Senyk fights the ‘invisible disability’
Recovery from brain injuries the focus for RP resident
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By Jud Snyder  March 15, 2013 12:00 am

It’s been called the silent epidemic. Olga Senyk, RN, and a board member of the Brain Injury Resource Center based in Santa Rosa, calls it an  “invisible disability.” Its impact on children and adults in the United States can be called staggering.

Every 17 seconds, someone in this country has a brain injury, either from physical trauma such as a fall, car crash, sports injury or, acquired brain injury, from a stroke, tumor or infectious disease.

BIRC also has offices in Bakersfield and Los Angeles with national headquarters in a suburb of Washington DC. They’ve been flying beneath the radar for years despite the overwhelming total they’re saddled with and have declared March 2013 to be Brain Injury Month.

It’s not only pro football stars
To the average person, brain injuries don’t make headlines, TV shows or Internet blogs unless they happen to an athletic star like Alex Smith of the 49ers or a glamorous show biz idol. And very few think about the injury’s aftermath following the trauma or the disease. The aftermath is the focus of Senyk’s campaign.

Merely saying she’s “involved” in brain injury rehabilitation is a classic understatement. In 1999, when she was only 38, she had a minor stroke in her Rohnert Park home. She knew what it was all about.

Had recognizable problems
“I was always pushing myself to the very limits, do this and then do that, nothing in moderation,” she remembers. “I was also always aware of a mild depression I had for years.” It caught up with her one quiet day.

“The stroke affected my brain, and I had problems with my right eye. I don’t drive at night and have recognizable problems doing ordinary things like organizing folders, sorting through material and even a few household chores. They take longer to do than they used to. Sometimes, my hand and arm aren’t cooperating fully. It annoys me.”

Her self-imposed recovery therapy has been slow but steadily progressing. When you possess a high school degree from Lowell HS in San Francisco, where she was born, university classes at UC Berkeley, a Master’s degree in psychology from the University of San Francisco and her work with BIRC, you pretty much know the recovery procedures.

Senyk now is a brain injury coach and balance trainer in her practice and closely allied not only with BIRC but also the Brain Injury Association (BIA) of California. She’s single, and lives with her two big, galumphy, faithful canine companions, Sultan and Maya, in their C section home in RP. Her phone number for brain injury queries is 795-7865.

‘People know so little about it’
Her parents, George and Elena Senyk, emigrated from the Ukraine to flee from Stalin’s communism and settled in San Francisco’s Sunset District where they still live. They’ve been married 60 years and both are educated microbiologists and had research jobs in SF until George, who has a PhD, retired. Olga has a younger sister, Natalia, living with her family near Oroville in Feather River country.

“What bothers me is people know so little about the consequences of brain injury, whether traumatic or acquired,” Olga added. “They affect more Americans, much more, than breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined. But they don’t have publicized telethons or show biz stars attaching their names to gain attention.

“Last weekend I participated in a walkathon in San Francisco benefiting brain injury recovery, and we have a bigger one coming up in May. Walkathons are about our top fund-raising efforts.”

The table in the Redwood Café in Cotati was littered with printed material Senyk pulled from her files. A magazine called “Neurology Now” had a cover photo of a professional standup comedian who has cerebral palsy. Many brochures and newsletters were fanned out.

“Sometimes I feel like that ancient Roman deity, Janus, often seen on stage prosceniums, you know, the one with a smiling face on one side and a sad, mournful face on the other.” She quietly stirred her coffee. “There’s so much to say, so much to do for so many people.”

Brain uses 20 percent of our energy
“Look, when you realize the average head weighs 10 pounds, and the brain weighs five pounds of that, and there are 100 billion neurons in our brain, as many stars as in our galaxy, you can gauge its importance. It’s roughly two percent of average body weight but uses 20 percent of our body’s energy, well, taking care of it after any injury is extremely vital. The brain can stay alive only a few minutes without oxygen, then it starts to die.”

As she tells it,” We need to educate, de-stigmatize and advocate the perils of this silent epidemic.”

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