Hayden Leigh Erceg was working on her family ranch in 2009 when she fell and broke her neck.
Temporarily paralyzed and unable to remember her family or many other things, Erceg began the long road to recovery from a brain injury.
After many doctors appointments and meetings with neurological specialists, Erceg slowly began to recover, learning new skills and taking up new hobbies, like painting, that she had never done before.
Years later, Erceg has formed a brain injury support group to help those with brain injuries and disorders navigate the resources available to them in the area.
“This town did not have a brain injury support group,” said Erceg, who lives in Hayden. “You'd be surprised at the amount of need.”
Working with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado, Erceg formed the group this spring, drawing in guest speakers and presenters to talk with a few regular attendees.
The group meets from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. the last Friday of each month at the Hayden Public Library, 201 E. Jefferson Ave.
Speakers have included doctors and those specializing in alternative medicine, including acupuncture, aromatherapy and hypnosis.
“There's really a big need for it. People are struggling every day,” Erceg said.
Erceg found it difficult to find resources when she was recovering, prompting her to start the support group, said Jerry Van Voorst, peer support outreach coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence.
“She didn't really have an advocate when she was recovering, and the group, it really teaches people to advocate for themselves,” Van Voorst said.
Van Voorst helps Erceg facilitate the groups and said they usually have about seven to eight people attend.
“It's a rural area, and there are people with brain injuries here,” Van Voorst said. “It's important for them to be able to network with each other.”
The Northwest Colorado Center for Independence is an organization that works to empower those with disabilities to live independently.
Van Voorst helps to coordinate transportation for people interested in attending the brain injury support group. He can be reached at 970-620-3897.
Support groups can be invaluable to the participants, said Liz Gerdeman, outreach and education director for the BIAC.
“Research has shown that listening and being able to relate to someone has a profound effect on their recovery,” Gerdeman said. “A lot of the time, the support group is the only time these people get out, so the support groups are really valuable.”
Erceg's is one of 60 brain injury and stroke support groups overseen by the BIAC, an organization that offers support, information and resources to those suffering from brain injuries as well as their family, friends and caregivers.
Gerdeman said many of the support groups are facilitated by people like Erceg who have experienced their own brain injury.
According to the BIAC, traumatic brain injuries — those sustained from a sharp blow to the head or penetrating injury that disrupts the function of the brain — happen to 1.7 million people in the United States each year.
In Colorado, almost 5,000 are hospitalized and 1,000 die each year from traumatic brain injuries.
Gerdeman said that after a brain injury, someone's personality and character can change.
In the nearly four years since Erceg's accident, she has taken up painting, dancing and other activities she never participated in before.
She said the support group offers a place for others who have undergone brain injuries to talk about their experiences and get to know one another.
“It's important for the public to have some place to go,” Erceg said. “Sometimes people just need to talk.”
To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @TeresaRistow