Making it work

Tara
Tara Bradbury
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Meet two young people with brain injuries who have turned negatives into positives

Final in a six-part series

 

Recovering from a brain injury doesn’t necessarily end with a doctor’s care. At least two local young professionals have turned their lifetimes of healing into part of their careers.

Nick Mercer, 30, was doing a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Victoria in B.C. when he and a group of friends started a cycling group. One August day, they decided to take a detour on a different route than usual; one that happened to take them near a hospital.

Mercer was cycling down a hill when another cyclist app-roached him from the opposite direction. Mercer swerved, his bike skidded, and he went down over an embankment, hitting his head — and helmet — on a tree.

“They threw the helmet away — it was completely shattered,” Mercer said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of helmets. They really can prevent you from dying. Apparently, if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet and hadn’t been so close to a hospital, I’d be dead.”

Mercer remained in a coma for two weeks, and was flown home to St. John’s when he awoke. His speech was barely audible and he was unable to walk.

“They told me I had a brain injury, but I didn’t really understand. I thought it was temporary,” Mercer said. “When they told me I’d have to do rehab, I thought, ‘Cool, six weeks and I’ll be home.’”

It was six months before Mercer was able to walk using a walker, and, with the help of a physiotherapist, he eventually weaned himself from the device and re-learned to walk by himself. Two years after his accident, Mercer returned to Victoria to complete his degree.

Before his injury, Mercer was athletic, playing water polo and basketball and training for triathlons, and had even cycled across the country with a friend. These days he still swims two or three times a week, but his involvement in water polo is limited to keeping score. He rides a stationary bike, but said he doesn’t have the co-ordination or balance to cycle otherwise. He’s unable to run or jump. While his cognitive abilities seem unaffected, his speech is often difficult to understand.

Mercer, who works as a policy analyst for the provincial government, returned earlier this week from Ottawa, where he underwent his third surgery to correct the double vision he’s been having since his accident. Once his eyesight is corrected, he’s hopeful his balance will improve.

“I was told I wouldn’t be able to walk,” Mercer said. “I’m definitely getting better, and I feel like in two years or maybe five years I’ll be a lot closer to where I want to be.”

Mercer is a board member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Brain Injury Association, which advocates for brain injury patients and aims to improve public awareness of brain injuries. He also runs his own website, Concussion Talk, where he writes about traumatic brain injury, answers questions, and provides references and resources. The original goal of the website was self-serving, Mercer said.

“I decided to do Concussion Talk website because I wanted to talk about brain injury. I wanted to talk about issues around brain injury that affected me,” Mercer said. “Since not much is known about brain injury, and since I follow a lot of sports closely, concussion in sports was very interesting to me and it alerted people about the issue. Since my speech was slightly affected and I had a lot of confidence in my writing, I knew writing was the best way to get my point across and I knew I had good points to make.”

•••

Heather Watkins was riding on the back of her then-boyfriend’s motorcycle in September 2004, on their way back to town after visiting a relative in Conception Bay South. While on the Foxtrap Access Road, the couple was hit by a truck that had missed a stop sign at an intersection, sending them both flying.

“I remember waking up on the ground, about five or 10 feet away from the truck. My boyfriend had been dragged with the bike, and was on the ground, about 10 or 15 feet away. I couldn’t even see the bike,” Watkins, 27, said.

Both Watkins and her boyfriend were wearing helmets.

While her boyfriend suffered five breaks in his legs, a neck injury and a ruptured intestine, Watkins had broken her right leg in three places — needing a metal rod embedded to support her femur — but considered herself relatively lucky, until a few days later.

That’s when she started having unexplained fainting spells, at one point falling and breaking her hip. She attributed the spells to low blood sugar at first, but began noticing problems with her memory, which she said had been nearly perfect before the accident. A master’s student in medicine at Memorial University, Watkins found it increasingly difficult to function at school.

In 2006, she underwent psychological testing, which pointed to a brain injury.

“I was devastated. That’s the only way to describe it,” Watkins said. “I was grieving, crying, mourning my old self. I had known something was wrong, but I didn’t think it was that wrong.”

Watkins was eventually referred to Dr. Hugh Mirolo, the province’s only neuropsychiatrist. While she still suffers with symptoms of her brain injury, including problems with memory, concentration and sleep, she’s miles better than she was, she said, thanks to a treatment program that includes four types of medication, two hours a day of phototherapy under a lamp that replicates sunlight, and mental/manual activities like embroidery, scrapbooking and chess.

“It has gotten drastically better. I feel a lot more confident than before. I feel proud now, in a sense, that I went through something big and got through it.”

Watkins has used her brain injury as the basis for her career. She has an honours degree in biochemistry and nutrition, and works with Mirolo as a neuropsychiatry researcher. She’s also the research co-ordinator for the Neuropsychiatric Patients’ Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. She recently returned from Denver, Colo., where she made a presentation about the group to the annual meeting of the American Neuropsychiatric Association.

“They told me I had a brain injury, but I didn’t really understand. I thought it was temporary.” Nick Mercer

The patients’ association, founded by Mirolo in 2008, is unique in that it is run for patients and their families by the patients themselves. Objectives of the group include advocacy and awareness of brain injury, research, and the promotion of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to heal itself. Patients participate together in activities like painting, music, origami and chess; mental/manual activities that Mirolo said encourage the brain to heal by essentially giving it exercise.

The group, which Mirolo said may eventually be opened up to anyone with an interest in brain injury issues, also provides patients with a way to connect with each other.

“One of the many benefits they get is they realize that they are not the last green canary alone in the cage facing extinction; that there are lots of people with (their condition),” he said. “It gives them a voice. It gets them out of a disability. They are no longer invisible, they are heard by somebody,

“Some of the people were completely dismissed by health care or by relatives, and all of a sudden they feel, it’s real, I’m not making it up, and I’m not the only one who’s having this problem. I’m not alone.”

Mirolo said the group was founded as a way to provide neuropsychiatry patients with neurorehabilitation; something he said is lacking in the current health system.

A three-tiered system of care for neuropsychiatry patients is what’s needed in this province, Mirolo said, adding he currently has a four-year wait list for patients with non-urgent cases.

“I’d like to see three levels of care: inpatient, outpatient and neurorehabilitation,” he said.

“An inpatient unit that is dedicated to neuropsychiatry with a team of GPs, neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists that is tuned in to neuropsychiatry is what we need, and we need it badly. Then we can create some kind of an answer to a number of people with problems.”

Eastern Health did not return a request for a response to Mirolo’s suggestion when contacted by The Telegram.

Watkins said she’s hoping the needs of neuropsychiatry patients will eventually be recognized and better understood, both by the medical community and the public.

“It’s important,” she said. “We need to realize that we’re all just one knock in the head away from being in the same boat.”

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

www.twitter.com/tara_bradbury

The Telegram series The Wounded Brain: A hidden pandemic is online as a special report at www.thetelegram.com

Organizations: University of Victoria, Newfoundland and Labrador Brain Injury Association, Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: B.C., Ottawa, Conception Bay South Foxtrap Access Road Denver, Colo. Eastern Health

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Recent comments

  • Injured brain as well
    June 02, 2011 - 12:17

    Hi I had a brain injury as well and one of the best sites that I found online was by Dr. Glen Johnson, I would recommend anyone with a head injury to look up the listed site...... http://www.tbiguide.com, most of what I could find other was was directed towards the family of someone with the injury who was in a coma.

  • Melissa Wild
    April 29, 2011 - 18:38

    I am the manager for a brain injury awareness and fundraising event called A Run To Remember where David McGuire has set out to run a marathon a day across Canada to create a movement and change the face of brain injury in our country. We started this journey in St. John's, NL on March 31, 2011 and are now approaching Port-aux-Basques. Since departing St. John's we have had the opportunity to speak with so many people who have been touched by brain injury, either themselves or those close to them. Each time we hear another story it reaffirms to us why we are going across Canada to raise awareness and funds for this worthy cause...brain injury is everywhere and the effects are felt not only by the person but all of those around them. Of all types of injury - brain injury is the most likely to result in permanent disability and death. Acquired brain injury has become recognized throughout the world as a problem of epidemic proportions. Unfortunately, due to the cognitive nature of the disability it has become known as the Silent Epidemic. Brain injury results in a complex variety of physical, cognitive and behavioural problems. Unless significant physical injuries occur it is often misdiagnosed or missed completely. Cognitive difficulties are not always obvious, but have devastating consequences. Brain injury is an issue of enormous proportions with devastating social and economic consequences. In the majority, this is a condition of the young. The highest incidence group are just starting careers and / or families and do not possess significant resources to fall back on when injured. The cost in health care, lost wages, increased reliance on social welfare, justice costs and the devastating impact on families are nearly incalculable. If we prevent just one serious brain injury each year, over the lifetime of the first injury prevented, we realize a support care cost savings of over $90 million dollars. Prevention of brain injury is one of the most cost effective strategies to save health, social service and criminal justice resources. The goal of A Run To Remember is to bring brain injury to the public stage and create a movement in Canada. No longer a silent epidemic - we aim to: increase funding/services for those living with injury, increase public awareness and promote injury prevention for all. Please spread the word and support David McGuire in his journey across Canada and become a part of the movement. Visit the website www.runtoremember.com or join us on our social networking sites: facebook.com/r2rcanada twitter.com/r2rcanada youtube.com/r2rcanada flickr.com/r2rcanada Inspire Change... Melissa Wild Run Manager, A Run To Remember runwild@braintrustcanada.com 778-821-0395 www.runtoremember.com

  • reginald
    April 16, 2011 - 17:35

    I was injured in a commerical accident in alberta a year ago and my life changed for ever so many things going on in my head.right now i am in a program inthe miller center did not know a old lot on brain injury kind of though it would get better in a few weeks and i would be as good as new but that is not the case.i have so many flashs and rushes going on in my head there is no way for me to explain it i am just learning now to what it is all about.......

  • Linda
    April 15, 2011 - 21:16

    Excellent series. Very informative.

  • heather
    April 15, 2011 - 15:56

    for people who work in health care, one of the most frustrating aspects of the media following motor vehicle accidents or other trauma events is when the people involved are described as having non-life threatening injuries. many of these non-life threatening injuries include significant brain injuries which alters the person's ability to walk, talk, eat and in general function as they did previously. more coverage of these consequences of accidents is needed to help increase awareness.

  • c
    April 15, 2011 - 12:23

    Sorry, that's concuSSion and not the samE. (laughing) See, I told you my eyesight hasn't been the same.

  • Concerned
    April 15, 2011 - 12:12

    I could appreciate these articles if all the cited medical information was not coming from only one doctor. With particular notice to the Autism article, I believe it is an irresponsible claim to say ASD is a brain injury, this is not something commonly supported by professionals who work in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorders, myself included.

    • Victoria
      April 15, 2011 - 16:13

      To Concerned, I can see how it could be a controversial theory, but the article clearly states it's his opinion (and also the opinion of the former head of the autism society, actually). Do some research online and you can see that this doctor has done many autism studies and has 25 years of university and is a graduate of Yale. The stories also say he is the province's only neuropsychiatrist. How much more credible can you get?!! Why would you feel his educated, qualified theory is irresponsible? He's obviously having success with his treatment or he wouldn't have such a long wait list. I found these articles very informative and interesting.

    • Heather
      April 16, 2011 - 07:07

      To "Concerned": The medical information in this article may be from one doctor, but he does have many years of experience and was trained by the leading neuropsychiatrists in the field at Yale and Dartmouth Universities. As for him being irresponsible for claiming that ASD is a brain injury, he is only making an observation based on many many years of experience which have demonstrated that every autism patient he's seen has had some type of brain injury in their past, often around the period of birth. This is exacerbated by the fact that these autistic individuals often have tendencies to bang their head against a hard object, often a wall, leading to many more repeated insults to the brain. If you'd like to discuss further, don't hesitate to email me at npanl_research@live.ca. Thanks for your views and have a great day! :)

  • c
    April 15, 2011 - 11:53

    I have learned so much from this series. I've had three migraines in less than a week and since a concueeion three years ago, I've always said that my eyesight has never been the sam. Does this doctor hold any clinics on the west coast? I would love to have him assess me and my situation. Anyway all this information had been more than interesting to say the least. I hope somewhere in the future there is another one.

    • Heather
      April 16, 2011 - 07:00

      To "C": No, unfortunately, this doctor is not holding any clinics on the west coast at the current time. Have you considered getting your family doctor to submit a referral to Dr. Mirolo? By the time you actually work your way up the waiting list, you never know what type of setting he might have in place. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch with me: npanl_research@live.ca.

  • Elizabeth
    April 15, 2011 - 09:41

    Very good 6 part topic on brain injury.It helps with understanding what brain injury is and educating the public about itI tshould be the begging of something better to come.

  • Judith Day
    April 15, 2011 - 08:45

    These articles have done a great public service and It should be only the beginning of what has to come. People have to be treated as people first, not as a label. What is a psychiatric patient? Why is "psychiatric patient" written on an emergency record as the first piece of information when a consumer of psychiatric services goes to emergency with chest pain and palpitations, only to have fingers pointed at her and be threatened with forced medications, when she knows it may be the medications that have caused the chest pain and palpitations in the first place. A consumer of psychiatric services deserves better treatment than that.