Brain injury slowed her down but it didn’t stop her – Powell River Living

June 2020 issue (page 23), By Isabelle Southcott

Flashback. It’s 8:55 am
November 3, 2003.

Jennifer Konopelski is driving her little GEO Metro along Glenmore Trail SE in Calgary. The 26-year-old is on her way to Harvey’s Restaurant where she works as an assistant manager. She moved there a year earlier to finish her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Calgary.

The roads are a bit icy. Traffic is crawling along at 10 kilometres an hour – normal rush hour traffic for Calgary at that time of day. Jenn comes to the Bow River bridge, it’s icy, she fishtails slightly but no big deal, she’s driving really slowly after all. There’s lots of room between her and the car in front.

But unbeknownst to her, the driver in the little truck behind her isn’t driving as slowly and carefully. He comes to the bridge, hits the ice and is propelled forward, his vehicle spinning out of control and not stopping until it rear ends Jenn’s car, crumpling her little Geo Metro. “My bumper was behind my seat and the seat back was broken off. My head bounced off the steering wheel before it hit the driver’s side window.”

There were no air bags then.

Jenn was taken by ambulance to hospital. Her head was swollen, she had three fractures in her upper back and lower neck and her left side felt like a Mack truck had driven over it. A few days later she returned to work; she had to. The Emergency Room doctor could only give her a stay-off-work note for three days and she hadn’t managed to find a doctor of her own in Calgary yet. At work, Jenn struggled. Headaches, pain, forgetfulness.

She found a lawyer who got her in to see a doctor who specialized in people who’d been involved in motor vehicle accidents. She couldn’t work – for the next three years she slept most of the time. “I was in so much pain, it was really tough. I literally didn’t leave my couch,”she recalled.

Jenn was sent for test after test and medical bills were piling up. “I had no money and, because I’d gone back to work for three days, all the insurance would pay for was my car,” said Jenn.

After visiting a specialist, it was determined Jenn had moderate traumatic brain injury. “I lost all but five per cent of my short-term memory and I lost all but 13 per cent of my long-term memory.” She grew up between Surrey and Powell River, but can’t recall much from her childhood.

Jenn was accepted into a brain injury rehab centre in Calgary. There, she learned how to live life with a brain injury. “I learned the basics of living in a new way. Tips like always carry a notebook so I can write things down, have an agenda, that sort of stuff. One of the teachers came to my house and helped me reorganize my stuff so things were easy to find.”

Even the simplest of tasks were daunting. Jenn couldn’t follow simple instructions anymore. She’d graduated with honours from high school but dropped to a Grade 5 level following the accident. She recalls her frustration at not being able to follow the instructions to put together an Ikea bookcase.

Jenn returned to work three years later but it was tough. “After working a couple hours I’d have to go home and sleep. I couldn’t work a full shift.”

She left the restaurant and began working at a golf centre. But Jenn wanted to do something different. She’d always dreamed of owning her own business. “In 2008 I wrote my first business plan for an indoor mini golf centre with a kids’ climbing area and an arcade.” She changed jobs again and again, but then she decided to revaluate her life – and that meant moving.

“I’d been saying for 15 years I want to go home, but I hadn’t done so.”

Back to BC she went. It was June 2016, Brain Injury Awareness month, when she arrived home in Powell River. She found a job at a restaurant and helped her mother Christine and Elaine Steiger operate their first pop-up store, The Nutcracker Market. “We did the Christmas season and it went really well so they said, ‘Let’s keep it open and see what a year does,’” Jenn recalled.

Stock was ordered and The Nutcracker Market remained open. Six months later Elaine’s garden “exploded” and Elaine found herself working 24/7 trying to keep on top of her gardening, preserving, book keeping and running the shop. It was too much.

“She was thinking of closing the store and my mom and I looked at her and said: it’s a viable business…”

Jenn and Elaine sat down to talk about the business and agreed on a deal. “We basically swapped places. Elaine became a vendor and I became the owner.” Elaine mentored Jenn and Jenn’s mom continued to help. “I couldn’t do it without them. With my brain injury I’m good for about 20 hours a week and that’s it.”

Jenn credits the support of this community and her family for helping her achieve her dream of owning her own business. “Without them, this store wouldn’t be where it is today.”