After Nearly Being Killed, Monica Perez Won’t Let A Brain Injury Stop Her From Rolling

On July 13, 2016, Monica Perez was struck by a car while riding her bike home. But she doesn’t remember it. She also doesn’t remember being airlifted to the hospital while her family watched paramedics put a breathing tube into her, which would stay in for four days while she lay unconscious in the hospital. An MRI revealed a bruise in the lower back part of her brain, and while it was a miracle that Perez had survived at all, the traumatic brain injury she’d incurred would be something she’d have to battle with every day of her life.
Perez was used to fighting, at least to some extent — six months before her accident, she started training jiu-jitsu at the Pedro Sauer’s One Spirit Martial Arts Academy in Herndon, Virginia. No one would’ve blamed her for quitting (and in fact, many people would’ve probably encouraged it), but Perez wasn’t going to let her injury take away something she’d grown to love so much.
Photo Source: Monica Perez
It wasn’t going to be an easy road. Months after she was released from the hospital, Perez returned to the emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack, but it turned out she was having severe panic attacks as a result of the accident. She was diagnosed with PTSD, and that combined with her traumatic brain injury (TBI) forced her to stop doing many of the once-ordinary things she was used to. But she wasn’t going to let BJJ be one of them. “[Jiu-jitsu] was and is my passion,” she says. “I used to break down and cry because I wanted to do jiu-jitsu so bad, and I kept at it.”
Although jiu-jitsu comes with obvious risks, especially for someone with a TBI, Perez claims that training has helped her heal. “Jiu-jitsu definitely helps with my PTSD and TBI, and I found that out as I kept attending class,” she says. “Sometimes I do have bad days and decide not to go train that day, but I’ll go again; I won’t just quit. Seeing the lesson being taught and then practicing it with my partner in class distracts my anxiety sometimes, and it sure does make me so happy to learn.”
Of course, Perez has to modify her training so she can keep doing what she loves while being safe. She tells her partners to be careful and go slowly when practicing throws or sweeps, and she makes sure to cover the back of her head when she knows she’s going to fall. She also has to refrain from doing the warmups at the gym, which involve exercises that would make the back of her head susceptible to injury. Her body also overheats easier now (likely another effect of her TBI), so she has to wear a crop top under her gi instead of a rashguard, even when the air conditioning is on full blast.
Photo Source: Monica Perez

Even getting to class is a challenge — she hasn’t been cleared to drive again, and the Uber or Lyft rides she’d have to rely on are often more than she can afford. She has to save her money, then take the bus to class and use a rideshare to get home. But despite having to go out of her way to modify her training routine, Perez just considers herself lucky to be able to train at all. “Going to class makes me excited a lot because I almost died. I almost couldn’t keep doing jiu-jitsu. It’s emotional sometimes.”

Jiu-jitsu has served as a form of therapy for Perez, who claims that the repetition involved in drilling new techniques helps make her memory stronger. Forcing herself to concentrate on what her instructor is teaching also helps her focus, which she says is difficult with a TBI. And despite not having attended physical therapy, Perez says that the movements and stretching involved in jiu-jitsu have been like a form of physical therapy for her. The social benefits that come with being a part of a supportive team have helped her as well. “With a brain injury, I learned that being overemotional is really common, and that’s also a challenge I face when I train. My teammates and instructors are really supportive; I remember having a panic attack before a seminar and the instructor was really supportive.”
Photo Source: Monica Perez

There’s no way that Perez is going to quit now that she’s come so far. She’s not looking to become a world champion, but to continue to fight her personal battles. “It’s not about getting stripes or to get promoted to a higher belt, but when I do get promoted — however long it will take me — I will be so happy to look back at my journey and know I never quit, to know that jiu-jitsu helped me so much.” As she looks toward the future, Perez hopes to travel and train around the USA and the entire world, even though achieving that goal will be financially difficult. “I’ll sell all my things to travel and train. Whatever opportunities come my way with jiu-jitsu, I’ll be grateful to receive them. I just want to learn jiu-jitsu and live the lifestyle and be happy and continue to see my symptoms lessen.”

Perez hopes that her journey can inspire others with a TBI to continue pursuing their goals despite all the obstacles they face. “Don’t ever feel alone,” she says. “Don’t ever think that you can’t be the person you were before — you’re a stronger person now and will achieve all your goals. Go at your own pace and take your time — if you have a bad day, there’s always tomorrow.”

She also highly encourages those dealing with a brain injury or PTSD to give jiu-jitsu a try, even when it’s tough. “Take time off if you need to, or just watch. Jiu-jitsu helps me, and I want it to help you. I want to see everyone who has what I have (or other injuries, or no injuries) to be happy and learn this beautiful art of jiu-jitsu. It’s okay to be scared; I get scared all the time. I have all those same negative thoughts that everyone gets, but I ignore them and stay positive always. You can do it.”


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