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Making it back

Local writer, artist shares her experience with having a brain hemmorhage, recovery

Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008

At first glance, Juneau writer and artist Connie Tonsgard seems like any normal, charming, bubbly 58-year-old. Unfortunately, this congenial eBay seller once suffered a life-threatening brain hemmorhage from falling down her stairs.

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Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

"That was just the worst thing I had ever known in my life," Tonsgard said of her accident. "I hope that doesn't ever happen to anybody."

It was just before Christmas in 2006. After returning from shopping for her children, Tonsgard decided to go downstairs to watch a movie, "Fluke." Not wanting to wake her husband, who had to work the next day, Tonsgard kept the stairway lights off.

"I was just by myself, so I just thought: 'Well, I'll go down and get the three dogs, and they'll watch this thing with me,'" Tonsgard said.

That's when she fell.

"(My husband) didn't know," Tonsgard continued. "But I never woke up, I never woke up, I never woke up. So finally, I had to go up there (Harborview Medical Center in Seattle), and they told him, 'Sorry, we're not going to be able to help her. She's going to die pretty soon.'"

According to her husband Bill, Connie's blood clot was as big as a tennis ball.

"It was under the first layer," Bill said. "There's three thin layers that covers your brain. The blood clot was between the outer and the second layer, which was good, because it wasn't directly on her brain."

Luckily, Connie's doctors made a sudden decision to do surgery.

"I didn't know what to do, because they just said there was nothing they could do. I felt pretty helpless," Bill said. "But then (the doctors) came out and said they were going to do surgery, and two days later, she was standing up. I don't know why they changed their mind."

Connie described the dreadful experience.

"I didn't even know that I was anybody," Connie said. "It's all been really bad, because I just wanted to kill myself, just be dead. ... I had wished I was a bird and went everywhere else instead of where I was."

Bill, who spent a little over two months in the hospital by her side, said Connie started saying a few words after about a month. But the worst part about the experience was her fear and anxiety, he said.

"She knew what she wanted and what she had to do, but she couldn't express it," Bill said. "Everything I've read about people who've had these they say the same thing. They're sitting looking at a person and nothing comes. It's like, in your mind your talking but it's just coming out mumbo jumbo. So it really creates some anxiety for them."

According to Bill, who stayed with Connie 24/7 for about eight months, Connie could do routine daily tasks, such as eating and taking a shower.

"But she had anxiety really bad," Bill said. "She cried probably 70 percent of the time. And a read to her a lot of the time."

"My husband was with me forever," Connie said. "He was with me like a doctor. He was so wonderful for me. I don't think so many men would have helped their woman like he did for me."

In addition to fixing a fracture in her right wrist, which created nerve damage in two of her fingers, doctors had to remove part of the left half of her skull.

"This thing (pointing to her skull), they had to take the thing off," Connie said of missing her skull. "They went inside and I thought, 'Oh my god! They're going to give it to somebody else!' It was really terrible. I didn't look at myself because I knew I was so ugly. ... I had no hair. I thought if they would just give me back my thing, I would be able to think. Well, that wasn't true."

According to Bill, Connie had an infection for a while after doctors removed her skull, so they had to wait to put the bone back.

"A lot of it was creating a lot of anxiety, because there was nothing there," Bill said. "She had to wear a helmet, and it was just really unnerving to have no skull there."

Luckily, after about 7-8 months - and after testing to make sure her skull would grow back - Connie's doctors gave her skull back to her.

After returning home from her second trip to Harborview Medical Center, Connie recovered more quickly then, Bill said.

"It helped when she got back here, being around her stuff," Bill said. "When we got home, she started getting better more and more faster than down there in the hospital. ... She would start doing things and she'd start remembering this and that, just from seeing stuff she was familiar with."

But even at home, recovery was difficult.

"She'd go into her office and get frustrated and start crying," Bill added. "She knew there was something in there she used to do, but she didn't know what."

Before the accident, Connie was an avid writer, photographer and artist. About four years ago, she started writing her first two screenplays, and in 2007, she sent them out to various contests for review.

Connie won first place in The Writers Place February 2007-January 2008 Poetry Review, for her poem "Tapestry," and was The Writers Place finalist in June for her screenplay "The Nutcraker." She also won the 20/20 Screenwriting Contest in spring 2007 and was second place in the Woods Hole Film Festival's thriller/sci-fi category for her screenplay "The Raven's Treasure."

She also made semi-finalist for her three screenplays, "The Nutcraker," "The Raven's Treasure" and "A Death in Concord," in the 2008 Blazing Quill Screenwriting Competition.

The Jack Scagnetti Talent and Literary Agency, based in North Hollywood, Calif., also wrote Connie about marketing "The Raven's Treasure" as a TV movie, the couple said. But since receiving Scagnetti's original letter and responding to him, Connie has not heard back.

Also, in 1999, Connie helped her husband publish a children's book, "Willie & Sam," about Bill's childhood growing up in Southeast Alaska. She did the vibrant watercolor illustrations and he authored.

"See, I didn't even know I was a writer," Connie said about her passion. "I didn't know anything. I could not read. I still can't. I see my name, 'Connie.' That's about it. And then ... 'Thanks.'"

According to Bill, Connie didn't know she had written anything until about 10 months after the accident.

"She had no clue that she wrote her scripts," Bill said. "And then, when I read them several times, it was like three or four weeks later when she starting reading and writing. It kind of just started all of a sudden.

She had me reading her scripts to her. And I read them several times. And she started connecting with remembering what she'd written. For a long time, she couldn't believe she wrote them."

Connie still doesn't read fluently by herself, but with help from her computer program, which reads text to her, she can make corrections and small additions to current works.

"I can listen to the ones that I've already written," Connie said. "If I think it's just a little bit ehhh, then I'll change it a little bit, but only just two words."

Connie spends at least 12 hours a day on her computer, Bill said. Her relentless activities on eBay, as the login "practicemakspurrfectnew," keeps her busy.

"She also does all of our banking and everything," he said. "She's really maticulous. She always was. She's probably worse now."

Aside from eBay, Connie has a children's book in progress, which she started before the accident.

"She's talked about writing something new," Bill said. "She's told me stories pretty well. She just can't put them in words. It's like a checking account. She can go through and balance a checking account, pay bills, so she can do those kinds of things. It's just connecting the words with paper is difficult for."

Although she sometimes still gets frustrated, Connie's wrist and fingers seem to be healing, she said. After dreaming her hand was "turning a pretty color," Connie said her hand felt better the next day.

"It must have been the Lord as I was asleep," she said. "Maybe the Lord was somewhere."

Through it all, Connie and her husband have relied on family and friends for support, as well as their faith. And even they couldn't have predicted the conincidental significance of the scripture in their book: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things yet unseen" (Hebrews 11:1).

When asked what she would say to anyone who has gone through what she did, Connie showed her sincerest sympathy.

"I don't know. I would just say (while hugging her husband), 'It happened to me. You want me to pray for you?'" Connie said. "I would just tell them, 'Don't worry. It'll come back.' It did for me. It took a long time to come back to me - two years, almost three years. But you know, it'll come back."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at neighbors@juneauempire.com or 523-2272.



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