Identities: Titan overcomes brain injury

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The day Nick Ballinger was supposed to take his last final at Fullerton Junior College before transferring over to Cal State Fullerton, he ended up in the hospital instead.

Robert Huskey / Daily Titan
Robert Huskey / Daily Titan

Shortly after Ballinger turned 21, a blood vessel in his brain ruptured.

He remained in a medically-induced coma for six weeks after that, and stayed an additional 10 days for physical and speech rehabilitation.

He spent the next three months in a transitional housing program for continued medical support.

But even before this incident, Ballinger was no stranger to the hospital.

During his senior year in high school, he went blind due to a lesion in the back of his brain.

“I was actually one of the lucky ones,” said Ballinger. “They were able to diagnose me with this lesion a lot earlier than they otherwise would have.”

Ballinger, a communicative disorders major, said many people with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) are not diagnosed until they are older. AVM occurs when a formation of blood vessels and arteries, most commonly in the brain or spinal cord, are tangled.

Ballinger underwent radiation therapy during 2003 and 2004 in an attempt to manage the lesion. He was put on anabolic steroids to reduce the brain swelling the treatment caused.

“I was a pretty angry person when I started at Fullerton College,” Ballinger said. “I was just like, ‘how could this happen to me?’ I was just upset at life, you could say.”

While attending Fullerton College, Ballinger said he picked up drinking and smoking cigarettes and marijuana.

The smoking and drinking, according to Ballinger, is why the already pre-disposed blood vessel in his brain ruptured on the day of his final exam.

“Because I did smoke and I was going out to the club every weekend and drinking pretty hard, I ended up having this additional injury,” he said.

Now at 26 years old and having endured years of hospital stays, medications, radiation and a medically induced coma, Ballinger has reached his final year at CSUF.

He is one of nearly 800 students registered with the Disabled Student Services program on campus.

Students registered with the program are offered services such as alternative test taking accommodations, Braille for the visually impaired, specialized textbooks for students with dyslexia, scribes (test writers) and sign language interpreters, to name a few.

The program’s office manager, Rosalind Blackstar, said one of the on-going struggles she has seen is getting professors to accommodate the students registered with DSS.

“We’re working on trying to educate faculty and professors on what it means to work with students with disabilities,” said Blackstar. “Sometimes professors are really receptive and interested, and sometimes they feel threatened, like we’re trying to assert authority over them or telling them how to run their class.”

After waking from his coma, Ballinger said he had one more class to finish at Fullerton College. That was when he really developed his relationship with the program.

“When I started, I probably needed more help. I was not cognitively organized enough to … sit down and read the chapter, or at least look at the bolded terms in the textbook,” said Ballinger. “I would go to class and it was difficult for me to take notes and understand.”

Of course, Ballinger is far from being the only Titan involved with the program.

After being struck by a semi-truck, Juan Salas, 47, a Spanish and Chicano studies double major, said he began getting migraines.

Now he has difficulties studying and taking tests.

Salas said the opportunity to take tests in the program office has made all the difference in his education, but he has faced some stereotypes because of it.

“Everybody thinks that you get a preference, which is not true. People think that teachers take it easier on you, which is not true either,” said Salas. “We’ve got to learn through our disability … then we’ve got to learn the regular way. So we’re learning double.”

After graduating, Salas said he hopes to teach Spanish at a high school.

He might pursue a master’s degree to be able to teach at a junior college.

Ballinger said his relationship with the program office on campus is mainly necessary because he undergoes radiation treatment, brain tests and MRI scans every now. When that happens, he has to miss class for four to five days at a time.

Because of this, Ballinger was able to get priority registration from the program office, and he said it has made a big difference as he finishes getting his degree.

With less than a year left until he graduates, Ballinger plans to become a speech pathologist before reapplying to medical school to become an ear, nose and throat doctor.

“They tell you that with brain injuries, the first three months is when you recover the most, and then you (recover) slower and slower, and it really starts to level off after that,” Ballinger said. “But you never really stop getting better until like 10 years after the injury, so I’ve still got five more years that I can get better, and I still feel like I am.”

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