her role allows therapists to focus on sessions instead of schedules. It also helps her in her own recovery.  Director of Therapy Services Dave Anders said, "Now being surrounded, not just by therapy, a group of professionals, what she's going through, but also persons served. She's getting a lot of feedback and education to kind of help propel her forward in her life."

She works part time for now because she still deals with fatigue, but she hopes to have enough energy to work full time one day. She said, “Being able to realize that you can move forward and you don't have to be not able to work and be able to function like a normal person is really rewarding to me."

Brekke is also working to be advocate for people with brain injuries by letting people know even though they can't see wounds, people with brain injuries struggle daily with pain, balance, and behavior issues.