Simkin, 53, is adapting to what her body and brain can no longer do.
At age 22, she had to learn again how to stand, walk and do many other basic things most take for granted after a horse she was riding reared up, fell on top of her, and rolled over her. After a rehab and healing period of about nine years, Simkin rebounded as much as possible.
But then she suffered another head injury at age 46 when a motorist plowed into the back of her Saab while she was stopped at a red light.
“The weird thing isn’t that this happened to me,” she says. “It’s that I keep walking away. Obviously, I’m here for something.”
Simkin will be among more than 1,400 MATC graduates who will receive degrees during a commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the U.S. Cellular Arena. Walking across the stage will mean more to her than the average graduate.
Doctors told her after her first brain injury that if she hadn’t been a well-trained dancer before her accident, she likely never would have walked again.
“Your brain reboots when you have a brain injury — how you process information and interact with the world,” she explained of the recovery process.
Simkin already has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English, and a master’s degree in human factors engineering — “literally the study of work,” she said. She enjoyed a lucrative consulting career as a human factors/ergonomics engineer — also known as business analyst — before her 2007 car accident, she said.
Through her studies the past three years at MATC, she has figured out how to still do the work she enjoys — helping people better interact with software and other technology — but in a different way.
She can no longer travel as a contractor because of mobility challenges and an inability to function well under fluorescent lights because they interfere with her ability to receive, process, recall and share information. So she has developed new skills such as web design that she can use without having to travel from workplace to workplace and deal with the lights.
Simkin double-majored at MATC in individualized technical studies and visual communications, also known as interactive media. The individualized technical studies program is customized to meet specific educational needs not served by other degree programs, combining skills and knowledge from different disciplines.
Wisconsin’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation helped her get back on her feet by paying for her education, she said.
“It behooves people who have disabilities,” Simkin said. “Do the mourning you have to do, get over it and start to do something. Use what you have. Start with what you want to do and figure out whether there is another way to do it.”
She doesn’t have the luxury of looking for a dream job when she graduates.
“I have to ask, ‘Will you accommodate my disability so I’m not in so much pain,'” she said, referring to headaches and confusion she experiences when she works in a room with fluorescent light. At school, Simkin wears a hat in classrooms with that type of lighting. Natural light from windows poses no issues.
Simkin is excited about the prospects of continuing to do the type of work she loves.
“I like putting information together that empowers people,” she said, adding that she may explore teaching at a community college at some point.
She joined MATC’s student government to regain social skills she lost after her 2007 accident. She’s the outgoing district governor for the state student government, an association of all 16 technical colleges in Wisconsin. She also works as a tutoring associate and develops websites for MATC.
Simkin lost part of her temporal lobe, including muscle memory for balance and orienting, so her service dog, Ice, helps her with both. The rugged Anatolian shepherd dog also helps her walk on ice and snow, and carries things for her in a bag.
She has trouble adding long strings of numbers, which never was a problem before the 2007 accident. While working as an executive assistant prior to the accident, she could keep track of $30 million in a business, she said.
“To have had it and lost it is devastating,” she said.
Her body and different parts of her brain were affected by the second head injury. But ironically, she regained some abilities after the car accident, like “imagining forward” to do technical writing, which she struggled with after the first accident, she said. She also regained muscle memory to cook, which she couldn’t do after the horseback-riding accident, she said.
“One theory of memory is we retain everything; we just can’t access it under certain circumstances. I lost abilities, some of which I was able to reroute. It was like going through a maze. After two major brain injuries, I just remember what I can.”