MN woman back in the spotlight after recovery from brain injury

At her home in St. Paul, with multiple jerseys laid out in front of her, Marie Cooney is quick to flip them over and show off the back.

"They call me spot op, so that’s been really fun."

Cooney is all smiles as she talks of returning to the Xcel Energy Center as a spotlight operator for the Wild and, most recently, the Professional Women’s Hockey Team.

"Lighting has always been my favorite."

Nineteen years ago, inside this same arena, it was a much different story.

"My friends thought I was dead," says Cooney.

After years of working backstage on every stage and large arena in the metro, Cooney took a terrible fall nearly 12 feet on the concrete floor at the X while setting up for a Carlos Santana concert in 2005.

"Everyone was in single angles, and they see this still body on the arena floor and then ‘woosh’ – grand mal seizure," recalls Cooney. "So when the seizure happened they knew, at least she's alive."

Her traumatic brain injury resulted in immediate retirement at age 44, followed by years and years of physical therapy, speech therapy, reintegration programs, the list goes on.

"I had to grieve terribly the loss of myself and embrace who I had become," says Cooney.

Eventually, Cooney and her doctors found some of the many tools that help her get through the day, and avoid the risk of seizures. Items that might seem small, such as amber glasses or a visor, make a huge difference.

"I can be talking to you and the sun is over here, and I just tilt my head and no one knows that I am protecting myself with my visor, and I can continue having a conversation and being in a community with others."

Gradually, Cooney found her way back to her love of live performances through small stages, and sharing stories. She found part-time work bagging groceries at Lunds, all the while extremely thankful for her partner and the most supportive people around her.

"There were times people would say that’s unfair. Why does Marie get to take extra breaks? Again, it’s the invisible injury," says Cooney. "When I’m me, and I’m 100%, but when I hit the brakes, I go down to 20. I can’t stop it, except by stopping. And people either get it or they don’t."

Then Disney On Ice posted a job for a spotlight operator and Cooney decided she was ready to try.

"Disney has some wonderful special effects, but they are not hitting me in the eyes," says Cooney.

It would become her very first time back at the site of her accident.

"Disney On Ice broke the ice. I walked back to the arena," says Cooney. "Once I walked back into the arena my world lit up."

Ever since, Cooney has been able to carefully select many more spotlight operator positions at the Ordway, Northrop Theater, and more. Between her part-time work, she’s a theater advocate for people with neurological challenges.

"You don’t throw people away," says Cooney. "You find new ways for them to teach other people to be safe."

After helping Cooney, Brad Donaldson of the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance wants others to realize that regardless of the degree of a traumatic brain injury, or how long ago it occurred, help is available to absolutely anyone in need of it. 

"Marie has an incredibly unconquerable spirit. She will conquer anything," says Donaldson. "And to watch the progression, this is the potential many if not all have, they just need the support to get there, and they can live shining, powerful, complete lives."

Cooney is well past grieving for her previous self and only embraces who she is today. Shining bright lights and celebrating successes, and leaving those dim days in her past behind her.

"Have hope you may be able to return to things you thought you never would," says Cooney. "You can learn to compensate for things you thought you couldn’t."

If you or a loved one has suffered a brain injury and are looking for resources, you can visit