Local teacher suffered a serious concussion. She says it made her a better mom, mentor.

Art teacher says serious concussion made her a better mom, mentor

Belleville West High School art teacher Cari Casper-Bassler talks about her life-changing concussion. She says it's made her a better mom to her son with autism and better mentor to students in and out of the classroom.
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Belleville West High School art teacher Cari Casper-Bassler talks about her life-changing concussion. She says it's made her a better mom to her son with autism and better mentor to students in and out of the classroom.

Some days, Cari Casper-Bassler could only lie in her darkened bedroom with light weights in her hands for the vertigo and an ice pack on her head for the migraine.

She hit her head when she fell in an icy parking lot last winter. The “fluke accident” caused a concussion with near-constant pain, dizziness and sensitivity to light and sound, she said. But since she’s recovered, Casper-Bassler, 40, describes the experience as “a blessing.”

Because of the concussion, she said she gained a better understanding of her 5-year-old son Luke, who has autism. The experience has also enabled her to help some students at Belleville West High School, where she works as an art teacher, in a way she couldn’t before.

Casper-Bassler’s classroom was already a place where her students could go to seek advice. They call her Mama.

When Savannah Klingelhoefer, a sophomore, walks through the door, she said she feels relieved.

“Last year, I went through personal issues and stuff at home and even stuff at school, and every day I would come into class and she would give me a big hug and she’d talk to me,” Savannah said.

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Belleville West High School senior Cailyn Wylie and art teacher Cari Casper-Bassler discuss an art project. Derik Holtmann

But now, students who aren’t enrolled in her classes are stopping by to talk about concussions.

Casper-Bassler said what made the difference in her recovery was having a family that was familiar with brain injuries. Her dad had a brain aneurysm before her fall.

Her husband Matt learned about concussions during his time as a coach. He’s also a teacher at Belleville East High School.

But Casper-Bassler said some students’ families didn’t have those experiences to help them be supportive.

“I have students who have (concussions) and their families just can’t understand, you know? ‘You look fine to me. What are you talking about? You look fine,’” she said.

Casper-Bassler’s concussion sometimes made her feel like she was trapped in her body, just watching things happen.

... It’s very, very spooky sometimes. ... It can be very painful. But in the end, I see it as a blessing.

Cari Casper-Bassler on her concussion

“You look fine, but on the inside, you’re still a passenger,” she said. “So I had the opportunity to reach out to parents and explain it to them, which has been really helpful because when you have a kid’s teacher call, that means something. That’s a big deal.”

Before her injury, Casper-Bassler said she had been one of those parents who didn’t fully understand what their child was going through.

She could research autism to learn that her son might feel uneasy in crowds, might need a break from lights and sounds and might have trouble communicating that. “I understood those things, but I didn’t get it until I hit my head, until I had a concussion and actually had to live through it,” she said.

“And so on one end of it, I feel like I have such a better understanding of my son and what he’s going through that I would have this accident again and again and again to get me to that.”

‘That gives you a hell of a drive’

Casper-Bassler fell when she was leaving school for the day Dec. 16, 2016. She could see the ice from the door as she headed out to the parking lot.

“I don’t even recall it raining that day. It was just really foggy, really misty,” she said. “But the temperature had dropped really quickly, and so all the wet pavement turned into black ice.”

After the fall, she was in pain and vomiting. She saw odd changes in her vision, like rainbows on the ceiling. People had trouble understanding her when she spoke.

Because her memory was also affected, Casper-Bassler said she didn’t always realize the severity of her injury.

“I thought I was fine,” she said. “Like I thought, ‘Why can’t I go to work? This is stupid.’ … What I didn’t understand was that in about 20 minutes, I would ask the same question.”

It was especially difficult for her to hear that she was “unfit to work.”

“When somebody tells you, ‘You can’t,’ that gives you a hell of a drive,” she said.

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Belleville West High School senior Yolanda Cartagena prepares to get her portrait taken by art teacher Cari Casper-Bassler. Senior Emily Schnarr helps hold the light for the portrait. Derik Holtmann

Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy along the way has helped her. Sometimes, she still struggles with numbers — dates and math.

But what she’s learned from this and other challenges is that attitude plays a role in recovery.

“The neat thing about what you go through is that, if you always have the attitude that ‘This is just a bump; this is just a bump in the road, and I can get through this; it’s no big deal, and I’m not doing this alone,’ you always have a way to just grab yourself by the bootstraps and just keep on kicking butt,” Casper-Bassler said.

Her positive outlook and support system of family, friends, co-workers and students became even more important over the summer. At the same time she was recovering from the concussion, her mom Carol Casper died.

After she found out, Casper-Bassler said her headache and vertigo subsided, and she thinks her mom is responsible.

“I could just hear my Mama get up to heaven, first time she’s there, she’s like, ‘And I need you to do something for me, please,’” she said.

Her mom had been a mother figure for her friends, her sister Renee’s friends and for the other children in their neighborhood, according to Casper-Bassler. Growing up in that environment helped shape Casper-Bassler’s teaching style. “I knew that when I became a teacher, that that’s who I wanted to be,” she said.

After the time away from her classroom, Casper-Bassler said she has plans to continue working as long as she can.

“I’m definitely not interested in retiring anymore” she said. “You guys can kick me out when I’m too old.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Meet Cari Casper-Bassler

  • Family: Husband Matt Casper-Bassler; sons Luke, 5, and Caleb, 3
  • Job: Art teacher at Belleville West High School
  • Education: Southwestern Illinois College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Hometown: Fairview Heights