I sustained my injury at the age of 19, on January 13, 1994 in a downhill ski race at Mont. Saint Anne Ski Resort in Quebec. Travelling at the approximate speed of 100-120km an hour with almost flawless technique, I was poised to win the race or at least finish in the top 3. One of my ski bindings released in a rough section of the course.
The next part happened so fast that I only have vague recollections, and rely mostly on what was told to me by others who were watching the fall. The hill got drops dramatically immediately following where I had lost my first ski, called “the gunbarrel” section of the course. Next, my other ski popped off and shot approximately thirty feet in the air, or so I’m told, and I basically did a face plant in the snow sliding down the entire steep pitch on my face, finally coming to a complete stop at the bottom when the incline flattens out. I was wearing a helmet but no face guard.
According to a coach who was watching in that section, I stood up so they all thought I was fine, but then I sat back down again. My skis were both found, and when put together should have made an “I” shape, yet instead made a “Y”; this illustrates the shear forces that was involved in the crash. I also somehow tried to swallow my ski pole in the fall, as it got stuck in my mouth and jammed a hole in the roof of my mouth that is still there today. It gets a little blurry from here, but I was still aware of tremendous blood loss. Many must have come to my rescue, including the hill/race doctor, ski patrol, my coach, and now I truly believe that God was there the whole time protecting me.
When they took me down the hill in the toboggan, I remember putting my hand up to my face and feeling all open flesh, so I had to essentially hold my face together. It appeared that time stopped as everything was taking so long. They took my favourite ski boots off, and I never saw them again. The professionals were in a rush to save my life because the entire time I was losing blood; that’s all I was really aware of and finally being put in an ambulance,
The whole time in the ambulance, I was frightened that I was on death’s doorstep. Honestly, I did not know if I would make it to the hospital or whether I would even come out of this situation alive. Apparently, it took the ambulance driver approximately 13 minutes to get to the nearest hospital in Quebec City which would normally take 25-30 minutes at the regular speed limit. Let’s just say my coach was on edge with how fast the man was driving! Somewhere on route to the hospital, I passed out or was heavily sedated because I have no recollection of entering the hospital.
My next memory was of waking up in the ICU and seeing two clocks on the wall, due to it “double vision”. My parents and friends came to see me, and even though I could not really see, I communicated by writing on paper. I’m not even sure it was even readable. Later, my friends told me that when they had seen me there in the ICU, my head looked like a soccer ball, they did not recognize me and I was saying crazy things like, I would go to the next race with them, which would have been within a day or two.
Four surgeons operated on me for approximately 11 hours, repairing major facial trauma, including broken jaw (mandible & maxillia), cheekbone (zygomatic bone), eye socket, through and through lacerations diagonally across my face, loss of about 5 teeth from my upper jaw (now buried on the hill), and finally a blood transfusion to replace about 2L or 1/3 my blood supply. It’s possible that I had an anoxic brain injury due to the amount the volume of blood lost.
I spent about five days in ICU and another few days in my own room. I remember having the tubes pulled out of my throat and not being able to drink juice unless it was diluted because it would burn going down. I needed oxygen for a while until I learned to breathe again on my own. On the last day, about nine days after being admitted, I walked out of the hospital much to the surprise of my doctors. That day, the doctor had to suction blood out of my right ear, the one where I had ruptured my Eustachian tube, part of the inner ear, not certain if the blood was from the ear injury or blood that escaped from my brain. There were was no apparent trauma to my brain observed by the doctors at that time, mostly because it was not detected on an MRI or CAT scan.
I travelled home by plane with my jaw wired shut, and stayed with my parents for several months to recover. I saw many doctors, a tutor, ate out of a blender with a syringe, lost more than twenty pounds, and did many exercises to teach my face how to make facial expressions again. I endured a great deal of pain in the first few months while I was on liquid codeine. I also needed to sleep sitting up to help the swelling go down in my head and face.
Every doctor I visited asked if I had a lawyer, and at the time I had no idea why they were asking. My family didn’t really believe it would be necessary or that the injury would have lifelong consequences. I also had a lot of trouble swallowing my own saliva for several months, especially when tired, but I had to carry a towel around so I wouldn’t drool on myself.
I basically did all the physical on my own at home, and virtually had no formal cognitive rehab. Perhaps I didn’t really need it, but several years later when I discovered my brain injury and BIST; I learned about speech and language therapy at one of the meetings and thought it would have been something very helpful for my recovery. In short, I ended up talking/begging my way into Bridgepoint Health to receive the services of an OT and social worker for about 6-9/12 months. Unfortunately I could not access the speech and language pathologists there. It was a somewhat helpful aspect of my journey through this adventure maze called brain injury.
I mostly saw an oral maxio-facial surgeon for follow-up, but also: an orthodontist to help re-align my upper teeth; plastic surgeon for scar revisions; and a physiotherapist to help soften the scar tissue in my cheek that was getting in the way of my smile, among other facial movements. My jaw healed in about two months, but it took a couple more months for me to pry it open again with tongue depressor exercises.
I remember thinking in the beginning that the recovery was taking so long and that things would never get any better. My tutor told me that even though it seemed that way, things would eventually improve. Since improvements are usually very gradual, pack your patience and learn to reflect, as looking back from time to time can help you see how far you’ve come or how much you’ve changed. I can say things will get better, but the truth is that they only get better up to a certain point, after which you learn to live with the “new” you.
Five months later, I returned to my high school and took a reduced course load, but finished my final year of grade 13/OAC. I had also returned to about the middle of the pack in terms of my physical training as an elite ski racer when we had our spring fitness testing. My mind kept returning to thoughts of my close friend Wendy Buda, a racer in the Juvenile age category and a rising star in the world of ski racing, who died from a brain injury in a ski race in Collingwood. I often wondered why I survived while she did not; what was the reason that God saved my life, what would be my new purpose in life. Today, I am still working on figuring this out with the help of the Lord Jesus my Saviour and Redeemer.
Nine months later, I attended my first year of an undergraduate Physical Education/Kinesiology Degree at the University of Calgary.
I was unaware of my brain injury for about 8 years following the initial trauma. It was not until I was in Teacher’s College at Queen’s University in the Fall of 2001, that a team of professionals including an OT, Psychiatrist and a Neuropsychologist who specialized in learning disabilities, raised the question about brain injury. Originally, I had been diagnosed with ADHD in my final year at the University of Calgary. Although I still did not have a firm diagnosis of brain injury, with merely the hint of it I was forced to withdraw for medical reasons. They told me that ADHD looks very similar to frontal lobe brain injury and they could not believe that no health care professional had mentioned the possibility of brain injury to me before.
I had a major depressive episode requiring hospitalization and ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) five years post injury, while attending the University of Toronto to finish my undergraduate degree. The four year program took 6 years to complete, and I finally earned my undergraduate Kinesiology Degree in the Fall of 2000. While attending the University of Calgary though, I had incredibly unrealistic expectations of myself, and what I would accomplish. I believed it was possible to do anything since I had survived this extraordinary trauma. Eventually, I burned myself out and had to withdraw from most of my fourth year courses.
After my Teacher’s College dream died, I was completely devastated. I had no idea what I would do with myself and who I would become, because my identity was all wrapped up in becoming a teacher and having been a ski racer. I taught skiing for several winters in various places, and basically had living arrangements planned for me up to this point, in other words supportive family members taking care of me. Each time I tried to move outside their watchful eye of protection and guidance, I made some very unwise decisions about relationships with men. My judgement and decision making skills were quite far off the healthy mark shall we say. More than likely I put myself into some dangerous situations over the years, whether it was impulsivity and frontal lobe brain injury related or just plain growing up.
After my father passed away in 2003, I got in touch with the Ontario Brain Injury Association (OBIA), and took several of the courses they offered to learn more about brain injury in order to understand what had happened to me. I had a really hard time accepting the mere suggestion that I could have had a brain injury. I had to prove it to myself by learning a much as I could, and seeking a “true diagnosis”. This meant I needed some hard evidence like the rest of the world, something more objective like a picture of an altered structure, as in an MRI or CAT scan.
I met a neuropsychologist through a course at OBIA who agreed to assess me through her research on frontal lobe injury and executive functions. She determined that I had a mild-moderate orbital-frontal, temporal lobe injury on the right side; not certain exactly how she came up with being that specific, and I have struggled to understand what exactly this all means ever since. She did not provide me with an official report because I was only considered a research participant and not a paying client. I have participated in some other research studies since then and find it to be a very interesting and rewarding experience.
More recently, I had another psychiatric episode requiring hospitalization in the Spring of 2010, following the death of my adoptive mother. Another trigger may have been my almost full time volunteer work placement in a Montessori preschool setting where I was helping in a position as an Assistant Teacher. My diagnosis this time around was bipolar disorder and my medications have been completely changed around. I do have a genetic predisposition to this illness, yet I’ve been told that many times brain injuries are misdiagnosed as psychiatric disorders. It seems fitting that there must be some kind of overlap or interaction between these two types of conditions since they both involve the brain.
To summarize, fighting for a diagnosis, having it be so grossly delayed, and to have more questions than answers was one of the biggest challenges after being told I may have a brain injury, eight years after my crash. I may be lucky enough one day to have more of my questions answered if the opportunity comes up to have a Diffuse Tensor Image (DTI) scan taken, since I’ve learned it can capture microscopic damage to the brain, the type concussions cause, or diffuse axonal injuries. It is still in the early stages of research at this time so unfortunately they are not looking for any survivors to participate presently.
Looking back my family has been supportive for the most part, especially in the beginning. I learned who my “real” friends are; the ones who stuck by me no matter what.
When I learned about my brain injury several years post injury, my father said “how can we fix this”, my mother and sister said “what can you still do” instead of focusing on what I could not do anymore. Lost dreams, we all have them.
The funniest part of this story occurs at the time when I first attended university, 9 months after my injury, I was still coming home to see doctors every six weeks. My face was still quite swollen, I had to wear first aid tape on it, and my sister told me that I need to tell people up front what happened to me, otherwise they may assume I had injured my brain. We do live in a very judgemental world after all. Of course, at that time, it was not a brain injury at all it was only a major facial injury. Little did she know, she was actually foreshadowing what we would learn several years later to be the truth.
Later, once we did find out about the brain injury, and more time passed, and more attempts to become a professional and find a real job did not work out as planned, the family seemed a bit more divided with respect to being supportive. It seemed there was an underlying assumption that one day this problem would magically fix itself and I would be “fully healed” or somehow I must be making this all up because the crash happened so long ago, how could it still be an issue today?
I have had to find a new place and purpose for myself, as well as change my goals and the expectations I have of myself. I kept trying to find meaningful work, and get a real job, and put myself back into a classroom teaching setting a few more times without a successful outcome. I am trying a new approach with volunteering to start, and maybe someday part time paid work if I can tolerate it.
I get tired and “overloaded” faster. I need more sleep and am slower to process information. I have short term memory loss and am less able to juggle multiple responsibilities. My frontal lobe injury did affect many of my executive functions such as attention/focus, decision making, planning, organizing, impulsiveness and a lack of better judgement. In other words, I need to plan less in a day, have shorter “to do” lists, and include lots of repetition. This is part of my acceptance. Knowing when to slow down, reel myself in and say “I’m ok, the way I am now”. I am getting used to the “new” normal as they like to call it.
Fitting into the world with people who do not understand brain injury, the “invisible injury”, that is certainly now an epidemic, and how to explain it to them is a challenge, when it’s difficult enough for me to understand myself.
I continue to learn as much as I can about brain injury, and to challenge myself by trying new things. I got involved with Brain Injury Association of Canada (BIAC), which eventually lead me to BIST. I always did the best I could to improve myself, listened to my doctors, surrounded myself with family and friends, ate healthy, and got outside daily or as often as possible to get some physical activity. It’s difficult to get out of the house, but I always feel better afterwards.
I learned to laugh sometimes! It’s actually very healthy, but challenging for those of us who take life a bit too seriously. Learned to dance and sing Karaoke! Finally, meeting Jesus and gradually learning how to follow & trust Him.
I have been a member of BIST for 6 years. BIST is a wonderful community of people to get to know in a very personal way, because we all share something in common. We were all changed forever by a brain-altering event in our lives. The programs have enabled me the opportunity to be involved in the brain injury community, and provided a consistent place to meet regularly with other brain injury survivors and learn from other’s experiences. The other members who are professionals or caregivers have been supportive as well from a different perspective. At times, we partner with other agencies, which expand our friendship circle. BIST has supported me socially because I honestly feel like the people I meet there are my friends, and the best friend I ever met there is my husband Pinky/Michael.
If I could offer any words of wisdom to anyone who has recently suffered an ABI it would be to be grateful that you survived! God gave you a second chance at life; learn to trust Him, and the doctors, therapist, specialists, family, helpers and friends He sends onto your path. It will be challenging, but hang in there, persevere; Jesus will walk with you through it all. Ask for Help by overcoming your fear or pride when needed. Say “Thank you” & “I’m sorry” when warranted and mean it. Learn as much as you can about your own injury and what you can do-show yourself and others. Learn to say “I love you” to someone, and mean it! Accept it, your new self.
It will get better, and when you are ready come join us at BIST. We look forward to meeting you someday.