There’s no break before the final Pink Concussions summit panel, and I don’t take one. Big mistake.
Six brain injury survivors are on stage telling their stories.
Freya: Held under water, thrown off a porch, strangled until assumed dead. Intimate partner violence. (My notes: Had never thought how big this is. 4:39 tired and need to pee.) No one ever asked who did it. “Ask the questions,” Freya urges doctors. “It’s a potential life you can save.”
Colleen: Studying to be an occupational therapist, assaulted by an autistic child. Finally passed fourth attempt at exam when it was on paper, not the computer. Her family’s positive approach set the stage for her ultimate recovery.
Harmony: Military radiologist who had an accident during a skydiving training jump. (My notes: Triggered. Triggered. (I’m not sure why.)) “When I left, no one told me about having a head injury,” she says. Follow-up MRI done four years post-accident. She’s blind in one eye and has a service dog who can dial 911. (My notes: I’m gonna cry.) Refused rehab at a military centre in Florida because the one and only washroom was for men. (That’s a twisted scene from the movie Hidden Figures.)
Brittni: Three concussions from university soccer. Two neck surgeries. Awesome athletic trainers and social worker. The harm came from all the medications. “Here are some opioids. Go play soccer!” the doctors said.
Cara: Car accident. “I had to come to terms with the fact that I would not return to pre-injury status.” We need more community reintegration, she says. “Especially for less traumatic injuries than my own.”
The sixth panellist’s story is just as important as the others, but it hits closer to home. Claire Smith is just a year older than me. She’s also from my home and native land.
Claire was on the Canadian equestrian team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. A year later (22 years ago, and three days before the birth of my eldest daughter), her horse, Gordon, hit a jump while they were competing at the European Championships in England. They both went down.
Claire’s U.K. hospital stay and post-traumatic amnesia lasted four months. “I don’t remember anything from that time,” she says. (Did I mention this is the first time since my accident that I’ve heard survivors tell their stories?)
Claire started out-patient therapy in Ottawa after she was discharged from the hospital in March 1998. “I tried to go back to my old life with horses,” she says. “That was something I wanted to try, but it didn’t work.”
Having lived a life focussed on riding, Claire proceeded perhaps unsurprisingly along other narrow tracks, obtaining master and PhD degrees, both on head injuries. “That helped with healing,” she says.
Nine years after the accident, Claire started dragging her right leg and developed a disease called dystonia. She now navigates life in a wheelchair.
A year ago, Claire published a memoir, Falling into Now: Memories of Sport, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Education. She does public speaking. “I do a lot and I love my life,” she says.
I buy Claire’s book, head home, take a bath and fall into bed. Brain is exhausted, my tiny, tiny scrawl says in my journal.
1/ My journey to the World Congress on Brain Injury
4/ Pink concussions, Clark Kent and social isolation
Next: 6/ Sex and the brain