Acquired Brain Injury

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  A special feature series by Lynn Malone

When people first hear my son has a brain injury their initial reaction is one of horror, quickly followed by sympathy then embarrassment; an awkward silence usually follows.

I can understand this response because the effects of an acquired brain injury (ABI) like my son’s can range from the relatively mild to the catastrophic, so people’s reaction is a knee jerk one, assuming the worst.

  A special feature series by Lynn Malone

When people first hear my son has a brain injury their initial reaction is one of horror, quickly followed by sympathy then embarrassment; an awkward silence usually follows.

I can understand this response because the effects of an acquired brain injury (ABI) like my son’s can range from the relatively mild to the catastrophic, so people’s reaction is a knee jerk one, assuming the worst.

Our lives changed forever one wet and windy November night in 2011 when we received a phone call to say our eldest son, Mike, 28, was in hospital following an accident.  His brother, Matthew, 26, was with him and said: “Don’t worry Mum, he’s just bumped his head, he’ll be fine.”  Suddenly feeling sick, I instinctively knew it was more than that and minutes later a consultant from the Victoria Infirmary, in Glasgow, called to say Mike was “very poorly” and that we should get to the hospital immediately – “don’t drive” she added.

The journey to the hospital was gut wrenching and my husband, Michael, and I were rendered speechless – I don’t think we uttered a word, both just staring through the window of the taxi.

A former wild child, Mike, now worked with disadvantaged young people while studying for a degree in social work and was in his first year at university. In fact he had turned down an invite to a party that night to finish off course work; it was the 26th November, just after midnight.

We were greeted at the accident and emergency by a white faced Matthew, a consultant and nurse and led into a family room but not before I spotted Mike being sped away on a trolley, his eyes taped down. He was, the consultant said, very ill and she suspected he had a “substantial bleed on his brain” and was undergoing a scan to confirm this.  She would say no more until his results came back.

It transpired that Mike, who shares a tenement flat with his brother, Matthew, a musician, lost his balance when he went into his pocket to retrieve his house keys. The hand rails in their close are quite low and Mike tall so he careered over onto the concrete steps below, landing on his head. Luckily his friend was with him and called an ambulance immediately otherwise he may have lain undiscovered.

After some time the consultant came back in to speak to us, she seemed ill at ease and time suspended as she told us that Mike did have a bleed on his brain, a “right temporal acute subdural haematoma”. We were every one of us, numb as we looked at the medics for some sign of hope but the doctor just shook her head, her eyes watered as she took my arm and said: “Come and see your son, come and see your boy.” I knew where she was going but I refused to believe it.

All three of us tentatively walked in, his brother, his Dad and I and there was a sense of unreality about it all, this couldn’t really be happening, could it? But it was. Mike was on a ventilator, unconscious and perfect, there wasn’t a mark on my son, he looked fine, just asleep. But the noise from the machines and the cool temperature of his body and the stillness, told me different. It was just indescribable, unbearable.

Some time had passed when we were suddenly told that a team were to take Mike to the Southern General, also in Glasgow, a hospital with a worldwide reputation in the field of brain injury research. They had looked at his brain scans and the nurse said to me that this meant there was hope.

Having sent Matthew home as he was clearly exhausted and traumatised, we arrived at the hospital in the early morning. The rain fell on Mike as he was transferred from the ambulance to the building alongside the five medics who had cared for him during the journey. As he was being settled in the high dependency unit the medical staff explained the situation to Michael and I. Our son would be given another scan shortly to determine if the bleed had got worse. The results would determine the course of action they would take.

Thankfully the scan showed no deterioration and it was explained to us that they were going to withdraw Mike’s medication to see if he regained consciousness. They also tentatively explained that Mike had an acquired brain injury and that he may have suffered permanent brain damage. Once again Michael and I were both speechless and sat in silence waiting.  In retrospect we were to afraid to voice the fear we both had, we were crippled by it. We just sat, stomachs churning every time we heard the squeak of a shoe coming along the corridor, terrified it was bad news.

What followed a few hours later seemed nothing short of a miracle. Yet again we were told to come and see our son, this time the nurse had a huge smile on her face.  Mike sat up in bed, looking confused and bemused and kept repeating the same phase over and over: “Where am I?  What am I doing here? What are you doing here?”

Looking from me to his Dad to the tubes coming from his body, he kept repeating this mantra – he was at a loss. I was ecstatic and thought because he was awake and moving and speaking and looking at me that it was all fine. I was very naive and it was a blow to be told that the next 48 hours were crucial.  It felt like we were back to square one and I wanted to scream in fear and frustration but of course I couldn’t.