On the 22 December 2003, I received a traumatic brain injury. Most people with Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) never forget the date of their injury. I was on a family holiday visiting Mount Cook, New Zealand, walking with my twin boys on Mount Selwyn high above the snowline. When I crossed a gully on my path, a rock rolled down (about half a metre across), and landed across my chest, knocking me off my feet.
I tumbled straight down the gully for about 10 metres and was immediately knocked unconscious. Luckily, there was someone nearby who knew first aid. I was rolled onto my side to maintain my airway while my boys ran to the local hut to radio for help. I was then taken to the carpark at the bottom of the mountain where a helicopter was waiting and flown to Christchurch. They worked on me for about 1 hour. My family told me stories of what happened on the day of the accident. Although I have some memories from the day, including what the weather was like, memory takes around 24 hours to imprint.
I was in surgery with a penetrative injury and most of the brain injury was on my left-side. My injuries included a broken left eye socket, broken C4/C5 neck vertebrae, broken ribs, a shearing injury on my left-side, finger trauma and an open fracture to the lower right leg. I was in a coma for about 2 weeks with a Glasgow Coma Scale (coma index) of 4 and in post-traumatic amnesia for 11 weeks. The feeling is akin to all lights are on, but nobody’s home. On 1st April, I arrived as an outpatient at Petersham Metro Rehab and was desperate to leave and go home.
I thought I was in a bad dream and couldn’t wake up. It took around 3 weeks to fully comprehend. It felt like being in a strange place, in a strange body. I was unable to walk and talked very slowly. I had short-term memory loss and slept on average for 19-20 hours a day. One of the reasons why I was desperate to go home was to return to things that were tangible, including my front door, my own bed and my family. I struggled to read books and watch movies because of my memory loss. I would have no memory of how a story started and preferred reading picture books. The first movie I watched the whole way through was “Shakespeare and Love” and was a big moment. I found rehab to be a strange environment, and struggled with the age gap between my therapists and I. As I was a family orientated, professional male in my late 40’s, we didn’t have much in common!
I went back to full-time work in October and decided to take a half-glass full approach. Most people with ABI try to hide it, so I did the opposite. It broke the ice being so open. Pity is the main response for people with ABI, but I believe the response that is needed most is understanding. I was fortunate to return to work as a Project Manager, but was being stretched mentally. It was helpful to focus on the next small step. Small wins were taking three steps without taking the handrail in physio. I still find stairs without a handrail challenging due to the balance required.
Looking back, I realised this event has been so life-changing that I wanted to give something back. In 2006, I joined the board of Brain Injury Association of NSW, of which I am now President. In 2012, I joined the Disability Council NSW as a Council member. I sit on the board of Brain Injury Australia, the Attorney-General’s Disability Advisory Council and City of Sydney’s Inclusion Disability Advisory Panel. I hold workshops for people with ABI with members of the Brain Injury Association of NSW, recently in Bathurst and Dubbo. These workshops give people the space to tell their story and for most people, it’s one of the first times they are in a room with others who “get it”.
When I’m asked the question what would I change for people with disability, I find it difficult to answer for I have been fortunate to have received a good outcome. The one thing that would make a big difference to me is people understanding that when I stop to think, it’s just me taking a moment to process. I tend to listen, process and then respond. It would be nice if people would understand I am listening!
If I think back over the last 10 years, I’ve struggled with getting back to my life but there are 3 things that have created a good outcome for me personally. They are: 1. Excellent medical care – I have received a high standard of medical care during every step of my journey. 2. My network - I have been fortunate to receive care from my network of family, friends and work. 3. My own personal journey – I’ve discovered that you need to be a mixture of driven, stubborn, persistent and patient.
I consider myself lucky because I’m in control of my life and I find my work highly satisfying. Humour has been a useful tool too. It’s important for people to laugh, as life can get too serious with ABI. If I don’t understand something, I often say to people, “Don’t worry, I’ve got an ABI.” That’s always guaranteed to get a laugh. Either that, or my wife rolls her eyes.
By Paul Raciborski