“My name is Lex and I suffered an extremely severe brain injury at 19 years old. I don’t have any memory of this day—only what I have been told by my mom, who was a passenger in the car. It was a freezing day and we were driving in the hills one morning. It was hailing on and off, and I was driving to fit the conditions, 12 miles per hour under the speed limit. This was still high speed at 50 miles per hour. Close to my destination, I hit a patch of black ice on the road and lost control of the car. The car spun and the driver’s side, my side, hit a tree. I was unconscious upon impact. My mom was calling my name with no response. She was trying to keep my head up so I could breathe. Worried the car could catch fire, she got out and came around to try and get me out of the car, but she couldn’t get my seat belt undone. A passerby called an ambulance and another passerby called my dad at home, leaving a message.
Two ambulances and four CFS trucks arrived on the scene. My dad got the message and rolled his ankle severely on the way to his car. He drove as fast as he could to the accident. My mom recalls hearing his heavy-booted footsteps running past her ambulance to me in the car. The paramedics cut my seat belt off and assessed my legs were stuck, so the CFS started to cut the roof off the car. Somehow in my subconscious, I must have heard them speaking about not being able to get me out, and while still unconscious, I swung my legs out to the roadside of the car. ‘Wait, she’s out!’ My mom, thinking I was conscious, came to me—but she was still out of it, so the paramedics put her back to the ambulance to check on her. The paramedics cut my clothes off and intubated me. I was assessed as a six on the GCS scale (a scale of consciousness). A score of three indicates a brain-dead state, and three to eight indicates severe injury and coma. A medevac landed in a paddock next to the road, and I was carried on a stretcher to the helicopter and flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
I was in a coma for a week, with a bolt in my head measuring my brain pressure, and a nasogastric tube feeding me. After contracting pneumonia and becoming distressed every time they tried to wake me out of the coma, because of the tube in my throat helping me breathe, they took it out and put in a tracheostomy instead. One of my first memories is when I was in the ward and woke up after a night’s sleep to go to the toilet. I had no idea I couldn’t get up, I was pretty confused. As soon as I put weight on my legs I fell straight to the floor, flat on my face. When I saw the blood dripping from my forehead, my first thought was, ‘Oh, that probably wasn’t a good idea…’ A nurse hurried in and helped me up and I don’t remember much after that, only being wheeled into the elevator to get another CT scan, and the nurse saying to me, ‘Please don’t tell your mom I was the nurse on duty.’ My mom was very direct making sure I got the best care, which intimidated the nurses.
There are many photos and videos of me in the hospital where I don’t remember where I am, conscious and interacting as best as I could, which was only hand-squeeze responses. I couldn’t even hold my own head up. I remember always smiling and laughing, and the nurses always asking me to stop laughing because they were trying to do something with me. They would put me in what they called the ‘cloud chair’ every so often to move my position, and I hated that chair so passionately but I couldn’t talk. I often would try and get myself up and had no patience to wait for the nurses to help me. I wanted to hurry up and get out of the hospital. I thought I was fine. I couldn’t walk, talk, take myself to the bathroom, eat, breathe by myself, or lay down memories. In those days where I couldn’t do anything independently, I was still always smiling and laughing. Every time they asked me how I was, my response was always I was good. A couple of nurses said they had never seen a patient in my condition so determined and happy.
My thoughts and what I thought was reality were so jumbled but so clear to me. I had vivid dreams most nights, and I would wake up thinking they were real. I remember dreaming one night they were taking me to a different hospital to meet my real parents and I freaked out, and my heart was racing. I asked them if they were taking me to a different hospital and they were a bit worried I wasn’t very calm. I was confused. I thought I was in my auntie’s house by the beach because of a picture on the wall in my room of the beach. I thought I was still dating my last boyfriend and was confused when he never showed up but my current boyfriend did. I thought I kept changing ward rooms. Despite all this, I was quite happy and content, and completely oblivious to the fact I had a severe, traumatic brain injury and was incapable of functioning like I used to. After about a month, I had all my tubes removed and was moved to Hampstead Rehabilitation Hospital.
I remember how much I didn’t want to be there. I was one female out of about three and was the youngest person. For how severe my brain injury was, I was aware of how the hospital had a funny smell, how uncomfortable my bed was, and how I was more aware than a lot of the patients. The clock on the wall in my room ticked far too loudly. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I actually missed the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The days there blurred into one, and when I was finally discharged to go home, I was so ready I was counting down the minutes. Arriving home and sleeping in my own bed and having the beeps of machines replaced with hundreds of bleats of the neighbor’s sheep at night was absolute bliss. I was so determined to be normal again. So much so that within the first week of being home, I mowed the lawns and was doing chores. I took my dirty laundry to the hamper and put my cutlery in the bin when scraping my plate. I laugh at myself for doing these silly things and find my struggles more amusing than anything, but this gets me through.
The aftermath of a brain injury is crazy. Imagine you need glasses, but the glasses don’t exist. Most people don’t believe you have bad eyesight. You get judged for not being able to see correctly, people think you are faking it to get out of things. People tell you all the time how they wish they had your bad eyesight so they could get out of certain obligations. You can’t go to work because you can’t see, and if you have recovered to the extent that you seem ‘fine’ and functional, people who really don’t understand will give you their opinions on what you should do, but they have no idea. That is what life with a brain injury is like for me. 2 years have passed, and I have come so far. I still struggle to cope with a lot of noise, divided attention, social situations, intense fatigue, swallowing, balance, reading, retaining information, headaches, etc.
If you met me on the street, you would probably assume on face-value I am a regular 21-year-old who has not struggled with trauma. And that is such a double-edged sword because I have come to a point where brain injury is something not immediately noticeable, but so much is expected of me because of this. A common misconception of ‘You look fine, so you must be better’ is all too familiar. I strive to always better myself. Never stop pushing, which means when I struggle to do something, I often push myself to succeed to a point where I am functioning worse than when I started. Friends are continuing with their own busy lives and don’t really understand, so while at the start you get words of encouragement and support, attitudes change and they don’t understand why I’m not better yet, and I’ve become a bit isolated and have learned a lot about being with myself and living simply to cope.
However, not all days are horrible and not all people are clueless or nasty. I am the type of person who, before my accident, was full of energy—always on the move and very optimistic about everything. Since my brain injury, with fatigue and a physically-changed brain, I do get days where I just can’t get out of bed. I can’t find motivation, and I get frustrated about how changed I am. I struggle with emotions and knowing when to recognize I am being irrational. To combat this, I have created an Instagram account where I can talk to others with brain injuries and learn from them, or give advice and just be a positive influence for others who are struggling. It also acts as a form of a journal, so I can always go back to the start and see how far I have come. I can’t see the changes in myself day to day.
I’m doing some talking because I want to make people aware not all injuries are visible and make people aware disabilities come in all forms. I want to help others in any way I can, even just as someone to relate to. Because I know what it’s like, and I want to be a positive role model that people can learn from and reach out to. My brain injury causes me to struggle with some things, but it isn’t an excuse. Sometimes, the fact my brain has been damaged is the reason why I do things or don’t do things the way I do, but I would never opt out of things and blame it on my brain injury purely because I don’t want to do it.
I started having cold showers in March 2020 to teach me discipline. To instill in me even though you don’t want to do something, you still have to do it, and it’s not enjoyable while you’re doing, it but soon it will be over. Every shower I’ve had since March has been cold. I haven’t missed one. I have an invisible disability and I had to grieve the loss of my old self and start literally learning how to walk, talk, eat, read, and run again, while everyone else my age is just finding themselves. It’s hard, even with how well I have recovered, but this is my journey, this is my success story. Some will never experience trauma like this, and it sounds funny, but I am glad I have.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lex of South Australia. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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