By Joseph Andrew Lee

“You can’t take care of other people if you don’t take care of yourself, and that’s something all caretakers struggle with,” said Melissa Meadows, 44, a non-medical attendant caregiver.

She cares for her husband, John, an Army National Guard staff sergeant who was medevaced out of Afghanistan for a brain injury evaluation in February after surviving a series of blasts in combat.

Melissa Matthews poses for a photo at the 2014 USO Gala in Washington. | Photo credit USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Melissa thought she’d help her 45-year-old husband recover for a week or two, but she has been living in the barracks on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as John’s 24-hour caretaker ever since.

“He wanted to do his part after 9/11 and when he was hurt, our lives came to a screeching halt very unexpectedly,” she said.

With four children—two still living at home—the Meadows weren’t at all prepared for their father and husband to come home with symptoms similar to those of a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

With no idea how long it would take for John’s health to improve, she had to take leave from her job in Connecticut as a pediatric nurse and move to Virginia.

“We moved out of the house we were renting—probably gave half of our stuff away—and had put the rest in storage,” she said.

Melissa said her former employer fired her six months into John’s recovery. “They said I’m welcome to reapply if ever I get back up to Connecticut. But that was it, so here I am. Our lives were shattered apart and I’m here trying to rebuild.”

The Meadows were able to move their youngest, Timothy, into an apartment in Woodbridge, Virginia, to have him and their grandson close, but there was no way they could maintain their home in Connecticut because John needed daily care.

“He doesn’t wake up to the alarm clock. He has memory issues. He falls asleep in the shower, so I have to keep an eye on him. His speech slurs, and you can even see his battery running down.”

Even with all the visual cues and placards displayed around their barracks room to remind him of simple processes like dressing and basic hygiene, he still forgets. Every day, she sends her husband off to the TBI clinic for therapy. She said it’s like sending your kindergartner off to their first day of school every day. It’s heartbreaking.”

Before he deployed, John was a full-time driver for General Dynamics and he and Melissa picnicked together, went kayaking and enjoyed the outdoors. Now he wanders off and he gets confused. She knows he’ll never be 100 percent, but he is making daily progress with her as his caregiver. She, on the other hand, is exhausted.

“You lose yourself in this whole process,” she said. “Ideally you don’t, but the reality is that you do because you’re trying so hard to support your soldier and your family and you’re trying to keep everybody else together. … You don’t have time for you.”

With her son Timothy and her grandson Oliver living nearby, she tries to visit them often and do some gardening, which she finds therapeutic. In addition, the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir offers art therapy, which Melissa insists on attending so she can play with the clay and release her stress. Sometimes it’s the only way she can relieve the stress.

“I feel like I don’t know who I am any more. I’ve kind of lost my identity in all this,” she said. “I still hold my license. I’m still a nurse. But I’m not a nurse. I’m John’s wife. I’m John’s caregiver. I’m Tim’s mom, and I’m Oliver’s grandmother.”

The Meadows will live the rest of their lives on a fixed income and John will need continued brain injury care for at least the next four years, so that limits where they can live.

“There’s a lot of what-ifs and unknowns for us right now,” she said. “But [John] needs me more than ever right now, and as long as I can remember to put the oxygen mask on myself first, we can get through this together.”

–Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO multimedia journalist