New documentary on snowboarder Charlie Elmore’s recovery from traumatic brain injury resonated with me strongly, for a number of reasons.
Nearly 19 years ago I was in a car accident in which one of my friends suffered a brain injury that left her in a coma. Unlike my friend, I still remember the moments after the crash vividly. Miraculously no one else was seriously hurt, but J, who’d been sitting in the middle of that backseat, had been thrown to one side and was unconscious. There had been no impact and were no visible signs of injury, but her brain had been shaken enough to cause severe brain injury that would change her life forever.
For many years that accident made me a very nervous passenger and fastidious about wearing seatbelts (although I must point out that my friend was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident) but my caution did not necessarily carry over to the ski slopes.
As a snowboarder, I’ve taken many a tumble, hitting my head on countless occasions. It’s a horrible feeling. Not so much the pain, but rather the dull thud, and realisation that it could have been so much worse. Hearing that thud means that, on that occasion, you are one of the lucky ones, but it always makes you take stock and reflect on the fragility of your brain.
When Charlie Elmore hit her head while riding the Penken Park in Mayrhofen, she knew nothing about it until she woke up in hospital ten days later, and even then, had no recollection of the incident.
BBC Three’s excellent documentary “Me and My New Brain” charts Charlie’s journey through rehabilitation and beyond, as she tries to rebuild her life. While, four years later, she appears to have fully recovered, the documentary focuses on the more subtle psychological effects that can endure after such trauma to the brain, and which often go unaddressed or even unnoticed.
Incredibly Charlie was back on her snowboard after just a year, determined to resume her career as a snowboard instructor in Verbier. However, she soon discovered that, despite her remarkable progress, she still had a long battle ahead. After realising that fitting back into her previous life was not going to be as easy as she’s envisioned, Charlie decided to train to be an adaptive snowboard instructor so that she could help others with disabilities to enjoy the ski slopes. However, even that has proven to be a struggle. She also runs the GBOT2018 Campaign to help fund Paralympian and Invictus athletes.
The effects of my friend’s injuries were much more severe than Charlie’s and it was a very long time before she was able to lead any semblance of a normal adult life. However, like Charlie, she’s an extremely determined individual, and against all the odds she eventually returned to university to continue the law degree that she’d only just begun before the accident, with a view to eventually helping others with brain injuries. She’s also an active political campaigner. It took a lot of persistance, but she’s now living a relatively normal, independent life. However, like so many other people who’ve suffered from traumatic brain injury, the obstacles that I’ve seen her overcome will only have been the tip of the iceberg.
For me, one of the most poignant moments in the documentary is when Charlie talks of a lack of ongoing support, and how, despite receiving messages, cards and visits from over 200 friends at the time of her accident, she could now count on two hands the number of friends who continue to offer support four years down the line. Her revelation sent a pang of remorse through me, as I know that I probably haven’t offered my friend enough in the way of continued support over the years.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by people like my friend and Charlie, who’ve not only overcome traumatic brain injuries, but have used their experience to help others. It’s a position no one would want to be in themselves, but you can only hope that you would be as strong and altruistic, but the brain is such a complicated thing that anything could happen.
The fact that I could just as easily have come off worse in that car accident, or in any of my many snowboarding and mountain biking crashes, is not something I reflect on often. If I did, maybe I would have been more sensitive to the need for ongoing support and understanding for people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries. It’s undoubtedly one of the documentary’s overriding messages, and if it makes as much of an impact on everyone else watching it as it did me, it will hopefully go some way towards helping those recovering from TBI to reintegrate more easily into society.
As a snowboarder and mountain biker, another message I took away from it was the importance of wearing a helmet. The fear of it happening to me is not enough to stop me doing the things I love, but I always do what I can to minimise the risk of injury by wearing a helmet. After all, as the consultant who treated Charlie in intensive care told her, it was the helmet she was wearing that saved her life.
The BBC Three documentary “Me and My New Brain” is available to watch on iPlayer and is well worth a watch.