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*Trigger warning* for those who have experienced loss or life-altering change as the result of a crash.
The last thing I remember is looking at my speedometer. It said 107 km/h. “The perfect speed,” I thought to myself.
I was being cautious to help my friend and passenger feel safe. In the summer of 2018 she suffered a catastrophic loss as the result of a crash.
Then, nothing. Just darkness.
I learned later that over the next hour local first responders entered my vehicle and stabilized us by holding our necks in place while keeping us strapped into our seats.
My next memory is of looking at my windshield. It was shining with broken glass and too close to me.
My steering wheel was bent at 45 degrees and folded into what used to be my dash. I looked at my friend next to me, she was covered in blood.
I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t feel anything.
I closed my eyes again.
We were in a highway speed collision. An oncoming vehicle crossed over the centre line and hit us head-on.
I vaguely recall being extracted from the remnants of my vehicle when the ambulance arrived. I screamed in pain. I didn’t know where the pain was coming from, only that it was excruciating. Then there was a hand, the most soft, comforting, hand. It was a stranger who told me over and over again, “Everything is going to be OK, sweetie.” I learned later that she was the first person on scene and responsible for calling 911.
I was strapped to a stretcher on the side of the road waiting to be loaded into an ambulance.
My body was vibrating in shock. Echoes of my friend’s screams in the distance still haunt me if I allow myself to think about it for long enough. Then everything goes black again.
More than physical side effects
Digital imaging at the hospital showed bleeding in three parts of my brain, about six millimetres each. I was diagnosed with a mild-complicated traumatic brain injury or TBI.
The symptoms of my TBI persisted for nearly two years after my injury. At the beginning of my recovery, I couldn’t leave a dark, quiet room for more than 30 minutes at a time. When symptoms set in, I would feel dizzy, disoriented, nauseous, confused, irritable and anxious.
I learned as time went on that the emotional side effects of a TBI can be just as paralyzing as the physical ones. I was lonely and isolated, because my recovery required solitude in dark and quiet places. On top of that, the tools that I had used in the past to navigate challenging times were taken away. I couldn’t go for a walk or a drive in the country. I couldn’t listen to my favourite artist or visit with my best friends. I couldn’t write in my journal or reflect and learn from my experience.
Everything was blurry, and my brain, the thing I would normally use to problem-solve a difficult situation, wasn’t on my side.
Months after the accident, I inquired about the details of what happened on that fateful night. I learned that my vehicle was struck on the right-hand shoulder of the road. I had about 40 feet of brake lines behind me. The other vehicle had none.
There were 21 feet between the hoods of our vehicles after impact, indicating a cumulative speed of more than 200 km/h at impact. The occupants of the other vehicle walked away from the accident. My friend and I were not so lucky.
Invisible injuries are isolating
My brain injury has had a tremendous impact on my life — an impact I wouldn’t have to deal with if that oncoming driver had been paying attention. My life is changed forever because someone else drove distracted, drunk or drowsy.
A brain injury is an isolating and horribly lonely experience, to no fault of my family and friends who cared for me. I didn’t know what to ask for, and they did the best they could.
During my five months at home, I spent most workdays only speaking to my physiotherapist. I had a support network, but on the days when my phone didn’t ring, I was at home, alone, in the quiet, suffering in pain and confusion, trying to understand what was wrong with me.
On the rare occasion that I was well enough to spend time with a friend, they would try to be encouraging by saying “you look great,” or “if it makes you feel better, I can’t tell.”
I understand it’s hard for others to know what to say in these difficult situations and I don’t fault them for not saying the things I needed to hear. However, their encouragement landed on deaf ears. I was different. I was a stranger to myself and it felt like there was no one who understood. While my world came to a literal screeching halt, the rest of the world spun madly on.
As my treatment progressed, I was lucky enough to meet other TBI survivors who shared their stories with me. As I felt well enough to do so, I did some of my own internet research to find organizations in support of those living with a TBI.
One thing became increasingly clear: a TBI is unlike any other injury. Your brain is who you are. When it is changed, it changes everything.
Society wouldn’t expect a person with a broken leg to run a marathon with a cast on. TBIs are invisible, and for this reason, in my experience, others often underestimate the effect that they have on survivors’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.
If you are someone with a TBI or know someone with a TBI, try to visualize the “cast” on their brain and, most importantly, slow down to walk by their side while they heal.
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