Recovering from Brain Injury

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  The second in a two part series by Lynn Malone [Part One Here]
 
When my son regained consciousness following an accident my immediate response was relief but it was short-lived when it transpired he had a ticking time bomb in his head.
 
Mike, 28, who was studying social work while working with disadvantaged young people, lost his balance going up stairs to his tenement flat, falling onto concrete steps and landing on his head in November 2011.  He suffered a bleed on his brain and an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and had been placed on a ventilator.

  The second in a two part series by Lynn Malone [Part One Here]
 
When my son regained consciousness following an accident my immediate response was relief but it was short-lived when it transpired he had a ticking time bomb in his head.
 
Mike, 28, who was studying social work while working with disadvantaged young people, lost his balance going up stairs to his tenement flat, falling onto concrete steps and landing on his head in November 2011.  He suffered a bleed on his brain and an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and had been placed on a ventilator.

As he was moved from the high dependency unit to intensive care we assumed it was just a matter of time before he recovered and was back to normal.  He looked fine.  But my blood ran cold when a nurse explained there was a possibility he would need surgery as there was a blood clot on his brain.  They would manage it conservatively for now and hope the pressure would ease.

The next few days were fraught with pain and anxiety for Mike, although he tried his best to hide it.  He spent most of his time in a dark room waiting for the pain to recede.  As a family we employed dark humour to survive and ignored the elephant in the room.

Surgery may have led to a host of other problems so we were relieved when the next scan showed the clot was dissolving.  Mike was out of immediate danger.  Now it was time to face the facts and find out what damage had been done. 

When Mike fell he injured the frontal lobe of his brain, the area behind the forehead.  The consultant explained that it would affect Mike’s cognitive skills, his memory, his ability to plan and organise as well as his mood and motivation.  He also said that many people suffer from chronic fatigue after a brain injury.

He was discharged from hospital, I thought, surprisingly early, just twelve days later and came back to stay with his Dad and me.  The festive season was approaching and I was astounded when he was inundated with requests to “go for a pint”.  Because he looked alright people thought he was, his injury wasn’t apparent, it was hidden.  Mike now had a hidden disability because that’s often what brain injury is.

The bad news was that brain cells do not regenerate when they are destroyed.  But we learned that the brain has the ability to reorganise itself to an extent to recover lost function.  During recovery other areas of the brain take over the activities of the damaged areas.  The message seemed to be that Mike’s recovery would be long and arduous, it could take months or years, but rehabilitation could help the brain learn alternative ways of working that would minimise the long term impact of the brain injury.

At home the after effects weren’t immediately apparent, perhaps because Mike was in a closed, safe environment.  I would scrutinise him, looking for signs and I noticed that when he replied to a question or request it was almost as though he was going into a filing cabinet in his head and retrieving information.  There would be around a five second gap before he replied, there still is. 

Outside he suffered from panic attacks, and nerves, constantly lost things like his keys, his phone, his bank cards, and would forget where he was going and why.  He still suffers but has coping mechanisms now like setting reminders, keeping a diary and making sure he is insured for loss. 

Several months passed during which time Mike attended a clinic fortnightly for rehabilitation, which I felt wasn’t enough as the impetus had gone by the time his next appointment was due and he had forgotten most of what was discussed anyway.  I saturated everyone with information like a woman possessed before contacting the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and demanding he be assessed for intensive residential care.  

Tom McMillan, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, assessed Mike, and said that he was functioning at too high a level for residential care.  Professor McMillan left me in no doubt that I was overdosing on information and suffering from fear and that Mike was very fortunate to be so well considering the injury he had sustained.  Shouldn’t the public be educated, I asked? “Yes it undoubtedly should; there needs though to be a careful balance/awareness without causing undue fearfulness.”

I also contacted Headway, a charity which gives help and support to people affected by brain injury.  Their aim is to promote understanding of all aspects of acquired brain injury and to provide information, support and services to people with brain injury, their families and carers. 

Simon Glen, project co-ordinator at Headway Glasgow agrees with Professor McMillan and thinks the public need more clarity.  He said:  “It is one of the aims of Headway to increase public understanding.   When awareness of brain injury is better it reduces the amount of unknowing discrimination that goes on in things like medical services, social work services, the benefits agency and society as a whole.”

Finally, fiercely independent, Mike announced his plans to return home and work towards regaining his former life, which he has to a certain degree.  It’s a journey that is ongoing, he will always be looking for ways to cope and get better.  Along the way he has encountered many difficulties, including discrimination, but he’s a far cry from the young man who woke up bemused to discover he had been in an accident that almost proved fatal. 

He is back at work and this academic year we’ll be bursting with pride when he returns to university.