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Raw materials: David Krempels interview excerpts

My first meeting with David was in 2002, when I interviewed him at New Hampshire Public Radio for my show, The Front Porch. Here is an excerpt from that interview; my questions are in parentheses. 

(After your accident in 1992, how long did your recovery take?) Oh boy. Recovery. That's one of those tricky words. They say that a brain injury is kind of a lifetime thing. 


I was unresponsive for about two weeks, didn't know anything that was going on for six weeks, was transferred to a rehab where I was inpatient for two months and outpatient for about a year. My recovery continued for several years; really, I would say, for three years it was pretty much my full-time job. My recovery really continues even today. Physicians like to tell you that most of the recovery happens within the first year, and after that, what you have you're pretty much stuck with. I can tell you that even in the last couple of years, I have noticed things like my memory have really improved a lot. And I'm real happy about that. So you could say that recovery is ongoing. I am in real good shape today.  


(Are there any lingering effects?) I have a little right-sided weakness. I've lost coordination; I tend to stumble around and fall a little bit. I used to be a really physical guy; now I can't run or jump or react to a sports situation, for example. I was a building contractor and carpenter and used to throw rafters and plywood around and run around on floor joists. Now, I don't go up a stepladder without someone there to watch me. 


That's the physical effect. My memory isn't great; but it really is remarkably good at this point. I have learned to write everything down. But I am so lucky compared to most of the people I know who have had an accident like mine. 


(What was the financial impact of your accident?) The immediate financial consequences were devastating. I was a building contractor and carpenter. For a number of years, it became my job just to get out of bed and get through the day. I had no income, and during that time the public support systems did what I think they're supposed to do. I received money that allowed me to put food on the table, sort of. 


I would have lost my house and property, except that ultimately there was a legal award in court that allowed me to pay off my debts. 


(You used a big chunk of the award to start the Krempels Foundation. Why?) During the first couple of years of my injury, I was flat broke, desperately poor, even having a crisis weekend when I had no food and no money. The other thing that came into play was how I was brought up and what I believed in. I was brought up to believe in equality and sharing, and that accumulating wealth was not what we were here for. My father's a minister; I pretty much turned my back on his religious beliefs, but I find that a lot of what he taught me is who I am. In college, our generation talked about power to the people and equality and fairness. The truth is that, at some level, I believed that. 


And here I was with a whole bunch of money. I've got a great house, a new car, I eat well, I have friends, I have a good life, and there's money left over. What am I supposed to do with it? I could try to make as much money as I can, or I could share with people who have less. This sounds a little fluffy and altruistic, but that is what I believe. 


(In the course of your treatment, you must have met others with brain injuries.) Yeah, that's another key element in all of this. Early on, I started to attend a support group for brain injury survivors. What I found was we were pretty much all the same, and the difference was at the end of my nightmare I got a bunch of money. At the end of their nightmare was just more nightmare. Most of them had the same difficulties I did, with really no hope for anything changing in the future. 


(How well does the health care system work for people with brain injuries?) I'm not acquainted with all the specifics, but essentially the health care system, whether you have insurance or Medicaid, they are very good at saving your life, and they're glad to pay for that. Then they'll send you to rehab for a little while, but they don't like paying for that. And after that you go home, and that's about it. You do the best you can. 


There is really not much. There are almost no services for people with brain injuries. Families, Social Security disability, it's really meager, there's almost nothing.


(What does the Krempels Foundation do?) Initially, the only way I knew to help people was to give them a little money, to try to bail them out of desperate situations. We had a grants program for New Hampshire residents with traumatic brain injuries, brain tumor or stroke. People would apply to us, and we would award up to $5,000 to alleviate immediate financial crisis, or to pay for things that would help them get back into the community. 


That was what the Foundation was for a number of years. Something happened along the way. There was a young man who was very severely injured about the same time I had been. He applied to us for a grant, but he didn't really know what he wanted. And I called his case manager to find out how we could really help this guy. And she said, to tell you the truth, what he really needs is a friend. 


[long pause] Took the wind out of my sails. You can't buy a friend. But it did start me thinking. There was some talk already about what's known in the BI community as "clubhouses." There are a few around the country, maybe 4 or 5 total. But the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire had some interest in this: a place where survivors could come during the day, hang out, and perhaps improve life skills. So I met with people from the Brain Injury Association and others, over a period of a year or so, and it became clear this was a great idea. What it needed was someone to write a big check to get it going. 


That was something I could do. I went to my Board of Directors and put on my big pitch, and I have to say they had reservations that we were getting in over our heads financially. But they reluctantly said, okay, we'll give it a shot. 


We thought we were starting on a small scale, get something started and see where it goes. That became our Stepping Stones program. [Now known as the Krempels Center.] And it has just been a sensational success. 


(What do you do in the program?) We have activities mornings and afternoons. We have one mental-health segment each day, an emotions workshop or a group that I really like called "Grief, Transition and Loss." And then there are more fun things -- a music group, art expression. A lot of movement things, like yoga. And some meditation and more contemplative activities. 


The very first day we were open, we didn't really know what we were doing. We were just sitting around looking at each other. There was this gentleman there who was -- he was just... so... sad. I'd never met him before. I talked to him some. He had been involved in a University system in another state. He was obviously very bright, he was into books, was a very accomplished guy. And had a severe brain injury from an accident. He spoke well, he just really couldn't manage his life. His family, his marriage, everything dissolved, which often happens. He just broke my heart. He's someone who I took home with me inside -- not literally, but I carried around with me for quite a while, how sad he was. 


About a month later, I spoke to the executive director of the program and I mentioned this guy's name, and I asked "Does he ever smile?"


She said "Are you kidding me? He's laughing all the time!" The guy has just come to life! He is a pleasure to know and be with. 


I see that kind of thing a lot. I see a lot of laughter, and people just being people. Which is what we are, we're peple. Maybe some parts of us are damaged, but we're people. It gives me a thrill to know that the Krempels Foundation has made a difference in these people's lives. 

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