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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Forgotten, but hardly lost

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: Features

As her eyes opened for the first time in four months, Tessa Venell ’08 had her very own Wizard in Oz moment. “Am I still in China?” she asked herself as she looked around, taking in the sight of several Asian hospital staff members and recalling her semester abroad.

It had been four months since that summer day that is non-existent in her memory, but that Venell will never forget. Four months since the day Venell had spent in pure bliss, wake boarding in her hometown of Acton, Maine. It had also been four months since the accident.

After a party, Venell had called it a night around 11:30 p.m. that July as she had to wake up early for work at an Elementary School the next morning. A day like any other, or so she thought.

“I feel like my life was so [perfect], but I’m sure there were problems then as well,” she said.

It was not until 2 a.m. that two locals found the headlights in the woods- and her- that night. With two years passed and plenty of perspective gained, Venell jokes now about just how she found herself in these woods.

“I joke all the time that it was a herd of gnomes that ran through the road that I swerved to get around,” she said. “But that’s silly,” she admitted with a smile in her eyes.

Rather than the gnomes Venell jokes about now, the skid marks near the scene of the accident, a grazing area, reveal that it was most likely an animal such as a moose or deer that caused the collision. A helicopter transported Venell to Maine Medical Center after the locals who found her in the woods called in the accident.

“Helicoptered, cool right?” she said, exhibiting her characteristic positive attitude.

After a five week stay in the Intensive Care Unit, Venell was off to Braintree for 100 days of inpatient rehab, and then off to about five months of outpatient rehab in Newington, New Hampshire. Waking up, like recovery, was a slow process. In fact, Venell remembers only the last month of inpatient rehab.

Venell’s was not a minor accident and neither were the injuries she sustained. Venell got “crushed up,” as she is fond of saying with unmistakable positivity. In addition to six broken bones, Venell’s most severe injury is a diffuse axonal brain injury. Sitting in the Heller Java City, Venell, who returned to China this summer to film a movie about the environmentalist movements there, explained with no inhibitions that this is similar to shaken baby syndrome. The injury itself comes from rapid acceleration and deceleration, stretching the axons.

Even now, the summer and semester leading up to the accident is patchy in Venell’s mind. She can remember the last month of her inpatient hospital stay, but that leaves four months of fogginess and confusion, as she recalled.

“All the information is still there, it just needs to be reconnected. So that makes it easier as well as frustrating because [I sometimes] think ‘I know how to do this, why can’t I do it’ or like ‘I know I know this piece of information, why can’t I access it?’” Venell explained.

But Venell can now better recall what her life was like before the accident. An International and Global Studies (IGS) major on the Global Environmental track, Venell took many conservation-type classes. Out of the classroom, Venell was close to many students in her grade and worked for the Escort service first as a driver, then as a coordinator. Venell was also an avid runner, something that changed after her accident because of the injuries she had sustained.

During inpatient recovery, Venell was thankful that her parents had placed her in Braintree since it was easily accessible for friends to visit her. The presence and support of these encouraging reminders of a past life her mind had trouble accessing helped Venell in her recovery. But even though she was experiencing multiple physical injuries, it was something else that was also making recovery more difficult—what might have been. Missing her senior year, losing that last hurrah with her closest friends was quite difficult.

This past year (’07-’08), Venell returned to Brandeis to finish up the senior year she had missed out on the year before. While excited to finish her year, going back this time around was a bit different. Back at Brandeis, many things had changed, Venell herself included. Friends had graduated and moved on, but one thing remained the same–Branvan.

“I feel like Escort was the thing for me that was the same. Friends were not here, classes were more difficult. Like what I could do really well was answer the phones for the Branvan,” she said.And though Venell made friends this past year, her priorities had definitely shifted. “I was really here to do work and to finish school,” she explained.

That first semester back, she took it slow and enrolled in two classes, auditing a third. Taking a class in Behavioral Neurobiology last semester, Venell was able to better understand what had really happened to her as a result of the accident and she is now considering writing a book about her experiences following the accident, and how her perspective on life has changed.

“I’m still looking for the connections between my own coursework and this accident all the time and I mean if I can find a connection there, I’m golden. And I’m flirting with an idea that’s kind of connected tangentially but I’m not sure if I can really make it solid. We’ll see. I feel like there are connections,” she said.

Applying what life lessons her accident and her studies at Brandeis taught her to her personal relationships and her work is something Venell takes very seriously. Her experiences have also taught Venell to hold close those people that are truly there for you, and to realize how lucky we are if only to have a few close friends. Because, like the saying goes, quality is better than quantity. Venell’s priorities have also changed. “I’m really kind of independently valuing things and prioritizing and if things are not worth it, my time is limited I’m realizing,” she said. “You know, I wasn’t planning on being crushed up when I got crushed up but it happened, you know? So we should I think prioritize and be mindful at times.” If there is one thing Venell’s past experiences have taught her, it is certainly that seeing the good in any situation is key to happiness. This past summer, Venell did just that and put her IGS education to good use, traveling to Beijing to film a movie about the environmental movement there as it is connected to the Olympics.

“I’m interested in the way that international attention has forced Beijing to clean up its act and we’re wondering about whether that is going to be sustainable after all of the attention is gone; is Beijing going to stay clean or what? We think it’s a pretty exciting project. I love to think and talk about it. It’s great,” she said.

During the month of August, Venell traveled to Beijing with her cameraman and Brandeis alumnae Jeff Arak ’07 to shoot a film about the emerging environmental movements in Beijing.Though there is much negative publicity about China and also about pollution levels, Venell‘s experience in Beijing this summer reinforced her belief that there is a growing environmentalist movement towards real positive change. Venell witnessed an overwhelming willingness to share thoughts on this positive movement during her time in Beijing this summer and only one person backed out of an interview.

Venell’s interest in environmentalism somewhat dates back to a paper she wrote while here at Brandeis and she says seeing her ideas “reinforced in a positive way” has been rewarding. To navigate the sea of negative media surrounding China, some media literacy and skepticism is essential to discovering the truth about what’s really going on in China, Venell believes.

“People should use their heads and use some discretion when they read things or when they see things. It’s all the same news [sources] which makes it look like it’s all the same so it’s got to be right, but I think that the media kind of [overemphasizes the negative],” she said.So people should not be “swayed by all the negative views about China because there’s so much going on there that needs to be given a chance,” Venell said.

A few weeks and 23 hours of interviews later, and Venell is deep into the editing process. Brandeis alumnae Daniel Duffy ’07 is making the score for the film. Venell hopes to finish the film by early spring of 2009. Those wishing to learn more about the project should visit Recalling her time abroad in China during the fall of ’05, Venell marvels at just how cool it really was to go back this summer. “It’s kind of a cool idea that I decided in 2005 that I wanted to come back, I got crushed up, and still I [went] back, that’s awesome.”

And the full circle Venell has made since that night two years ago is visible too. Before her accident, Venell, an avid runner, had competed in many road races and was training for her first 10K. Her injuries changed all that, though, and Venell had been unable to run since her accident. While in Beijing one day, Venell and Arak were hurrying to catch a bus they were very close to missing. If they missed the bus, though, they would also miss a very important and exciting meeting. So Arak ran ahead of a quickly walking Venell. Not to be left behind, though, Venell did what she had not done since her accident–she ran.