When East Tennessee State University alumna Dede Norungolo suffered a brain injury after landing her small SUV upside down in a mountain creek nearly 14 years ago, no one knew what cognitive ability she might regain, if she lived at all.
On Friday, Norungolo spoke to a Communicative Disorders class for the 10th time about her experience and how those students, particularly in speech language pathology, could impact brain injury survivors after they begin a career.
Dr. Jim Bitter, a professor in ETSU’s counseling department, teaches part of the two-week symposium. He met Norungolo several years after her June 1999 injury and asked her to speak to the class when she was encouraged by her speech language pathologist, Bette Lucas, to talk with students. She’s been coming back ever since and has spoken alongside Lucas, who continues to work at the James H. & Cecile C. Quillen Rehabilitation Hospital, as well as Wings Air Rescue pilot, Don Savage, and her mother, Ernie Norungolo.
“This is a class called Counseling and Communicative Disorders. People who wind up with traumatic brain injury, aphasia, hearing loss and young children’s speech difficulties, all of these things interrupt human beings’ lives and the lives of their families,” Bitter said.
“Whether speech pathologists want to or not, they have to learn to deal with the emotional side of life. This is one of the few master’s-level programs in the United States that actually has a course in counseling for speech language pathologists and audiologists,” he said.
Bitter’s wife, Dr. Lynn Williams, was instrumental in bringing the class to ETSU and getting Bitter involved, he said.
“We met Dede somewhere along the line and Dede has been coming back for over a decade to talk to our class,” he said.
In some ways for Norungolo, it was also a way to learn more about herself and her recovery. That’s partly due to the fact that she usually brings along someone who was part of that recovery. This year she brought her mother and her sister, Angie Geiger, and 14-yearold niece, Erin Geiger.
For Angie Geiger, hearing her sister’s talk about her recovery Friday helped her understand even better the differences she sees in Norungolo.
One example is Norungolo’s short-term memory loss.
“She asks over and over for my address,” said Geiger, who lives in Colorado. Hearing her sister describe the difficulties of that, and her methods of overcoming it, gave Geiger an idea of the challenges Norungolo still faces.
Norungolo, who prior to the wreck had a career in journalism and marketing, did regain her cognitive abilities — she’s now a certified rehabilitation counselor, certified brain injury specialist, writer, photographer and public speaker. But it didn’t come easy. She has her own determination, as well as her family, friends and specialists who worked diligently with her.
One of those was her speech language therapist, Lucas, at Quillen Rehabilitation Hospital. That relationship is part of the reason Norungolo speaks to the class — to show them the importance of their work with traumatic brain injury survivors.
But as Bitter puts it, Norungolo didn’t just survive the obstacles her injury presented, “she overcame and obliterated them.”
How far she’s come isn’t lost on Norungolo, either. And just like the “old” Norungolo, as friends and family often speak about, she has a goal and is always working toward it.
“The opportunity to speak about brain injury to students who will work with survivors is simply part of the mission I am on — to educate others about options for life after trauma and how seemingly random happenings are usually disguising God winks,” Norungolo said. “Speaking at ETSU makes sense to me as an anchor and allows me to bring my story to others in an interactive manner.”
Norungolo, who lived in Johnson City for 20 years, now lives in her native state of South Carolina. She is a disability specialist at Clemson University and works with students with disabilities to assist in their transition into academia.