FORWARD is a series from Student Affairs featuring Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have faced, overcome, or learned from life's obstacles and setbacks. FORWARD aims to normalize the conversation about hardships we endure to encourage resilience.

Allyson Bailey is animated and articulate when she talks about why she loves life at Virginia Tech.

“The sense of community, friendships, football – definitely football – and my faculty advisor who became a mentor,” she said with a laugh. The words tumble out fast and easy.

Intramural sports, living-learning communities, and experiential learning opportunities, such as her internship with the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, part of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, are also at the top of her list.

It is no small accomplishment that she is able to take advantage of all Virginia Tech has to offer and share her experiences with enthusiasm. She lives with the effects of traumatic brain injuries sustained her sophomore year of high school during a varsity basketball game and two serious car accidents. The injuries left her unable to walk and struggling to communicate.

Allyson Bailey playing basketball before she sustained her first traumatic brain injury.

Allyson Bailey playing basketball.
Allyson Bailey playing basketball before she sustained her first traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injuries can have both immediate and lifelong consequences for cognitive function. “In the U.S., a traumatic brain injury occurs every seven seconds and is a major cause of long-term disability,” said Stefanie Robel, an assistant professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and School of Neuroscience.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” 

For Bailey, each one caused more physical and emotional trauma.

“There was a period of six months where I don’t remember much,” she said. “I slept a lot in a dark room. I am very social and my friendships suffered. There was a lot I had to relearn how to do.”

In addition to being unable to walk, she struggled with sensitivity to light and noise, had severe headaches, stuttered, and was unable to recall certain words.

“There was a period where she had the mentality of a small child,” said her mother, Linda Bailey (MBA ’98). “We were very concerned about her ever being able to attend college.” 

Allyson Bailey at the hospital after her second injury.

Allyson Bailey at the hospital.
Allyson Bailey at the hospital after her second injury.

Fortunately, Bailey is one of the lucky ones, and she's resilient. She was able to relearn essential skills and catch up on academics through homeschooling. Now a senior majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she wants to pursue a career in health care to help others. She currently works part-time as a certified nursing assistant at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital to gain valuable experience.

“I spent a lot of time in hospitals because of my injuries,” she said. “I think having been a patient helps me be better at my job. It gives you a different perspective when you’ve been in their shoes.”

Bailey did not know about the university’s cutting-edge research on concussions and traumatic brain injury or campus supports when she applied. The research includes leading a $2.6 million study of brain trauma and epilepsy, a national five-year study on head impacts in youth football, working with industry partners and the University of Virginia to develop a test for mild injuries, and studying vascular health and traumatic brain injury.

Students suffering from brain injury can connect with Synapse, a support group on campus.

Bailey is grateful her school is leading the way on research. She admits her first year on campus was “really challenging” and that she considered transferring to a community college closer to home.

“I was exhausted and struggling with depression, anxiety, and headaches,” she said. “Just walking across the Drillfield to class was tough sometimes. And I missed my support system.”

She found a new support system through campus activities and an academic advisor who cheered her on and made helpful suggestions. Accommodations through Services for Students with Disabilities eased the load and so did adjusting expectations.

“She never expected an easy ride,” said Renee Eaton, her advisor and the undergraduate program director for her major. “Sometimes she had to take things slow or change course, but she dealt with her injuries in a manner of acceptance and perseverance.”

In the process, Bailey developed life goals and reshaped her ideas about others. “I used to think people were just trying to get attention when they talked about dealing with anxiety and depression,” she said. “Now I know better and want others to know that it’s OK to get help.”

She uses services like Cook Counseling Center, takes her well-being seriously, and believes “grades are important, but there is more to life than always earning an A.”

Most importantly, she knows now that her injuries do not define her.

“In high school, I was the girl on the news who suffered from traumatic brain injuries,” she said. “But I’m a whole lot of other things, too. At Tech, I’ve been able to figure out what those other things are.”

Written by Tammy Tripp. Lead photo by Christina Franusich. Other photos courtesy of Allyson Bailey.

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