Living with A Brain Injury: My 10 Year Journey
By David Chennells
IT all began one Thursday morning 10 years ago and 10 days after my 26th birthday (on 10th May 2007), when I was cycling to work. I started to experience what I can only describe as weird sensations which lasted for about 20 seconds, before I suddenly collapsed, fell down in the middle of the road and then blacked out. That is the last thing I remember but apparently a work colleague found me lying in the road. She immediately called an ambulance and also my dad, who was beside himself with worry.
I was taken to Princess Alexandra Hospital, Harlow, where it was discovered that I’d suffered a brain haemorrhage. My Dad rushed to be by my side, along with my brother and girlfriend at the time. The hospital doctor delivered the devastating news to them that I was unlikely to come out of my coma and would die soon. Fortunately, a neuro-surgeon saw my brain scan and wanted to help. I was then transferred to Queen’s Hospital in Romford where I underwent many hours of major life-saving brain surgery, after which I was placed in an induced coma for two weeks.
I later learnt that the bleed to the brain was caused by a condition called Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). An AVM is a tangle of abnormal and poorly formed blood vessels which can occur in any part of the body and is usually present at birth. These vessels have a higher rate of bleeding than normal vessels and the risk increases with age. Brain AVMs are particularly serious because of the damage they can cause to the brain. They are very rare and affect less than 1% of the general population.
My memories of the first weeks after I awoke are a blur but I was bedridden, unable to move and nil by mouth. Initially I was unresponsive, recovering in intensive care and have no memory of this time. After 6 weeks at Queen’s, I was transferred back to PAH where I can remember a lot of noise in the hospital ward and I had to wear earplugs to get any sleep. I spent most of my days asleep. I suffered a serious infection which made me really sick and I became extremely skinny. I can’t remember how long it lasted but it must have been at least three or four weeks.
When I recovered from the infection I was transferred to the Jacob Centre in Sawbridgeworth. I was in a wheelchair, still being fed by a tube in my throat and was virtually starving when I arrived, but when I eventually got to taste real food again it was superb and I started to regain a healthy weight. Eating needed assistance most of the time and I had to learn to do this again. I had to be dressed by carers and simple tasks were now a major challenge, which I found incredibly frustrating. These were dark days but while at the Jacob Centre I was visited by my boss Jonathan Clark who helped fuel my determination to fight this battle. My physiotherapy sessions twice daily were really tough but eventually I started to see benefits as I learnt to stand up and balance on two feet.
Two or three weeks later I was moved to Northwick Park hospital, where I was to spend the next 6 months. It was a two hour journey by ambulance and I have never been so travel sick in my life! Intense physiotherapy sessions continued, along with reading and writing, since the brain injury had affected my ability to recognise words and even letters. At Northwick Park I also attended counselling, speech therapy and re-learnt basic personal skills, for example cooking and brushing my teeth left handed, to prepare me to live independently again. It was hard work but I persevered and made steady progress. Unlike the Jacob’s Centre we were allowed to watch loads of TV in the common room – up to 3 hours a day!
My rehabilitation continued at St Margaret’s Hospital, Epping, where I started to practice walking with a stick and using a foot brace to support my right leg. It had taken eight months in hospital but eventually I saw a light at the end of the tunnel when I took my first step. I was walking very slowly but finally moving. I have been wearing my muscle stimulator for 6 years now. It feels like an electric shock but it helps my right leg and foot to move so I can walk. It hurts but my motto is ‘no pain, no gain’. I stayed at St Margaret’s Hospital for around one month.
After nine months in various hospitals, I was finally able to return home while attending the Williams Day Unit at Leah Manning Centre in Harlow for more physiotherapy and speech therapy. Just within one year of the brain injury I moved into my own new flat in Torkildsen Way. It was great! The only downside was that I still needed a carer to help me in the shower. This made me feel uncomfortable and humiliated but spurred me on to become independent. Today it takes me three hours to get showered and ready to go out (which my friends wind me up about!). It’s such a long time but it’s worth it.
Despite my master’s degree, I had to attend an adult learning course to improve my Literacy. I know what I want to say but I can’t write it and I’m learning to read again. After three years as a student I now work there as a volunteer. For the past 6 years I have also been volunteering at Citizen’s Advice Harlow, using the skills I learnt as a solicitor to help the community. I also go to the gym three times a week and attend regular physiotherapy sessions.
It has been a long journey so far and really hard work. Just surviving my brain injury alone defied doctors’ expectations but I have always been determined to make progress and it has made me stronger. I am incredibly proud that I managed to complete my challenge to walk one mile and raised almost £4,000 for the Brain and Spine Foundation. I would like to thank everyone that supported me in this challenge and over the years.
Nobody knows exactly what the future may hold but I remain optimistic.
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