Whilst visiting her parents in Cornwall in 2007, Elizabeth Wilkins was forced to see the family GP when she experienced a series of intense headaches. It was at this point that she was given the startling advice that she should go to A&E immediately.
At the local hospital, arrangements were made for Elizabeth to be transported to the specialist neurology unit in Plymouth where she was quickly diagnosed with venous sinus thrombosis, a blood clot on the brain, causing a rare kind of stroke.
It was touch and go for Elizabeth and she was in a coma for a week following her diagnosis. But, to the relief of her family, she pulled through.
“One of my first memories was seeing Mum and Dad, by that time, I was safely out of the high dependency ward,” said Elizabeth.
“Fortunately, I remembered them and most other details. However, it became clear that I couldn’t remember everything and there were lots of gaps in my memory.”
Like many brain injury survivors, Elizabeth had challenges with her memory, even struggling to remember things she was once very familiar with.
“I struggled to remember the names of things, and still do. I have difficulty recalling food names - despite having once been a restaurant manager.
“Whilst in hospital the food cart would come around and one day I picked a dish and returned to my bed. That day it was macaroni cheese, but by the time I got back to my bed, I couldn’t remember its name, so I told the other patients we had Macro Media Cheese - it’s still known as that to many of my family and friends!”
Elizabeth describes memory like a filing cabinet: “Memories for many people are like filing cabinets, with things neatly filed by dates, events, smells or people etc.
Those with a brain injury often find their filing cabinets have been tipped over. That neat filing system has gone completely out of the window with memories at best shoved back in in some random order, but maybe with a sizeable amount left scattered on the floor to be swept away and never to return.
Her memory problems weren’t the only challenges that Elizabeth struggled with after her injury. After seven long weeks in hospital, she went to live with her parents to start her recuperation and noticed that every-day activities were taking much more energy to complete.
Fatigue is an issue which many brain injury survivors say affect their lives dramatically following their injury, but her parents helped Elizabeth to monitor her energy levels and adapt steadily.
Elizabeth said: “Conserving energy as and when I can is critical to my day-to-day life. What we worked out was how important a routine was.”
“Each day, Mum and Dad were insistent I helped around the house, with light chores that increased gradually over the six months I stayed with them.”
This fatigue didn’t quell Elizabeth’s desire to return to work, even immediately following the accident she wanted to get straight back into her emails.
She said: “One of the first things I asked Dad for when they came to see me in hospital was whether I could have his credit card to use the computer in my bed and check my work emails. There’s dedication for you!
Understandably he declined. At the time I couldn’t understand why there needed to be this delay in my return to work. I was FINE! I didn’t see then, and I still don’t see what my limitations are.
After six months of recuperation at her parents’ house following her discharge from hospital, it was agreed that Elizabeth would take a phased return to work in her role as an events manager. It took six further months before she felt able to return to work full-time.
With the support of her husband, family and friends, Elizabeth has rebuilt her life following her injury. However, she still faces difficulties because of her injury and wants people to understand how tough life can be for people living with a brain injury.
“Despite not being obvious to the naked eye, the consequences of a major brain injury are lifelong and can have huge implications.
I hope people will take the time to understand how easily and quickly your life can change following a brain injury and empathise with those who are overcoming the challenges they can bring.
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