Credit: 123RF

Strength in self-talk

It was December 1992 and, come what may, I was going to finish the Ironman triathlon faster that year. Marathons, triathlons — I’d had a go at them all. While out cycle training, however, my life changed forever. Although it was a clear summer afternoon, I was hit from behind by a car travelling in excess of 100km/h. Add to that the 40km/h at which I was cycling —according to the bike speedometer, which froze — and I made a high-speed impact with the road. The result was broken legs, hands, shoulder, ankle, shattered knees and, worst of all, a 3mm mid-brain haemorrhage.

Paramedics arrived and summoned the air ambulance. I was flown to a hospital in Melbourne and rushed into theatre. Blood was running out of my ears and everyone thought death was imminent — everyone but me. My fitness level and determination to live were too strong.

After three months, I emerged from post-traumatic amnesia (a bizarre moment, I remember, and about which descriptive words still elude me) to begin the task of rehabilitation

I lay comatose for four days. Four weeks later, when it became clear I would live, I was transferred into a rehabilitation centre in Melbourne and accommodated in the head injury specialist unit. My parents, who had been flown out from England to attend my funeral (as I was a serving member of the air force, it had been arranged) and were also accommodated onsite, offered me unwavering support. The centre staff began to make a video of me from day one, to be used for future teaching purposes.

After three months, I emerged from post-traumatic amnesia (a bizarre moment, I remember, and about which descriptive words still elude me) to begin the task of rehabilitation. Incidents such as hearing the doctor speaking to my parents strengthened my will to recover. I recall them being told, “We don’t know if he will walk again.” Ridiculous, I thought; I was already planning which distance to race once recovery was complete.

Drugs and medicine do not restore your brain cells and it was soon clear that pills were not the answer. I realised I would only recover through the strength of my own psyche, that a person can do anything they want to — they just have to want it badly enough. I did. Fortunately, my appetite returned (I had been initially drip fed and my weight had plummeted to a skeletal 43kg). I also discovered that the person you listen to most in your life is yourself. If your internal voice tells you “I can’t do that”, it takes enormous presence of mind to change that thought.

For months on end, I underwent all manner of therapy treatments and other procedures. A big challenge was straightening out my arm and leg, which had gone into the foetal position due to paralysis down my left side. I took little notice when experts spoke of inabilities to do this or that, however. What about my plans? A fellow patient was told by the doctor he couldn’t tend his roses now; he was devastated. Other patients wished circumstances were different and only thought of how it should be. But I realised that this increased personal distress. I was somehow able to remain in a positive state of mind and focused not on what was wrong but on what the future would hold.

I attribute my mindset to the determination I’d developed when I was training for endurance events. I never knew I had this strength of mind, but it proved instrumental in achieving my rehab goals, the major one being to learn to walk. You’ll never know how easy it is when you are a toddler; however, when the physio considered me ready and asked me to stand, I couldn’t even move. That was an awful moment of realisation that something was very wrong. That was when I probably felt the worst. I noted in my diary at the time that life was so disappointing, as I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. I considered myself strong but even I had doubting moments. A return to my determined self soon occurred, though, after prompting from my parents, aided by my attitude of “never surrender”.

An important acquisition for me in rehab was a laptop computer, which helped stimulate my mind and restore my fine motor control through typing. I was also allowed in the gym and this led to me discovering fun in lifting weights, which continues to this day. After one-and-a-half years in the rehab centre, time for discharge arrived, along with some semblance of normal life.

Shortly after, I was granted permission to learn to drive. I also submitted my rehab video to Channel 9, which soon made a documentary for one of their medical programs. And I met my wife-to-be. We married and soon had two wonderful daughters.

Gradually, I also learnt to accept that running was not possible — the damage to my knees was too great. When watching the video made of me in rehab, I swore never again would I look that thin, and I discovered natural bodybuilding. This satisfied my fitness demands. There was a disabled division that made allowances for physical imperfections, and this let me compete internationally. In 2009, I won the gold medal in the natural Olympia.

I’ve gone through a lot since my crash, yet I’ve always dismissed doubts about my recovery and how to cope with a brain injury. There has always been something inside me telling me how to overcome it and this has mostly proved to be true. My motto now is “anything is possible”. And it is.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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