War veterans and NFL athletes tend to suffer from traumatic brain injuries—not children competing in youth sports. But when Kerri Payne’s daughter, Erin, suffered a severe concussion during gymnastics practice at age 13, they both found themselves navigating the painful world of TBI. “The concussion morphed into post-concussion syndrome and ultimately a long-term brain injury,” says Payne, an agent with Residential Properties Ltd. in Barrington, R.I. “The ramifications were life-changing, debilitating and tragic, and we were living in what I can only describe as a form of hell for years.”
From failing eyesight to digestion problems, traumatic brain injuries can cause myriad health issues—many of which most people don’t think about. Payne and her daughter spent years trying to understand the various issues Erin’s brain injury had caused and how she could live with them. “There were several weeks where we were going to four or more [medical] appointments,” Payne says. “I had to take a big step back from my career to be able to care for my daughter.”
Erin, who spent a year away from school during recovery, felt isolated and forgotten while her friends’ lives carried on, Payne says. Even when Erin returned to school, she couldn’t resume athletics. Most of the time, she wasn’t well enough to go out with her friends. “You feel like you’re the only person in the world going through this,” Payne says of her daughter’s trauma.
Frustrated by a lack of support and resources, Payne started scouring the internet for answers. She landed on the Concussion Legacy Foundation, an organization that offers a wealth of information and resources and an online community of people who have suffered injuries similar to Erin’s. “People from all different sports and walks of life have their stories on the site,” Payne says. “I sat down and watched [the videos], and I told Erin all about them. We knew we had to get involved.”
Payne and her daughter became ambassadors for CLF, committing to spreading awareness about concussions and traumatic brain injuries in their community. CLF then asked Erin to share her story on the nonprofit’s website and social media pages. But there was more they envisioned for CLF. “The one thing we wish we’d had was a peer support system for the kids and the parents, and so we mentioned that was something we wanted to do,” Payne says.
Not long after, CLF instituted a helpline families could call to find comfort and advice while caring for someone with TBI. Payne and her daughter were the first to mentor another family. “Erin mentored the daughter, and I mentored the mom,” Payne says. The mentorship was so successful that CLF asked Payne to appear in a short documentary for the annual gala fundraiser. The video was shown to more than 1,000 people over Zoom during the pandemic.
Since its inception, the hotline has helped more than 1,000 families navigate the oftentimes bleak and long road to recovery from traumatic brain injuries and serious concussions. Payne says it means more to her than anything to be able to help another parent. “Erin’s injury took over absolutely every aspect of my life. I had to change the way I did everything,” she says. “I really feel good when I can help someone else get some years of their life back through the hotline.”
Payne also notes that if it weren’t for her career in real estate, providing the round-the-clock care her daughter needed in those years would have been impossible. “Thank God I was in real estate because it’s flexible. If I’d have had to go to an office every day, I would have had to quit. Real estate allowed me to stay in business and prioritize my family.”