Wichita couple strengthen marriage after brain injury
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Jason Catron lost himself in a matter of moments. Leading up to the traffic crash that stole his memory and personality 20 years ago, he was a police officer who had spent his whole life preparing to put on a uniform.
When the Wichita Police Department hired him in 1996, he finally achieved his goal.
Everything was going to plan. He’d married his high school sweetheart, a curly haired brunette named Shelly whom he’d met at age 15. By 1997, a baby girl was on the way. He became a father the following spring.
“We knew what we wanted to do, and we went after it,” Jason Catron would later recall.
“Everything was fine. Everything was great,” Shelly Catron added. Their lives “were headed in the right direction.”
But everything changed early on Thanksgiving morning of 1998.
Jason Catron, then 25 and working third shift, was on patrol in downtown Wichita when dispatchers sent him toward 63rd Street South and Hydraulic to an officer-in-trouble call.
He raced there, lights and sirens blazing, until down in the 3100 block of South Hydraulic a woman backed into his path at Tulsa Street. He swerved to avoid striking her car, hit a curb and spun into oncoming traffic.
Another car broadsided him.
Jason doesn’t remember what happened that night. “I got nothing,” he said recently.
The last thing he recalls is heading home from an uncle’s wedding on Thanksgiving Eve. An Alanis Morissette song, “Thank U,” was on the radio during the drive.
He hated Alanis Morissette.
“Everything else was just gone,” Shelly Catron recalled.
Jason Catron was later told that the force of the impact whipped his head around and crushed the shotgun mounted in his car into the side of his face, damaging the part of his brain that controls behavior, personality, learning and voluntary movements, the Wichita Eagle reported.
He looked on the outside like the man everyone knew, walking and talking like a normal guy.
But on the inside he was a shell of his former self. He was a husband Shelly didn’t recognize.
But this isn’t a story only about how Jason Catron survived and how he learned to be thankful each year for the crash that irreparably changed him — for the better, he believes.
“If I had to do it again, I would because it changed me into a better man,” he said.
It’s a story about how devotion can keep a relationship afloat in the worst of times and how a husband and wife can fall in love again when one of them turns into a completely different person by no fault of their own.
The sirens made Shelly Catron stir out of her sleep. They didn’t sound far away.
Something must be wrong, she thought. It was early, around 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1998.
Her husband, Jason, was at work. Their baby, Brianna, just six months old, was sleeping beside her.
A knock drew Shelly Catron out of bed and to the front door.
Wichita police Lt. Ron Harris and his wife were standing outside.
You need to come with me, the lieutenant said. Jason has been in a bad car accident.
The scene was about a mile from the Catrons’ home.
He’s in critical condition, Harris explained as his wife helped Shelly gather the baby. You need to hurry.
Shelly Catron saw Jason when she arrived at Via Christi St. Francis Hospital in downtown Wichita. Her glance was brief as medical staff wheeled him into surgery. Except for his shock of red hair, she didn’t recognize him.
She wouldn’t see Jason again for hours. She was too upset to eat when the district attorney, Nola Foulston, brought a Thanksgiving meal to the hospital for her family. But she did accept the DA’s hug.
When the doctors finally talked to Shelly, they had three word — traumatic brain injury. But no prognosis.
Jason spent weeks in a medically induced coma so his brain could start to heal.
When he was finally drawn out, he recognized Shelly. But he didn’t know where or who he was.
In the weeks that followed, Jason lived at a Wichita rehabilitation hospital. Early on, he suffered what’s called post-traumatic amnesia, a period of bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior an injured person sometimes experiences after being unconscious.
He could walk and speak without any help. But a lot of what he said and did made no sense.
He wanted foods that didn’t go together, like ice cream on top of salad.
He tried to swallow handfuls of the hospital’s foaming hand sanitizer because he thought it was whipped cream. Shelly Catron was constantly stopping him.
Once when she visited, Jason Catron was doing a bed check on patients, like he’d done with inmates while he worked as a detention deputy at the Sedgwick County Jail.
Another time she found him in the hospital’s parking lot, trying to pick the lock to their car door with a pencil.
One day he called Shelly and told her she needed to pick him up right away. At first, Shelly Catron was thrilled he remembered their phone number.
But when Jason told her that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was at the hospital, planning an infiltration and he needed to escape, she realized he wasn’t making real progress.
She wondered whether he’d turn back into the refined, smooth-talking military man he’d been before the crash. The one who made her 16-year-old self laugh when they met at a friend’s birthday party. The one who started going to church with her.
A doctor named Eustaquio Abay told her that Jason would be OK eventually, but that it would take a long time.
Those words gave her hope.
She also was told to expect divorce because marriages that involve a brain-injured person don’t survive. Shelly Catron refused to believe it.
Jason went home during the first part of January 1999. The rehabilitation hospital did everything they could for him physically.
The problems left over involved Jason’s memory and personality.
For the first two years after the crash, the Wichita Police Department put Jason back on the force. When people talked to him, there weren’t any signs that he had a traumatic brain injury. And he certainly hadn’t forgotten his police training.
He could recite the codes officers use to send messages over emergency radio — like 10-4 for OK — perfectly.
But he couldn’t readily recall his location or the day.
When he started falling asleep on duty and making questionable decisions, police officials moved him to a desk job.
Eventually, a police captain, Darrell Haynes, called Shelly Catron into his office to tell her that the department had decided to retire Jason from his dream job. It helped her prepare for the devastation.
His last day was in 2000.
At home, in the years following the crash, Jason didn’t act anymore like the man Shelly married. His voice still sounded like Jason’s and, except for the new piercings in his face, he still looked like Jason.
But before the brain injury, he was career-focused, sure of himself to the point of being self-centered and a bit temperamental albeit kind.
Now, he was angry, frustrated, seemed lost and had no patience. Noise and lights would set him off. Most of his police friends stopped coming around because Jason wasn’t Jason anymore.
Jason Catron, meanwhile, felt like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Confused, he didn’t know how to piece himself back into the man everyone expected.
Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Here’s the right way, people would order. He didn’t feel like there was enough of a reference to guide him.
The couple was in therapy and Jason Catron took medication to help counteract the brain injury’s effects. But their marriage was rocky.
Shelly told herself she wouldn’t be the spouse who left over something that was out of her husband’s control.
But she questioned whether, with all of his other changes, she could still be the woman Jason wanted. He suddenly disliked some of his favorite foods. Maybe he didn’t like curly haired brunettes anymore.
When Brianna, their daughter, was about 3, another baby, Elizabeth, came along.
About three years after that, the couple had a son, Dalton.
Jason remembers only bits and pieces of their births.
Over the years, people would ask Shelly why she chose to have more children with a volatile man she didn’t recognize.
Her answer was simple: once in a while, she got a glimpse of the old Jason. In those moments she knew for certain they were meant to continue their lives together, as husband and wife.
Shelly and Jason Catron both admit that staying together hasn’t been easy.
For a long time, it seemed like Jason’s personality and mood changed weekly. Their kids — now 20, 17 and 14 — never knew what father they’d come home to. They often witnessed their father’s anger and worried whether the tension between their parents would break apart the family.
Because brain injuries can take years to heal, it was more than a decade before any of them felt any real sense of normalcy.
Through it all, though, Jason never fell out of love with Shelly. He saw her as an anchor and a compass, keeping him steady and righting him when he lost his life’s focus and passion.
He tried to charm her again, like he did in high school. He had to let her know that the new Jason loved her more than the old Jason ever could.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Shelly Catron came to terms with the fact that clean-cut, refined Jason is gone, and the bearded, considerably less polished man she comes home to every night after work is her new husband.
A new therapist helped her have that a-ha moment.
This is who Jason is now, the therapist told her. This is as good, basically, as it’s going to get.
Either accept that and love him, or don’t.
Shelly Catron didn’t hesitate.
On a recent Monday, as she and Jason sat in their cozy south Wichita apartment, Shelly Catron considered what she liked best about the husband she ended up with.
They’ve been married for 23 years. She’s had time to think.
Jason couldn’t help but joke during her silence. “I’m twice the man I used to be,” he said, gesturing toward a stack of old photographs spread out on the kitchen table showing a younger, fitter version of himself.
Humor, one thing the crash didn’t steal from him, helped them get through the rough times.
“We both are twice the people we used to be,” Shelly Catron chuckled.
“From that weight there to this weight here” — he patted his belly — “DOUBLE!”
When the laughter died down, Shelly gave a serious answer about how much the new Jason fully appreciates her and calls her beautiful.
“Not that he didn’t before,” she qualified.
But the word is more frequent and meaningful now.
“He’s just softer. I don’t know how else to put it. He’s just more soft and more kind and more gentle,” she continued. The kids agree.
“I just love him. I don’t know what else to say,” Shelly Catron said. “I just love him for who he is, and I wouldn’t change him.”
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com