When Brianne Applegate rolls up her shirt sleeve, people are often surprised to see the tattoo on her forearm, which reads “II.I.MMVIII.”
Just like the Post-it notes that she now hangs around her room and the pain that still lingers, the 24-year-old Applegate wears the tattoo as a constant reminder of what happened that day – February 1, 2008. After hearing her story, you might just wonder how she could ever forget.
Applegate had recently transferred from Bucks County Community College’s nursing program to Rider University’s Fine Arts program. After practice on a rainy winter day, Applegate was driving home to New Hope, Pa., when she suddenly hydroplaned on the wet road and lost control of her car, which slid off the road and into a ravine. She remained unconsciousness for 45 minutes before she could get up to find help. She sustained frontal lobe damage to her brain, fractured the C2 vertebra in her neck, broke four ribs on her left side and punctured a lung.
“That was my new birthday, February 1, 2008,” explained Applegate about the day of the crash. “It changed me forever and ever. I’m a new person now.”
Applegate, who had to take a leave of absence from Rider, spent three weeks recovering at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa. and Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia before transferring to an aggressive rehabilitation program for cognitive therapy and occupational therapy at Kessler Institute in Chester, N.J., in April 2008.
Just two years later, if you were to meet Applegate, now a junior Fine Arts and Dance dual major, you might not even suspect that she had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Her positive outlook on life and her drive for success are infectious. Less than a year after the accident, Applegate started taking two independent study courses and eventually returned as a full-time student at Rider. She has been named an Andrew J. Rider scholar, awarded to University undergraduates with the top one percent of grade point averages, multiple times, and landed roles in three main-stage plays, including the recent production of the psychological thriller Bug. In addition, she traveled to Prague in January 2009 as part of her Arts Abroad class, and is also an active member of the Rider chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the national theater fraternity.
Still, for Applegate, the experience has not been easy. The accident has affected her short-term memory. She still cannot turn her neck all the way to the right and her vocal chords were damaged as well. And while she can sing, it’s very difficult and she feels her voice has changed.
“Ever since the accident, I have taken three steps back. I was 22 when it happened. It was frustrating to be an adult and having to start all over again,” she said. “I always was a person on the go. I never wrote anything down. The biggest setback for me was having to write everything down in order to remember.”
For example, while preparing for her roles in plays, Applegate rewrites each line. While studying for class, she writes information down on Post-it notes. Still, the wonders of the human mind never cease to amaze Applegate.
“Prior to the accident, I never read music when I played the piano. I only played by ear and composed my own compositions,” she said, while striking a note for music therapy. “When I came home from the hospital, I could remember my own music that I wrote.”
In the future, Applegate aspires to perform as an actress in New York. She would also like to pursue a career in music therapy in order to help people with disabilities. Applegate and her family have become involved with Brain Injury Association of New Jersey.
“It’s interesting because I went into nursing to help people, but I realized the field was not for me, so I decided to study theater,” Applegate said. “My time at Kessler has pushed me to go into that direction to help others affected by brain injuries. I met normal people, just like you and me, who had been in car accidents or were shot in the head. There were judges and police officers. It was a total sobering experience.”
For now, Applegate is looking ahead to this summer when she will begin auditioning for plays. She feels well prepared because of her professors in the Fine Arts department.
“I’m 24. I don’t feel I have wasted a lot of time, but I think it’s about time to get out there,” Applegate said. “Last summer, I was just relearning how to ride a bike.”
Still, Applegate enjoys what the present has to offer.
“I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned the value of family. Without my family, I would have died,” she said. “I take nothing for granted. Everything is an honor. Driving is an honor. Singing is an honor.”