Brain Injury Support Group celebrates 25 years of offering hope after trauma

  • Emme Tomimbang talks about her experience at the 25th Anniversary Kona Brain Injury Support Group on Oct. 9. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — For 25 years, Kona’s Brain Injury Support Group has gathered once a month.

It is a group in which nobody wants to gain membership — but the benefits are innumerable for survivors of brain injury and their caregivers.

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The group, the longest running support group in the state, gathers to share experiences, listen to guest speakers and learn how to navigate the resources available to them as members try to cope and create a new life after a traumatic experience.

Celebrating the milestone anniversary earlier this month at Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services, the group’s facilitator and founder Karen Klemme invited local television celebrity Emme Tomimbang to share her story of hope and strength through a difficult experience.

“This is really nice, because it gives me the opportunity to know each of you, and your own story and struggle and courage each of you are going through,” Tomimbang said after meeting the members but before relating her own story. “It was overwhelming hearing from each of you.”

Tomimbang, who started her television career as part of a team of multi-ethnic news reporters in 1975 at KITV went on to start her own production company in the 1990s. She was the creator, host and executive producer of the popular one-hour show Emme’s Island Moments.

In 2011, Tomimbang’s husband, James Burns, retired chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals, was diagnosed with throat cancer and she became his caregiver, putting her career on hold.

“I was his lifeline, feeding him through a tube, giving medication, water, everything,” she remembered.

A year later, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, and in that instant became the care recipient.

Her life, she remembered, changed in a flash.

One day, she said, while Burns was at a radiation treatment, she decided to take a shower and rest for a while, but while toweling off she just collapsed and passed out in the bathroom of their Oahu home. Coming to, she heard commotion at her bedroom screen-door.

It was her rottweiler, Rufus, who had broken down the door and was barking and crying at her side.

“This dog saved my life. He went down and I just grabbed his collar and we both pushed ourselves to the phone,” she said. She called her husband and the next thing she knew, her house was full of EMTs and firefighters.

Not knowing what happened, and still clad only in a towel, she maintained her sense of humor, telling the rescuers, “You better not tell anybody you saw Emme Tomimbang naked or I will come back and haunt you.”

She said everything from that point was a blur as she was taken to Castle Medical Center where she was told that she had a ruptured brain aneurysm and needed to be rushed to The Queen’s Medical Center for neurosurgery.

“My brain was trying to be normal and participate in what was going on around me, but I wasn’t capable,” she said at the Oct. 9 gathering. “I woke up three days later, and my poor husband was sitting there and I said, ‘Who’s tube feeding you?’ Because I was his nurse.”

Her only concern at that moment was who was taking care of her ailing husband.

When the nurses assured her that they would arrange for his care, she started making phone calls.

One of the first calls she made was to then-President Barack Obama’s sister, Maya, who was a good friend. Nobody had explained the procedure she went through. She told Maya that she was in the hospital and they did something to her brain.

“I told her, ‘You know, they don’t know who your brother is, every day they come in and ask me who is president of the United States?’”

She said she brings up the humorous moments because the whole situation was so unbelievable. She still was unaware of what happened in surgery and what the ramifications of her injury would be.

She was on the phone with her production company because an upcoming episode was about to air, barking orders when the doctors took her phone away from her and explained the importance of stress-free rest. She was later told she had two coils placed in her brain to stop the bleeding and that less than 2% of people who suffer from what she went through live to tell their story.

When she asked her doctor about the long-term effects of the brain injury she was told, “You’re alive. Start from there.”

When she was discharged from the hospital, the caregiving role with her husband had been reversed. He was taking care of himself and trying to take care of her.

“When you are husband and wife and you both are sick, you take on so many different roles,” she said.

She said she learned the brain has its own mechanism. The brain is the computer of your body. Sometimes she thinks one way, but her body does something else.

She started feeling and doing better but then her husband took a turn for the worse and passed away in 2017.

“He was half my soul and he left,” she said.

Struggling with her brain injury and becoming a widow, she became withdrawn, rarely venturing out of her home. She didn’t want people to know.

She said with a brain injury, you don’t look different, so people don’t know the struggles you face.

“With the brain injury I’m in a whole other mode, like I’m starting all over again. I’m trying to go back to being in television and I am going to have my first show on Willie K,” she said.

She recounted the day the musician revealed to her that he had cancer. When she asked what she could do, his reply was “Do my story. Only you can do it. You’ve got to get back into television.”

She has been working on that project, which is still in production.

She said she still has a hard time concentrating and still faces day-to-day challenges, a message that resonated with the rest of the group going through something similar, though the details might all be different.

“With the brain injury I’m just learning that I have to make it work. You have to be determined,” she said. “I’m a new normal and I’m just getting to know me.

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“But I’m doing my best,” she concluded. “I’m alive!”

Info about the Kona Brain Injury Support Group, contact Klemme at 896-2962.

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