Brain injuries: A disability that is hidden away
Imagine not being able to remember what you have just eaten, what you have just read or even how to cook a basic meal.
It’s an uncomfortable thought, but a reality lived by people who have suffered brain injuries and live every day with what is often called the “invisible disability”.
Often such injuries can be caused by one-off incidents, but they will change the path of a person’s life forever.
According to charity Headway in 2016/17, there were 155,919 admissions for head injuries.
That equates to 427 every day, or one every three minutes. They also say that diagnoses of acquired brain injuries have increased by 10 per cent since 2005.
Just one punch changed Nick's life
For Nick Driscoll, a single punch in a pub was enough to change the course of his life. Grace Currie would have a chunk of her youth snatched away after she was hit by a car while crossing the road.
Both suffered brain damage on those days, but neither of them can remember anything about those decisive moments.
“I don’t remember anything about that night,” says 45-year-old Nick. “My only memory is leaving my house and locking the front door. I can’t remember anything about the three or four days after that.”
Nick had a successful business in Shifnal as a self-employed kitchen fitter. He was sporty and would play rugby at the weekend. But in 2008 all of that changed.
“We were having a night out and I know from reports that I was playing guitar and we were having a sing in a pub,” he says. “Someone apparently just didn’t like me and they attacked me.”
Nick, who also lived in Wolverhampton until recently, had fractures to his cheekbone, a fractured skull, suffered two brain haemorrhages and was hospitalised for a week.
Despite the efforts of the police the attacker has not been caught – something which affected Nick for many years.
“I didn’t know who had done it,” he said. “To begin I struggled with post traumatic stress disorder. Every time I went out I thought it could have been the person sat next to me. I was always outgoing and I found myself becoming withdrawn. People would look at me as if to say ‘you’re Nick, but you’re not Nick’.
“See your personality changes when you have a brain injury. It’s like it has died and you have to build it right back up again. It was like I had been taken away and then put back on a different planet.”
Nick had to give up his business but for four years thought he was coping with his injury and did not seek specialist medical help. Instead he would do games and certain brain gyms which he believed would exercise his brain and he also used meditation techniques for 20 minutes a day.
“I only had a 10 second memory, but I didn’t know that for a lot of years,” he said. “I would read a newspaper headline and then not remember what it said. For the first three to four years I was trying to make myself better but I didn’t understand the extent of my injuries.”
Nick has three children from a previous relationship and says that before the injury he would call his children most days.
“It was probably more difficult for my children,” he continues.
“I maybe wouldn’t speak to them for six or seven weeks and it is because I would forget to call. I just wasn’t me. I have rebuilt that relationship since.”
It wasn’t just existing relationships that Nick struggled with. Starting new ones was also proving a challenge.
“I had a couple of relationships but they didn’t work out when those I was with realised the extent of my injuries, and that’s understandable,” he says.
He did eventually find love. Using some of the compensation he had received from the injury Nick, who recently returned to full-time work over 10 years later, travelled to Egypt to see the pyramids.
While there, he met his now-wife Nataly, a Russian national.
“She just seemed to understand and the stuff with my brain injury didn’t seem to matter,” he says.
The difficulty in creating new relationships is a theme that many with brain injures speak about.
Long road to recovery after Grace was hit by car
Grace Currie was just 17 when she was run over outside a pub in the village of Baschurch near Shrewsbury in 2010. It left her with long term brain injuries and a long road to recovery ahead – one she is still on.
Because of her age a lot of her friends moved away for work or study. Making new relationships became hard.
But thanks to online dating the now 25-year-old has a boyfriend called Ben and they have been together for a year.
Grace doesn’t remember what happened to her at all, but her mum Lorraine, 62, saw the accident happen.
“She took the full impact on the head,” she says.
“She was resuscitated three times by the side of the road. There wouldn’t be words for me to say what it was like to see that. I have just about, with a lot of work, just stopped seeing it every time I shut my eyes.”
Grace was taken to Shrewsbury hospital where Lorraine and dad Graeme were told the outlook was not good. The only hope was that a specialist brain injury unit in Stoke would have room to take Grace in. Fortunately they could make space despite there being no bed available.
“If not it would just have been palliative care until she died,” said Lorraine from the front room of Grace’s home where she has a carer on hand 24 hours a day. “There was nothing else they could do in Shrewsbury.
“It doesn’t get any worse than what Grace had. She had numerous skull fractures, which is quite rare, and she had numerous haemorrhages.”
The situation was perilous, despite Grace having no other psychical injuries to speak of.
“We were in a little waiting room with six other families and everyone died, one after the next, and we just thought ‘there’s no way out of here, we’ll be next’,” said Lorraine. “We were just sat waiting for what we thought was the inevitable.”
But Grace now sports a tattoo on her right arm which says “there is always hope” – in honour of what came next.
Grace was stabilised over the course of a few days and was then given a craniectomy, which involved the removal of the whole front of her skull to allow the brain to swell. It was eventually replaced with a false skull, which she still has.
For six weeks Grace was in a coma. The family knew she would live, but didn’t know what the effects would be. Grace spent a whole year in hospital, and on her release the after effects became clear.
Grace was able to say a few words, but she was at the time unable to walk or read.
“It was like learning everything again,” says Lorraine. “Grace had to learn to hold he head like a baby. She had to learn to sit up without falling backwards. We just did things with her that you would do with a baby because nothing exists. Things like threading bobbins on strings, big jigsaws.
“We made new games all the time like joining the dots, spot the odd one out, things like that.”
Grace’s long-term memory is now virtually non-existent. She can barely remember what she ate for lunch 10 minutes ago, and when asked wasn’t sure exactly how old she is. In fact she doesn’t really remember much about the first 17 years of her life.
“I can’t remember anything, it’s just gone completely,” she says. “I do get frustrated when I can’t remember things, very much so. I remember what I like. Like with food, I know I don’t like hot things.”
Grace now lives completely by routine and plans as she learns by repetition.
She can follow basic instructions to make five meals. It has been a long process which has taken seven years, but this does give Grace independence.
Don’t be mistaken, Grace is extremely bright and was always very studious at school, and you can easily have a conversation with her as she has kept a huge vocabulary.
Her sense of humour and personality is infectious. She is also a talented artist and will graduate with a degree from Chester University in Fine Art next year and is also about to have a piece of her art called Rage displayed in the Art Of Care exhibition in London.
Art became a way for Grace to express herself – and Rage shows what her feeling are towards an image of her while she was in hospital.
“I just come in and do whatever feels comfortable,” she says.
Grace does feel like she has been robbed of her youth, but is determined not to wallow in that and wants to get the best out of life.
“I think I might have missed out on things,” she said. “People go and explore the world. That has been on the back burner.”
Grace’s full capabilities are still not known as she improves all the time, and while that takes patience, there is clear progress.
“Out main goal is to take people out of her life so that she can do things herself,” says Lorraine. “Our role is to put our life as near as we can to what it would have been and make the support invisible. It’s like invisible scaffolding.”