IT’S A FUNNY STORY – How an Aurora comic turned tragedy into comedy

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Mimi Hayes is pictured with an improv comedy troupe she performed with while living in New York. (Courtesy photo by Erik Holladay Photography)

If comedy is the best medicine, then get Mimi Hayes a white coat and stethoscope.

The Aurora native, who suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage at 22, has turned her tragedy into comedic fare by documenting her recovery in a memoir, “I’ll Be OK, It’s Just a Hole in My Head.”

“To share that with people now is terrifying but also very powerful,” she said.

It’s that connection she finds with other people who have also experienced head trauma that drives Mimi and is the reason she wrote her book.

Mimi grew up playing ice hockey in Aurora, just like her father and siblings. She attended Grandview High School where she performed in school plays and musicals.

After graduating in 2010, she enrolled as a history major at CU in Boulder — where she also played ice hockey and received her teaching degree.

And then in October 2014, just five days into her first student-teaching gig, she collapsed as her brain started to bleed.

Mimi had suffered a cavernous angioma, which involves clusters of abnormally-dilated blood vessels.

The deformation of the blood vessels impairs blood flow, causing blood clots and a host of symptoms including seizures, strokes, double vision, memory loss and headaches.

“So when that happened, everything just totally changed about my life,” she said.

Initially, the doctors were unable to provide Mimi with a specific diagnosis.

“Your brain is bleeding and we don’t really know why — but you’re stable-ish,” the doctors told her.

Hayes recovers after having a blood clot removed from her head.

She told the medical team that she had been suffering from headaches, earaches. blurred and double vision.

The doctors eventually diagnosed Mimi with a brain hemorrhage and ordered her to bedrest. She stayed at home, following doctors orders for four weeks and entertaining herself by watching Netflix.

However, over that period of time, the blood clot continued to expand, ultimately reaching the size of a golf ball and her symptoms worsened.

She lost control of the left side of her body, including the taste buds on the left side of her tongue — which was especially jarring.

In her book, Mimi explains that she had been sipping ginger ale through a straw and noticed she couldn’t feel any of the fizz. She initially dismissed the lack of sensation until she tried eating a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal and couldn’t taste the sugar on the left side of her mouth.

She also lost 20 pounds of muscle mass, which was significant for a petite-sized woman. She couldn’t walk and was seeing double all the time.

Mimi speculated that the stress of starting her teaching job, added with the heartbreak of her boyfriend dumping her for another woman, may have led to the hemorrhage.

“It was just kind of a culmination of things,” she said.

The doctors decided to surgically remove the clot, which was located near her cerebellum — the part of the brain that manages coordination, precision and accurate timing.

Mimi then required around-the-clock assistance with basic functions like getting around the house and going to the restroom, which was emotionally scarring for a 22-year-old.

“Nothing about my personality had changed. It was all just my body,” she said.

New steps

It was hard at first for Mimi to cope with the fact that she might be dying.

“So I just denied it entirely,” she said, adding that she would joke about death, which would trouble her friends. But Mimi needed to keep her spirits up, for her own well-being — and finding humor in her personal tragedy was what worked for her.

“This whole process of laughing about it and joking about it was like a survival thing,” she said.

Mimi was just continuing a long and storied satirical tradition — dating back to the Greeks — of turning tragedy into comedy and making light of a bad situation.

As part of her recovery from surgery, Mimi did intensive, occupational physical therapy for two weeks at Spalding Rehabilitation Center in Aurora.

“In that time, I went from ‘I can’t do anything because of brain surgery to … I moonwalked out of there,” she said with a warm smile.

Since she was a teacher, the occupational therapists had Mimi create a lesson plan for students who were also patients at the center receiving therapy for brain injuries.

The physical therapists had also instructed Mimi to go for walks around the neighborhood.

And it was while on one of those walks that a friend of Mimi’s suggested she write a memoir so Mimi could capture all that she had endured and share it with those who may also be dealing with head trauma. But creative writing was not Mimi’s forte; she had written essays in college, but those were historic in nature and academic in their approach.

“I had never even flirted with the idea of writing a book before,” she said.

“I hated writing, actually, because I was a history major. So my professors had to kind of pump it out of me.”

She began a period of self-reflection and introspection and started documenting her experiences in the form of short, comical stories, ultimately compiling all of those stories into a memoir.

Writing became a cathartic exercise as putting her experiences down on paper gave her a sense of relief and accomplishment.

Brighter day

After spending four years recovering and writing, Mimi had regained her mobility and decided she was ready to return to the classroom.

She started teaching ninth-grade geography at East High School in Denver but immediately found it challenging, both physically and emotionally.

She said the students, being kids, would help her but they would also test her, knowing she was a first-time teacher and that she suffered from a physical impairment.

Mimi Hayes performs stand-up comedy at her book launch for “It’s OK, It’s Just a Hole In My Head.” (Courtesy photo by Erik Holladay Photography)

She eventually attained a full-time teaching job at Gateway High School and felt proud as she had finally reached her professional goal. But her return to teaching did not last long.

Mimi had a metaphorical itch and decided she wanted to share her story as a writer and comic.

She was drawn to New York City and felt that’s where she wanted to go.

After planning for a year, she made the move and began her new career.

“It was terrifying,” she said of moving to the Big Apple. “I had been there before and told myself, ‘I could never live there. It’s too loud.’”

She joked that New York isn’t the best place for a brain-injured person, as the bright lights and loud noises of a megalopolis can be difficult to process for those with brain injuries.

“But, I tell you what, the magic of New York City is real,” she said.

Within a few months of moving there and networking, Mimi was able to connect with a publisher through a mutual friend.

Her memoir was published by Animal Media Group and was released earlier this month.

She’s now on a book tour and recently hosted a book launch at Recreative Denver. The event, dubbed “Mimi’s Brain Carnival,” featured an interactive art exhibit where guests could venture inside a replica of Mimi’s brain and learn about various types of head traumas.

Proceeds from the event were donated to the Love Your Brain Foundation, which supports those suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Mimi, who plans to write more in the future, said the most rewarding part of penning her story has been the connections she’s made with other people who have also dealt with head trauma — especially the younger victims.

“All I could ever hope for is someone going through this would read it and feel less alone.”