Sophia Bouwens, L.Ac of JADA Studios
Sophia was hit by a drunk driver in March of 2015.
Within six months after graduating acupuncture school, I was hit by a drunk driver in March of 2015. I sustained a number of serious injuries: I was in a coma for six days and in the hospital for a month. Part of that was I sustained a diffuse axonal traumatic brain injury, which was so bizarre to wake up in the hospital having the background I had in neuroscience, with now an actual injury of the brain. So I was experiencing what I had studied for so long.
In this two-part interview Sophia shares her personal story of recovery. She specifically talks about what she did differently at the hospital for her recovery.
My story starts in undergraduate when I was studying to go to medical school. I wanted to learn to help people, to heal their bodies, just to feel better about where they were going or what they were doing. As I did some investigating I found, what I saw medical school, going to medical school starting to look like was more helping with acute care or disease management, rather than trying to figure out how to heal somebody from the inside out. Not that that's what medical school is about, but that was my perception from the early stages. I wanted to get less into, like, surgeries and saving lives, and more about helping lives thrive.
And what I was seeing in the medical field at the time was more about surgeries and acute care, disease management, which is much-needed work, but I felt like that wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
So, I found acupuncture on that journey. I was studying neuroscience at the time and so I started thinking, maybe I'll study acupuncture from a neuroscience perspective because no one can tell me what acupuncture is doing to the body. I could talk about qi and blood and all these things, but what is that? And clearly, it's probably using the nervous system to make changes in the body. So, I got really excited about investigating that and proving it from a neuroscience perspective, what was happening.
What I found as I was doing this study in 2009 on pain and acupuncture was that we can measure that acupuncture would have an effect and it would make a change, but we couldn't understand why. And there was no research at the time that was well established to really talk about the mechanism behind acupuncture. And I realized I was excited to, kind of, find out what the mechanism was. In order to find out what it was, I needed to go to learn about acupuncture itself to find out what they were talking about when they were talking about qi and just learned this new paradigm that was really accurate. I could measure it in a lab or see the results of it, but I couldn't tell you the physiology of it. And so I went to school for acupuncture.
Sophia became a licensed Acupuncturist in 2014.
Within six months after graduating acupuncture school I was hit by a drunk driver in March of 2015.
Part 2: Sophia was hit by a drunk driver in March 2015.
I sustained a number of serious injuries: I was in a coma for six days and in the hospital for a month. Part of that was I sustained a diffuse axonal traumatic brain injury, which was so bizarre to wake up in the hospital having the background I had in neuroscience, with now an actual injury of the brain. So I was experiencing what I had studied for so long.
Sophia was fortunate to be able to combine Acupuncture with Western Medicine to help her recovery.
As a part of my recovery, I had an arsenal of acupuncturists come to my rescue to give me treatments right away. So not only was I experiencing the traumatic brain injury from the neuroscience standpoint, but I was also seeing the power of acupuncture and, a more broadly, Chinese medicine use, to help in that recovery and it was profound for me. I was really fortunate to have a position where I was able to have both worlds kind of come to my aid, and also the knowledge within me stayed there. So I was able to, kind of, utilize the knowledge and I was able to navigate things that I don't think the average person is able to navigate. I had surgeries avoided, I have scars not present on my body because I knew this knowledge and I had the ability to help myself rehab.
Sophia’s background in Neuroscience and Traditional Chinese Medicine had a BIG impact in Sophia’s recovery.
My recovery was a long one, I was pretty in, I hope no viewer ever has to go to where the place I was because it was a really hard one to be in. But I was in the hospital, and I was, I had my jaw break on both sides so I had my mouth wired shut. So I was on this liquid diet and they were feeding me through a feeding tube, and the feeding tube was made of like a dairy based liquid. My body doesn't do well with dairy, I have a sensitivity to it where it causes my body to produce a lot of phlegm. From a Chinese medicine standpoint, that makes perfect sense for me. But from the outside standpoint, that's kind of a known thing that dairy can cause phlegm, but the mechanism behind or the weight behind that notion isn't always as well known.
So, I was also, I was getting fed this dairy based diet through this tube. I was also having all this phlegm accumulation and not able to cough up very well and so, because my mouth was wired shut, they were really concerned it was going to obscure my breathing and I was not going to be able to breathe. So they were scheduled to put a trach in me so that my breathing tube can stay open. I just kept trying to advocate for them, like, I promised I could start to cough it, or I wouldn't have this phlegm, if you just wouldn't feed me dairy! They were very concerned about the protein I'd be getting and how I'd be getting my nutrients. I just said there's other nutrient possibilities besides dairy for protein and a more balanced place. Let me give you the examples I would use because these, often, these are going to serve my body much better than this dairy based formula you have me on. I remember, it was like an hour before they were going to place a trach. And so I had an acupuncturist come and she just did an acupuncture massage on a point that was to open the lung and help me start expelling phlegm in particular, and I started coughing right away and I got all this phlegm expelled. And the doctor was really amazed by this and kind of skeptical of it, but kept doing it. Every time I needed to get this phlegm to come out I would push this point and I would start coughing. And so I avoided a trach. I got them, convinced them to let me start feeding myself a liquid diet and change the plan that I had, gave them the nutrient components of what I wanted to use and they agreed. And so I don't have a scar across my neck because of the knowledge I knew from Chinese medicine more broadly, but even that acupuncture point is like one that's very dear to my heart now.
The Trailhead Health team was so touched by Sophia’s story and her willingness to openly talk about it, that we went back to learn more.
Part 3: Sophia shared some more amazing ways she enhanced her recovery.
So, the therapies I got, like the conventional therapies I had which helped me learn how to walk again, I did physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. So I learned how to talk again, how to shower again, how to dress myself again. I really did have to learn all these things because I didn't know, my connection to my body was so different from the injury that my brain had sustained, that I wasn't sure how to dress or how to move my arm so I could get it through my sleeve or just coordinate movements, coordinate thoughts that, those had to happen in those therapies, so they were tremendous. And I was very, I was well helped by them quite a bit. What acupuncture did for me within that was help me maximize the efforts I was putting forward in therapy. So when I was doing occupational therapy and I was having a hard time coordinating my thoughts, I was getting acupuncture. And the acupuncture treatments were helping coordinate a part of my brain called the cerebellum, which is important for coordinating movement, speech patterns, and it can help coordinate thought patterns as well. And when I was getting acupuncture, I remember the feeling of having acupuncture go over the cerebellum and to really stimulate blood flow to the cerebellum or that part of the brain, that I would wake up feeling, just so different and kind of more awake and more, I can't explain how it was but it was like, “oh. I'm here now. I can get this.” This connection was coming back. And I would see in my therapies, my speech patterns would change. They'd get more solid and be able to have more tone back in my voice. My movements as I was going through therapy would be more coordinated, I had better balance, and yes, it was because I was working on them physically in physical rehabilitation, but I would also feel the effects of acupuncture when I was getting acupuncture and then going to therapy and had a really changed pattern. So they were in conjunction, working together.
What was your frequency of acupuncture? So when you, I'm guessing you were scheduled to go see a physical therapist twice a week or every day, I'm not sure of the schedule, but how did how did acupuncture fit into that? Did you do acupuncture before you did physical therapy or occupational therapy or speech therapy, or did you do it after? What was the way that you incorporated it?
Acupuncture wasn't a prescribed part of my plan in the hospital, it was because of the connections I have and the friends I have who are fellow acupuncturists and practice Chinese medicine that they would come to the hospital. I remember, they'd have to, kind of, keep it secret from the hospital staff because they couldn't actually have permission to do acupuncture when I was an inpatient. But the nursing staff would say, you know, we are going to just leave the room for an hour and we won't interrupt you, and what happens behind closed doors we don't know. So they kind of gave their blessing in a roundabout way which was wonderful that we had that staff, and just a really great staff at Regions that could help us with that. Now, Regions has acupuncture in the hospital, so it's really interesting that that shift has taken place. It's on different floors but it wasn't available as part of my prescribed treatment plan at the time.
And just as my regular treatments, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, those were really heavy at first. So at first I was going every day, sometimes maybe twice a day. You'd have to be careful not to over stimulate me because I was in this state of, really, a fragile nervous system and so overstimulation was something that they were very aware of. But it would be some kind of therapy or maybe multiple therapies every day, and then it started to taper down to maybe three times a week. Then I was released and I would go twice a week to outpatient therapy. Acupuncture was really similar, had kind of a similar tapering schedule. When I was in my fragile neurologic state, a little bit of acupuncture would do a lot more and be really sensitive, so you couldn't over stimulate it. So, and then I was getting it several times a week, like three or four [times], sometimes every day, depending on who was coming to visit me and how often we could schedule it with the friends who were coming to give me this secret of acupuncture. And then as I was released it’d be more twice a week, and then once a week, and I still get acupuncture fairly regularly to help with recovery and just overall maintenance of things. But I don't, the treatment plan was similar to, kind of, what you would expect from conventional therapies.
That’s great. Did your conventional therapist know that you were doing this other stuff and did they have any experience with it? Were they encouraging of it? Did they say that we feel like you're recovering a lot faster? Was there some sort of a sentiment from them that you can share?
I'd say that the therapists were all really excited, all really interested. Not very many of them knew about it or knew what it could do or what it would do. They were, I didn't have one person that wasn't really interested when I would share my experience or where it was going. They’d all say, like, oh we should do that here, we should really talk to them to get them to get that therapy here, and I'm working on that now. But it was, I think, all around my whole medical team as far, like my surgeons, my primary doctor who was on supervision for my case, the nurses around, the physical, every therapist was astounded by how fast I recovered. So, when I was first in they thought I was going to be in the hospital for months, maybe up to a year. They weren't sure what life would look like afterwards, but they were really preparing my family for a long-term change. I was in and out of the hospital in a month, to the day. So they, they were very surprised by that and there's many factors for that. Brain injury isn't, oh it's for sure going to take this long. It's not cut and dry. But I think all around my whole medical team was really surprised by my progress.
That's amazing. So… you get into this accident, you're in a coma for six days, and you wake up and you sustained a brain injury. You have no idea how to walk or speak or write or learning to just be able to put on clothes some things that we take for granted. You find out you have a broken leg. When I just even imagine what you would have gone through, the thought of you being out of there in one month, it's just nothing short of a miracle.
It was quite remarkable.
I’m just really impressed that that happened. And it's amazing that you attribute it to the knowledge and the efforts of combining traditional, traditional Chinese and Western medicines. Pretty amazing.
Your physical therapist or occupational therapist, they were encouraging of acupuncture and acupressure, but maybe weren't as knowledgeable in those, including your speech therapist, but encouraged it. What was your MD’s reaction when, when he or she went through this, this decision process of not putting, not putting the tube in you and allowing you to try a different kind of protein-based product? What was their reaction before and after as you were going through this with them?
I had a really interesting supervising physician. I had several physicians for different things and depending on the physician, they’d be more open to it or less open to it. I remember my neurosurgeon was very open to it. My supervising doctor was very, kind of, old-school in her way of practice. She, I think she has a reputation in the hospital for being more along those lines of that, so she was very skeptical of any intervention we had. I remember my husband had to, like, really advocate pretty hard and be really firm with some things which was stressful-we're already in this very stressful situation and here we have to step forward and put our foot down and not just like suggest it, but really say like no actually we're doing this. Which, felt uncomfortable because you don't want to be in a place where you're putting someone in a professional situation and on their ‘defense’ either, and we didn't want to override our respect for her because we do have a lot of respect for her knowledge, but we also needed to really advocate really strongly for this. And she eventually kind of started saying, like, okay I'll give you this parameter to work with and if it doesn't work then, you can't do it, we're going to do it my way. So I'll give her, like, she was really helpful for that. And so then we were just like okay here's our chance, we’ve got to do it. And every time she receded and it's like, oh. You did it. Like, okay, guess it worked that time. So it was interesting how she wasn't very open to it, but we pushed hard and we're really well versed in the understanding that your physicians are there to help you. And we knew when they were helping us and when their advice was actually counterproductive for us because we knew our body.
Which gets me to one of, like, the five key components I think were huge for my recovery, were these and I'll say them. So the first one is, I knew my body. I knew how it worked, I knew how it didn't work. I knew what it liked, what it didn't like, what it responded well to, I just knew it inside out. And every body is different, right? So I knew that as well. What works well for this person might not work well for me because of the way my body operates.
Second one was I worked really hard to eat really good food. I realized what I put into my body can be huge for my recovery or it can be a barrier to my health and well-being. It can either decrease inflammation or increase inflammation. So I worked really hard to advocate for good food for me, to be able to put things into my body that were going to be beneficial for my healing. My third one, I would say, was I really worked hard to hydrate really well. I think dehydration has a really systemic effect on your whole body. It's similar to a plant so if you have a plant that isn't hydrated very well, it's not going to grow and thrive very big. It's not going to get green, it's going to start to wilt and, kind of, not do very well. If you hydrate it at the right capacity and you give a little bit more water, it will help it grow, it will get more vibrant, it’ll have better color, it will start to flower more. Our bodies are the same. We're seventy percent water. Every single cell in our body needs water, so hydration is huge with nutrition. I think nutrition gets a big focus, we forget about the water. We need to hydrate well.
The third thing I would say is I slept really well. I really strongly, Tyler more than me, advocated for my rest. We would tell, physicians not so much because they would only come once or twice a day, but therapists who were coming to check my blood pressure, or they wanted to see if I had a meal ordered yet, he would stand at the door and say you cannot come in now, she's sleeping. You can come back in half an hour. Which was a little bit frustrating for them because they were on their schedule, but for him and for me it was my recovery that was our priority and it was ultimately the hospital's priority too, for me to recover well. And rest, I was not going to be able to recover well if I wasn't able to rest well, especially my brain. Sleep is so important, so really good sleep was key. The fourth thing I would say is, we helped the healing happen from the inside out. So we were really cautious of our environment as well. So, I had a diffuser going with really relaxing scents and aromatherapy happening so the room had a sense of relaxation. We had the lights dimmed so I wasn't overly stimulated when I opened my eyes. We made sure that the room and the environment was a calm and quiet one. There was music going on in the background so we were very keen not to just focus on my physical body but the way that the room and the environment would be affecting me.
And the last one I would say is that we had fun. So we worked, it wasn't always very fun, but we worked hard to have moments of laughter or like stress relieving moments of just doing something for fun, not being so focused all the time on, you have to do this well, you have to do that well, but really getting something to, like, give me joy. Whether it was a book, someone reading out loud to me because I like to listen to a story, or we even start to play some small games that were a part of my therapies but they were just fun. So something, even five minutes, to kind of break out of that stressful situation, to turn the body into more of a relaxed state. So those are the five things I think were huge for my recovery, and I think that if we could integrate that kind of component and approach to care as a whole we would realize we all have the same goals in mind, we just might have different ways of getting there. And that there are boundaries we need to respect. Like, if a physician came in the room and that was the time, then they could come in, if I was sleeping or not, like, their time is really valuable. But if it was for something minor like a blood pressure check or to see if I wanted ice water it could wait. So really understanding the parameters of what they're trying to do and what you're actually needing and helping merge that, I think, is where the integration piece can be really strengthened and we can really work to make that smoother and beneficial for both sides.
These five things… anybody can do; they can really work to achieve that in a hospital when they're taking care of someone or whether they're the ones being taken care of. One of the biggest things that we hear from our consumers on Trailhead Health is, a hospital is such a, it's so “not a warm place.” And just the idea of it stresses people out, let alone being in it. And what they always want to do is get out of there. But sometimes that's where you need to be, and if you have to be there how can you make it the most comfortable. So I loved every one of those things that you said, thank you so much for sharing those with us, Sophia. This is a very, very powerful story. And, you know, when you talk about pushing with the MDs, pushing with the people that know the Western, that have the Western mindset and the doctors that have learned to do things a certain way, I am so glad that you were with a group that, in the end, allowed you certain parameters.
I mean this is your body. We live in a litigious country and people are always worried about if something goes wrong, is that a lawsuit? Did you have to sign any waivers when you decided to do this? Or they just, sort of, worked with you?
I know there was discussion around that, my husband could probably speak more to that because my ability to process information that high was not present. So if they did discuss it, they did discuss it with Tyler. I don't by any means want to undermine and say that we should be our own physicians, because we shouldn't. We have physicians who are well trained and therapists who know a lot more than we do and we should respect their knowledge, but the piece of that is, their knowledge, oftentimes, is a general breath of what would be good for the majority of people in a situation. If you know for you, for example my dairy situation, that your body doesn't do well with dairy and here's why, you can talk to them in that language and say actually, like, this is a risk for me. It's not, maybe, the risk for everyone because some people do just fine with dairy, the majority of people might, but I don't. So this is a risk to me and here's what I want to do. And so then we came up with a plan together to get a different care plan for me, to advocate for something different. So it wasn't like we were telling them what we were going to do in that realm completely, but we would say we don't want this, what do we have to do it to get it out? And they'd say, well we’d have to do this. I'd say okay great and we'd go do it. And what Tyler would do, my husband Tyler, he would likely do it. I would give him pointers or he'd get help from friends and other physicians that we knew.
Sophia’s Mission: Integrate Western & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Are there are certain things from Tyler, you know, his perspective of the whole journey that he went through with you as your caregiver that you can share with people that are in that position?
Yeah, I think for Tyler the weight and the burden of that experience was a little heavier because he wasn't in control and so there was a big piece of having to trust that whatever decision he was making or not making was the right decision. There was a lot of doubt there. So I think the biggest piece for us coming through that was, I remember when I first woke up one of the things he said as the physicians were kind of giving me the rundown of what my injuries were, what their prospect for my recovery was, I remember as soon as they left he turned to me and said, Sophia you're going to be different. Don't listen to what they say. Like, I know you know yourself and you're going to be okay. And I just hung on to, I personally hung on to that strength in his belief in me whenever, who knows it might have turned out very different he may have been wrong in that moment. But what it did for me was it helped me believe in myself. Like maybe the other people had all these doubts of what would actually happen, but Tyler believed in me and he was fighting for me and I wasn't going to let him down, I was going to fight really hard to help show up. And I really think his belief in me helped me have the confidence to step forward in the ways I did to advocate for myself. If he hadn't been believing in me and my ability to recover I think it would have looked much different and I wouldn't have had the courage to say I want this out, I want, he would fight for me when I'd say this isn't good for me. He would advocate for that because I knew my body and he trusted my knowledge.
Sophia’s Personal Mission:
I think because I learned so much from that experience and it gave me such a really big drive to merge the two in a way I’ve always seen and have always wanted to do, but now I have the experience that tells me, you know, this needs to be done, this needs to happen. And I'm excited to work to help do that. I think that it's not an us-versus-them, you have to do it this way or that way. It’s, no, how can we work together? We both have really strong goals, we both have amazing knowledge, not we but both, but all of, all of the sides have amazing knowledge and we need to figure out how to work together as a team. A true team with integration. Not being, oh I'm doing this aside from this. Like, no, I'm doing this and it's going to help me in my physical therapy. I'm doing this, it's going to help me with my swallowing. It's a whole comprehensive team where the team members are talking to each other. In that experience, often Tyler or I was the advocate telling our therapists what we were doing in other therapies. That would have been nice to not have to bear that burden and have a really integrated team that was talking together. Like, oh, I’ve seen this or that. Because what you share with your patient is a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole thing. I know that from being a physician, or an acupuncture physician at least, that you share what has capacity for that moment or for that person's perspective, not the whole slew of it. But when you're with a professional who shares your knowledge of language and discussion, you don't have to kind of narrow it down, you can tell the whole story. And if we had physicians that could sit at a round table and discuss a case and each of them could talk, a back and forth, with mutual respect and understanding that what they are working on physically, or what they were working on occupationally, or with acupuncture, or what the big overarching theme for the neurologic recovery was, and those people could discuss together, the care plan could be much smoother and really, really powerful.
Final thoughts from Sophia
I had a very long recovery and it’s still, in some ways, ongoing. I think it's going to be, brain injury isn’t something that happens just once, it's something that you have to recover from. And it's not even a recovery as far as you're trying to get back to where you were. It's changing your perception and understanding who you are now that this has happened to you. I have definitely used acupuncture to heal physically, emotionally, how my body is operating like digestive system and my nervous system, how that's going, what my stress response is, it's all changed. So it's kind of helped me get myself back where, I would say, the medical care I got in the hospital helped me rehabilitate so I can function in life, acupuncture kind of helped me come back to life in the way that I wanted to show up.