Unified Health

I Believe in Hope, Second Chances, and Hard Work – What Recovering from a Brain Injury Has Taught Me

I don’t like to talk about my car accident. I mean, I mention it often, but I don’t like to really dive into it. 

I’m one of those people who doesn’t do support or appreciation well. If there’s something bad happening in my life, you won’t know about it until long after the fact, once the dust settles. It’s not the best trait to have, not gonna lie. It means I am often misunderstood and the actions or behaviours that would normally be explained away by ‘this is what’s happening in the background for me right now, so please give me a little leeway’ are mistaken for avoidance or shadiness, when really, I’m just trying to keep my sh*t together and I know if I start talking about it, then I’ll start crying about it, and I’ve got way too much to get done to waste time on something as silly as feeling sorry for myself. 

This past weekend reminded me that there is strength and hope to be found in our stories. It’s the sharing of our experiences that helps to normalize them. So, with that in mind, I’d like to share this experience with you and what it’s taught me. 

During exam week of my first year of University, I hit a deer on the highway while driving home from one of the three part-time jobs I worked to put myself through school. The tires of my truck sank into the April-rain softened gravel shoulder of the highway and my world came crashing down as the roof of the rolling vehicle caved in on top of me. 

I don’t remember much from the months following the accident. I remember a lot from that night, however. I remember waking up in the truck and realizing that I was not upright but rather hanging limply, as the vehicle had come to a final stop on its passenger side. I remember seeing the warm swells of passing headlights and thinking ‘oh thank God, at least there are people coming to save me.’ And I remember waiting, then calling out, then waiting some more, watching those periodic headlights pass right on by. 

I couldn’t get a sense of where I was or how far off the highway my truck had finally landed, so maybe no one could see me? It was the wee hours of the morning, so I couldn’t begrudge passing motorists for not seeing me in the dark. As the realization that it could be a very long time before someone came to help me sank in, I began to take stock of myself and my surroundings to see if it was safe to move. 

I only vaguely remember climbing out of the vehicle. The thing I remember most was wondering where my cell phone had landed so I could call for help. It wasn’t in the truck, nor were my purse or any belongings. Everything was scattered across a large stretch of highway shoulder. 

I remember the sinking feeling I had as I tried to wave down a passing vehicle, standing beside my very clearly visible on its side truck on the shoulder of the highway, and a full ten motorists continued on their merry way before anyone stopped to help me. 

I remember the face of the man who finally stopped as I asked if he had a cell phone I could use. I remember his shocked expression as he looked between me and the crumpled vehicle, “did you come from that!?!” 

“Yeah. Do you have a cell phone so I can call my mom?”

You– came from that?”

“Yeah, do you have a cell phone?”

“Oh my God, is there anyone else in there!?!”

“Nope, just me… cell phone?” 

This is my favourite part of the story – I was coming home from a shift at what was back then the Corel Centre and is now Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata – I used to deliver food and booze to the suites – and the people who finally stopped was actually a van full of paramedics that I had served at the game. They remembered me. 

I remember them swarming out of the van and going to work. Hands and flashlights and my everlasting shame at not having shaved my legs as they pulled up pant legs to check for bleeding. 

I remember the hospitals and the doctors asking me questions that I intermittently couldn’t answer – not because I wasn’t trying, but because I couldn’t figure out how to make my mouth form them. It was like the link between brain and mouth had been severed, but it came and went so I wasn’t sure what it meant. I remember looking at a form I was supposed to sign and instead of seeing words I just saw strings of random letters. I remember how the world – once stable and upright – went wobbly and swirly to the point I could barely stand. I remember the nausea and holding a little kidney basin on my hospital bed every morning, trying not to throw up, praying a doctor would come soon. I spent over a week in the hospital and by the time I left, my world was vastly different. 

Over the next few months, I have memories mostly only from stories people have told me from that time, like my aunt who came to visit who teased me afterwards about the swinging between inability to speak at all and full on verbal diarrhea I had zero control over. Let me tell you – not every thought someone has should be spoken out loud. I lost a lot of friends. I remember sitting in a small room at my University about 3 months later trying to write a make-up exam for the ones I missed while I was in the hospital. I had been in the room an hour when the professor came to check on my progress and I had only managed to read the first sentence on the page. I remember the look on his face when he realized the panicked desperation of a girl who had once been able to recite every page of every book she’d ever read who was now reduced to barely being able to read at all. To his credit, he sat down beside me and tried to read the questions to me, but my halting struggle to verbalise my responses made it an impossible task to answer them. When he comfortingly placed a hand on mine and said, “maybe it’s too soon for this. What did your doctors say about you trying to write this?” I broke into tears because I hadn’t thought to ask them. It was still early days in brain injury rehabilitation and the general consensus back then was that once you injured your brain, there was no recovery. I had refused to accept the diagnosis, but in that moment I feared it might be true and the weight of what that could mean for me and the rest of my life finally hit me. I remember the nights I sat at the kitchen table in my little one bedroom apartment trying to decide between buying food or paying for my prescription pain medications for the neck and back injuries and the debilitating migraines. I remember the hopelessness of trying doctor after doctor and practitioner after practitioner trying to find answers or relief, because I refused to accept that there was no hope of rehabilitation. I remember pacing the floor of that same apartment trying to study for exams between work and school and wondering how much longer I could keep this up. And I remember the swell of determination I’d feel every time I asked myself that question because I refused to let one bad event ruin my future. 

When people ask me why I do what I do, why I fight so hard for my patients, why this is so important to me – that’s why. It’s because I’ve been there. I have spent more time sobbing on my floor, my back in spasms, unsure I’ll ever be able to get back up, than any patient I’ve had. So when someone calls me in that state – I know what it would have meant to me to have had someone to call for help back then. No one should ever have to feel like that. No one should ever have to feel that hopeless. Everyone should know exactly who to call for help when they need it and have it be there. And sadly, that’s not where we are in our healthcare system. For life-threatening emergencies, sure. But my injuries were never life threatening. And the exasperation of emergency staff, the questions over pain medication and whether I was exaggerating injuries just to gain access to pills when I had spent 5 hours debating going to emergency and would have done anything else but be there had there been any other option for relief – I know these experiences all too well. I’ve lived them for a good portion of my life. So when I say to you don’t give up, there is always hope – it comes from a place of true, genuine, rock bottom suffering experiences. There are other professions that have solutions. We have spent years designing procedures and protocols for figuring out which ones are best for which conditions that are commonly not helped by traditional medicine. That doesn’t mean traditional medicine shouldn’t be involved – that oversight and collaboration is extremely important. It just means that proper integration of these multiple professions would better help more people who experience pain conditions. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But there are other professions whose job it is to help pain conditions – and not just physical pain. Help and treatment of emotional pain is just as if not more important. All of these professions working together in a coordinated system will help more people in a more compassionate and well-rounded way. 

So take it from someone who sucks at receiving support – it’s worth it. Help is there. You just need to know who to ask. And luckily, we’ve done that part for you. You just call us and we’ll help direct you to the services best suited for whatever it is you’ve got. That part is always a free service. The only thing you pay for are the actual treatments you get from the practitioners if you should choose to get them done by us. And we haven’t stopped trying to figure out ways to get those services covered for you as well. Because again, we also know what it’s like to have to choose between food and pain relief. No Canadian should ever have to make that choice. Sadly, it’s a choice far too many of you have to make. 

There are ways to get involved and help change that. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of the people in our communities who need the help the most. These services shouldn’t only be available to people who can afford them, and often it’s the people who can’t afford them who need them the most. 

So, will you help us? 

Call your MPs. Call your MLAs. Tell them you want these services covered under a national or provincial plan. Help us help you. It’s through your continued support and advocacy that we can make this happen so that no Canadian ever has to decide between pain relief and basic essentials. But we can’t do it without your support. 

Together, we can change lives. I’m living proof that better is always possible. There is always hope. 

Lizane Tan