Category Archives: Injuries

The long road to recovery from traumatic brain injury

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.

Charlie Elmore snowboarder

Snowboarder Charlie Elmore

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.

Charlie Elmore snowboarder

Charlie in the park before the accident

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.

Charlie Elmore rehab

Charlie in rehab

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.

Charlie Elmore adaptive snowboard coach

Charlie training to be an adaptive snowboard coach

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.

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Broken

If you chuck yourself down a mountain with a waxed-up, fibreglass coated plank strapped to your feet on a regular basis, hurling yourself off rocks, hard packed ramps and an assortment of metal structures… at some point you’re going to get hurt. And by hurt, I don’t just mean bruised knees or a bit of whiplash, as that happens fairly regularly. I’m talking about the kind of hurt which requires hospitalisation, surgery, great expense and inconvenience, and which brings your holiday, and invariably your season, to an abrupt end.

Three arm rock jump - bright crop crop

If only I’d stuck to the soft stuff!

Unfortunately getting hurt seems to happen to me with inordinate frequency and I’ve managed to clock up three season-ending breaks in the past six years.

The most recent one happened towards the end (thankfully) of an otherwise amazing trip to The Three Valleys a couple of weeks ago. This time I snapped my radius quite spectacularly, rendering it alarmingly S-shaped and requiring urgent surgery.

French healthcare may not be cheap, but it’s good and efficient, so as long as you’re covered by the appropriate insurance, it’s not a bad place to smash yourself, as places to smash yourself go.

IMG_2234

Makeshift splint

Having ridden (cautiously) down to the medical centre in Mottaret, I was on the operating table in Moutiers Hospital within a couple of hours. Not bad at all when you consider that you could easily wait that long just to be seen in A&E back in the UK. Sadly they weren’t able to fast track my recovery and I was hospital bound for a further three days, but I’ve had worse hospital stays. Fortunately I’m able to speak French so was able to communicate with the nurses, doctors, surgeons and fellow patients, which made the whole experience a lot less traumatic. However, given that I was to have a metal plate drilled into my arm using ten screws, under local anesthetic, it might have been better to be blissfully unaware!

Those four days were undeniably worse for my other half who had to find a hotel in what is hardly a tourist hotspot, and spend the hours, when not “letting me win” at Scrabble, wandering the streets of the suicide capital of France.

My second most expensive accessory

Four grand buys you a built-in wrist guard.

Four days and four grand later (a drop in the ocean compared to 20 grand to fix a broken ankle in Colorado a few years ago) we were finally able to resume what was left of our holiday: two days, which we spent recovering from the ordeal at our friends’ chalet in St Gervais.

Even though it’s only been a few years since my last break, I’d forgotten how frustrating it is for a part of your body which you rely on heavily (typically it’s my right arm, and I’m right handed) to be suddenly reduced to nothing more than a limp and painful appendage, which is not only rendered useless, but also becomes an obstructive annoyance that impedes even the simplest of tasks. Unless you embraced the return of the poncho, it’s nigh on impossible to find an outer garment with sleeves big enough to accommodate the massive cast that’s housing your wounded limb, forcing you to adopt an awkward shawl-like arrangement on one side of your body, which hardly serves to shield you from sub zero temperatures in the Alps, or Scotland.

Escape from hospital to take in the sights of Moutiers.

Escape from hospital to take in the sights of Moutiers.

Showering is also a slow and laborious procedure in which the bandaged limb has to be wrapped in cling film and tentatively held as far away from the water flow as possible, while you fight to open, squeeze, and attempt to catch the contents of the shower gel, all with one hand. And you can forget about attempting to wash your good arm.

However, you do learn to adapt, out of sheer necessity. Pretty early on I learned to do a one handed ponytail, or at least some semblance of one, when, on asking Dan to do it for me, he couldn’t even figure out how an elastic hair band might work!

There are certain things that are simply impossible though. You have to be pretty dexterous to tie shoelaces or fasten a bra using only one hand. Unsurprisingly the boy was able to help with that one though!

It’s tedious, but I just keep reminding myself that I’ve had worse, and far more inconvenient injuries, and that there are a great many out there with far worse afflictions.

I’m hoping to get back on the slopes again before the season’s out, but in the meantime, I’m just looking forward to being able to type with both hands again!

Have you had any season-ending injuries? Leave a comment below and let me know it’s not just me who’s accident prone!

The great helmet debate

Helmets are becoming the norm on the slopes

Helmets are becoming the norm on the slopes

The debate over whether or not wearing a helmet should be made compulsory has been brewing for a while, and it’s recently been reignited by the news that an insurance company has decided to make helmet use compulsory on their winter sports insurance policy. The move by Essential travel is bound to see other insurance companies follow suit, and may end up taking the question of whether or not to wear a lid, out of our hands. In Canada, certain resorts in eastern Canada have taken things a step further by making it compulsory to wear helmets on their mountain. To be honest, I rarely wear a helmet. It’s not because I feel invincible, as I’ve learned, to my peril, that I’m not. It’s more that I previously hadn’t found one that I felt comfortable in. I found them to be quite cumbersome, and while I knew that I really should wear one, I always found a way to convince myself I’d be ok without it.

Reluctant helmet wearer

Reluctant helmet wearer

Fortunately I have been, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of tumbles. I’ve broken several bones and whacked my head on many occasions, so I’ve probably had a lucky escape… so far. There’s nothing worse than the hollow thud of your own head hitting hard packed snow (or is that just mine?!) and every time it happens, I vow that I’ll start wearing a helmet. I’m now starting to feel like a Cat (capital C intended) whose nine lives are rapidly running out. So, this season I’ve decided that I’m going to find a helmet that I feel comfortable in, and then wear it all of the time (well, on the mountain at least!) My mission got underway a couple of months ago, when the new kit started to appear in the shops, and I think I might have found a winner, the Salomon Poision. It feels super comfy, light, and doesn’t make me feel like I want to take it off the minute I put it on! Hell, I’m even comfortable enough in it to post a picture online, which is definite progress!

Bern helmets looks pretty awesome... Just not on me!

Bern helmets looks pretty awesome… Just not on me!

I also love Bern helmets, but just don’t think they‘re the right fit for me, as I have a pretty small (as well as hollow!) head. There are some great helmets out there, which not only feel comfortable, but look great too, so it’s easy to see why they are starting to become the norm, rather than the exception. Personally, I’m all for helmet use and can’t see many arguments against it, other than the comfort/vanity factor, or cost. I’ve used the latter as an excuse too, but seeing as I’ll happily shell out for yet another jacket that I really don’t need, that excuse really doesn’t hold much weight. I probably need the push of it being made compulsory, but then again, I do feel people should be able to make their own choices. It’s a tricky one… What do you think? Do you wear a helmet? How do you feel about the idea of them being made compulsory? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your views… Thanks, Cat