In 2001, my life changed forever. In my final year of schooling, I was in a car accident where I sustained a brain injury, among other injuries. This is my recovery story. I have been told that it is an inspiring story, one of overcoming challenges, despite many obstacles. I want to give people hope that there can be life after a serious life-changing event, such as suffering a brain injury. I have a passion for helping other people and that is where my heart lies.
Everything from my hopes and dreams, down to how I go about everyday life has changed. Many people have told me I should write down my story and I think the act of writing it down will also help me organise things in my brain.
My hope is that by telling my story, I can inspire anyone who has experienced any setback in life to make a start on improving their situation and to do so with determination and persistence, so they do not give up. Through my story, I would also like to inspire people to go above and beyond any challenge, encourage anyone who has sustained a brain injury and is wanting to find out ways to improve their recovery aspects, give someone hope that their loved one may recover further or help anyone become a safer driver. As you read through my book, keep in mind that I have written it to help you, the reader, improve your situation, whatever that may be. I talk about and give examples of real actionable steps, both physical and mental that can be taken so you can get your desired result.
Chapter 1 - Early life
I grew up in the town of Mudgee. My dad is a mechanic, and my mum is a gardener. I have a sister who is two years younger than me.
My memory of my childhood is very patchy as I can only remember bits and pieces. My Dad tells me that I was an active kid, as many young boys are.
I do have a distinct memory of the time I broke my arm. At the back of the house where I used to live, there was a small slope down to a greenhouse and clothesline. This slope had a concrete path that rose out of the ground about 2 centimetres. I had a small wooden cart with handles on the back for pushing it and I tried to ride it down that path like a skateboard one day. One of the wheels went over the edge of the path, tipping me off and I broke my arm.
My sister and I both attended Mudgee Public School for our primary years. I can only remember little snippets of my life back then. For example, where my Year 2 and Year 6 classrooms were. I do not remember much else from that time.
I only had to move across the road to attend high school. During my time at high school, I remember that my group of friends pretty much stayed the same up until about Year 11. Around that time, some extra kids came to the school, as the other school in Mudgee only went to Year 10. My group of friends slightly increased in size then. I remember a little bit more about high school compared to primary school.
I do remember being very shy, and I would dread anything that took me out of my comfort zone, such as talking to people I did not know or giving a speech in English class. We had to do that once a year and public speaking was almost a fear greater than death for me. Despite being quiet and incredibly shy, I was rather good at school.
I enjoyed senior school, especially maths. I was doing 3-unit maths and I loved it. I was also doing advanced English and although I was not that good at English, my marks told me I was not that bad at it either. My friends and I were usually at the top of the class in terms of results for many subjects and I had a bright-looking future with my then girlfriend and I planning to go to university in Canberra.
During my time in high school, I enjoyed various activities. I used to love playing tennis and I was a good tennis player, often competing in various competitions. I can remember even winning one of those competitions. I also had an interest in playing tabletop games or battles with small metal, plastic and resin figurines that I would assemble and paint. These miniatures and associated games are all made by a company called Games Workshop. Within the Games Workshop franchise there are different games, mostly centred around a period in time, such as one game which is called Warhammer 40,000. This is a fictional, futuristic game where a dormant human civilisation is assailed by hostile aliens and supernatural creatures. Warhammer 40,000 is played with armies, but other games are set in different periods of time and are played with either armies, gangs, mobs, or fleets of miniatures. I would have my own army, gang, mob or fleet and play games against other people who had their own army, gang, mob or fleet. Each of the miniatures would have set characteristics, such as how far they could move in a turn, how accurate they are when shooting a gun or even how good they are at rallying troops.
When I moved from public school to high school, my family moved from living in Mudgee to living out of town on a farm. Living out of town was alright, but one thing I used to hate was riding on the bus to school each day. As I was a very shy guy, I hated talking to people I did not know and every day I got on the bus I hoped I would find an empty, double seat to sit in. If I did not, I would have to endure about half an hour of sitting next to a stranger.
I remember that when I got my licence, I could sometimes drive myself and my sister to school. My mum had a small sedan which she had inherited from her mum. It was a bright orange Fiat and she let me drive it as I was an incredibly careful driver. It stood out and fuelled the obsession I later got for the colour orange. At one point during high school, I remember dying my hair a motley orange/brown colour that reminded people of the character Tigger from Winnie the Pooh books. When I initially met Glenda at university, before she got to know me, she thought of me as ‘that guy in the bright orange shirt’.
Chapter 2 - The crash
On the 13th of September 2001, right between my trial exams and the HSC (Higher School Certificate, which was the very last exam that you had to complete at the end of year 12 at school), I was driving to school just as I had done every other day. There was nothing special about this day, although it was 2 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. I was the only one in the car as my sister was sick that day. I approached a T intersection wanting to turn right, several kilometres out of town. It was the same T intersection I had driven through so many times before, where I stopped to give way to a car coming from the right.
I can only speculate on what happened next as I cannot remember. From what I have been told, the car I stopped for went past me, and I did not see the 4WD with a bull bar behind it, and I pulled out in front of it.
I do not understand how I could have missed seeing the 4WD as I thought I was such a careful driver. One theory is that because it was right between my trial exams and the HSC, my mind might have been elsewhere, thinking about the upcoming exams. Looking at the facts, it appeared to be my fault as it seemed like I pulled out from a T intersection into oncoming traffic. The crash scene was investigated but they could not find any reason for the crash other than my negligence.
The severity of my brain injury means that even today, I still have no memory of my crash. When there is a severe brain injury, there is a subsequent period of Post Traumatic Amnesia where new memories cannot be formed. In my case, my body shut down to allow all the focus to be on keeping essential body functions working. I believe that being unable to remember is one of the body’s self defence mechanisms. If I could remember my car crash, I assume I would probably be haunted by thinking “Why did I not wait a few seconds longer?” or “Why did I not have a second look to the right?”. One of my injuries was multiple broken ribs. My dad tells me that a broken rib is one of the most painful things, let alone having many broken ribs. He does not know how I did not experience any pain from this, but I think this was that same self-defence mechanism. I was in a coma for nine weeks following the crash. The pain was too extreme during this time, so some body functions shut down to allow all effort to be put into keeping my body alive. The following is what I have been told and worked out.
After pulling out in front of the 4WD, it slammed into my driver side door. I am not sure what happened just after that, as nobody saw it and I have no memory of it. The 4WD should have been travelling about 80 km/h as the crash occurred in an 80 km/h zone, but at the spot where the crash occurred, the car was approaching a 100 km/h zone so they may have been speeding up. With the 4WD travelling between 80 and 100 km/h and I was just taking off from a standstill, the force that hit my driver’s door was immense.
I am sure that I would have been wearing a seat belt, so with the 4WD travelling at such a speed, I would have been tossed at the same speed, as much as my seat belt would allow. With the 4WD doing approximately 80 km/h when it hit me, the speed I would have been tossed within the confines of my seat belt would have been 80 km/h. Our brains float in cerebrospinal fluid to minimise any blows to the head and neck. The sudden stop when my seat belt stopped me from moving any further, did not stop my brain from moving. It kept speeding at 80 km/h, straight into the skull surrounding my brain.
My injuries were all internal and the impact of my brain hitting my skull caused the main injury, being an extremely severe traumatic brain injury. The traumatic term refers to an impact from outside of your body on your brain, such as a fall, being struck with an object or a car accident, etc. There were some additional injuries that I suffered. I never saw the x-ray of my rib cage, but my dad did, and he told me it was shattered. I often hold up my hands with my fingers together to make it look like a rib cage when I am telling my story to someone. Then I offset my fingers to one another, push them together and say that this is what my rib cage looked like. Just like a giant had smashed it with a sledgehammer. I do not think that it would take a giant to smash up a rib cage, anyone could do it with a sledgehammer; I just added the giant in for dramatic effect. You can understand why my dad was astonished that I felt no pain from this. Additionally, one of my lungs collapsed, my liver was lacerated, and I was paralysed down the right-hand side of my body.
My house was only several kilometres along that road I had come down and when my dad arrived on the accident scene, there were already two people helping, one was holding up my head and one was monitoring my pulse. My dad took over, holding up my head until the ambulance arrived.
My easy-to-understand definition of a brain injury
I have a way of explaining my brain injury in terms that most people can understand. Imagine your brain is like a big library which has books about all sorts of things, including your abilities and memories. Basically, anything that is kept in your brain. In libraries, everything is all organised neatly so things can be found easily when someone searches for something. That was what my brain was like before my car crash. If I wanted to do something, I would just go to the organised library of my brain and pull out the book on how to do it. I would know where it was stored, and it would take me very minimal time to retrieve it.
Now imagine that library was picked up and shaken all around, causing the books to fall from the shelves. This meant that it was a complete mess and there was a shattered indexing system with little organisation left. This is what happened to me. After my car crash, my brain was even messier than a teenage boy’s bedroom. There were books all over the place and the only way to find something was to pick up one book at a time, examine the cover and think to myself, “Is this the book I am looking for?” If it were not the book, I would throw it over my shoulder and pick up the next book.
A library has thousands of books so imagine how long it would take to go through them looking for a specific book, one book at a time. It is slightly more organised today with me being able to access most of the books that are in the forefront of my mind relatively easily, but the archives of my brain, being the place that stores anything that I have not thought about for some time, are still a complete mess, with books everywhere. This is shown when I get asked a question about a topic that I have not visited for some time. In that case, I need to start sifting through the library of books in the archives of my brain, one book at a time, looking for the book relating to the question I have been asked.
However, this has improved over time as the more I try to do something, the more the neural pathways to that book are strengthened. Neural pathways are the sequence of connected neurons that are used to send signals from one part of the brain to another. This can be illustrated by the computer system that assists you in searching for a book in the library by telling you where you can find it. If you visit a particular book or a specific area of books in the library consistently, you start to learn where they are and do not need to keep finding the book on the computer system. This constant revisiting of the book/s is like the strengthening of neural pathways by repetitively trying to do things I used to be able to do. After my injury, this was an accurate picture of me as I had lost many abilities that I could once do. There can be a lot of grief and adjustment to this type of loss. Therefore, if you have a loved one or someone you care for who has sustained a brain injury, they may be more susceptible to symptoms of depression.
Chapter 3 - Recovery in Hospital
After I was extracted from the car, I was rushed into Mudgee Hospital where I was stabilised. The brain is surrounded by the cranium or skull. My brain was swelling due to bleeding and bruising, and if it continued to swell and increase in size, it would have struck the cranium and caused even more catastrophic damage. There was a visiting surgeon in Mudgee that day who was able to put a burr hole in the side of my head to release the pressure. He came to Mudgee one day each month and the day he came was also the day I had my car crash.
After being stabilised in Mudgee Hospital, I was airlifted by helicopter down to St George Hospital in Sydney for further treatment. I used to be a member of the Mudgee squadron of the Australian Air League, as I used to love aeroplanes and flying. I did have the goal of one day getting my license to fly a plane, so it was a real shame that the transfer to St George was my longest ride in a helicopter, and I was not even conscious to enjoy it.
I remained in St George Hospital for nine weeks before being transferred to the Westmead Brain Injury Unit. I stayed at Westmead for fifteen weeks before I was transferred closer to my home to the Mid-Western Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program at Bathurst, where I had to remain for six weeks.