This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.
One balmy morning at the Riverdale Park & Ride, a former pharmacist in olive-colored khakis named Bisi Alabi boards the Route 442 bus. He walks to the back, picks a seat, and lays at his feet a zippered tote bag stuffed with handwritten mementos, chaotic personal logs, and vital phone numbers for his doctor and his destination: the Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse in Stone Mountain. Since his traumatic brain injury, the doctors won’t let Bisi—pronounced be-see—drive across town, despite his insistence that he still can. He yearns to greet his pharmacy customers and dispense their medications as he did for twenty years, but that is now beyond his cognitive grasp. Forgetting his wallet or MARTA card will cast him into a confused tailspin, yet public transit is a gantlet Bisi feels he must run, or else be left in an empty house, in a neighborhood drained of residents during work hours, in a world that has all but left him behind.
More than an hour later, Bisi arrives at the Clubhouse, a 1920s bungalow dwarfed by an odd art deco–style addition, overlooking Stone Mountain’s quaint Main Street. Like Bisi, the fifty men and women who make up the current clientele—known as “members”—were once more proficient people. They were respiratory therapists, semi drivers, attorneys, roofers, restaurant managers, from every socioeconomic tier and fourteen different countries. Now they find respite among the similarly afflicted in this two-story complex with creaky old floors and an elevator. It’s the only facility of its kind between Raleigh and Jacksonville.
While 65,000 Georgians and 1.7 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, advocates say alarmingly few receive appropriate care and life-skills training after leaving the hospital. That explains why some members travel more than two hours each way, as often as five times a week, for day visits. Without the Clubhouse, many would rarely leave their homes. “This gives them the opportunity to not be a patient,” says Cindi Johnson, the wispy-haired mother hen who is the nonprofit’s executive director.
Formerly a cognitive rehab therapist and a program director at the Shepherd Center, Cindi was commuting one morning in 1987 when the van in front of her suddenly stopped. The impact flipped Cindi’s Datsun, and she was left hanging by her seat belt, screaming for help, with shards of glass punched into her scalp. Though the mild brain injury she sustained would resolve in a few weeks, the crash showed Cindi what it was like to be confounded, to become forgetful and confused. She later partnered with a colleague from Emory Healthcare, Mike McCord, and with $100,000 from each of their hospitals, they began gauging the need for a brain-injury refuge. In 2000 the Clubhouse opened with three members in the basement of a Decatur office building, and it quickly became cramped.
Today Cindi surveys the cafeteria as sloppy joes and Ruffles are dished from the industrial-grade kitchen. She points to a man who plummeted from a high-rise as a boy, another two who fell down stairs, a brain aneurysm victim, and a guy who bounced off a golf cart. It’s common to see avowed conservatives lunching with possibly undocumented immigrants, people injured by drunk drivers happily hobnobbing with those injured while driving drunk.
Three training areas—business, food preparation, and household maintenance—equip members to run the Clubhouse. The instruction also helps them rebuild social, physical, and cognitive skills. When a brain bounces inside the skull, when axons are torn, the slightest change causes rudimentary abilities to fall by the wayside. At the Clubhouse, twelve rehab, educational, and social-work professionals work directly with members. Programs are supported primarily by member fees, which range from $1 to $200 per day, based on income—and incorporate funds from outside sources like Medicaid waivers and worker’s compensation. Some members will move on to janitorial or clerical jobs, scaled-back versions of their former professions, or entirely new careers. Others—like Bisi and his colleagues Ray, Haile, and Cheryl—have no intentions of leaving.
Bisi Alabi, sixty-nine, Riverdale
Six days before Christmas in 2003, Bisi and his wife Deborah were driving home from Louisville in a rented SUV when they skidded on black ice and shot across I-24, into a ravine. In the ambulance, paramedics started an IV, and Bisi’s vital signs finally sparked. But ask Bisi—a diminutive, playful man with a smile so gaping he appears perpetually on the brink of laughter—and he’ll say he did die, all the way. Through a memory hiccup called confabulation, he tells a vivid fictional account of his death, saying he was bound for the mortuary when Deborah, a nurse, bore through a team of doctors to hug his “corpse” once more, latched onto his wrist, and, through the intervention of God Almighty, felt . . . a pulse.
Given his cache of reminders, the last thing you’d expect from Bisi is a rich retelling of his personal journey, but distant memories are easily fetched. He emigrated from Nigeria in 1973, where his guava-farmer father married into royalty via Bisi’s mother. A workaholic, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida and his doctorate at Mercer University, eventually becoming a pharmacist at Southern Regional Medical Center. His eldest son is now a pharmacist in Las Vegas.