In 2015, Helena Breslin was cycling along a daily work route, when she suffered a ‘wrong place wrong time’ brain injury that would change her life.
“I was studying and working full-time as a student optician, enjoying my busy work life looking after my patients, and I loved the freedom my bike gave me," said Helena. "I have always been extremely cautious, but I never considered that I could be in danger from something above me.
“I was cycling home from work in central London when four metal fences from a construction site fell on my head.”
Helena, from Folkestone, was diagnosed with a minor head injury at hospital and then discharged after a few hours with a list of possible symptoms to be aware of in the coming weeks.
“At first, I felt unsteady and not aware of my surroundings. I had nausea, impaired information processing and sensitivity to noises and lights.
I felt different; I wasn’t the same person anymore. I felt severely fatigued, physically and mentally. It felt very hard to do simple tasks like shopping or cooking. I struggled with following instructions and understanding what was happening around me.
Helena also struggled with balance and dizziness and severe headaches. She had to give up her dream to become an optometrist.
“Very sadly, I realised I couldn’t do my work anymore. I couldn’t remember how to use optical machinery and I couldn’t hold a conversation with my patients or colleagues. Even simple back-office work would exacerbate huge headaches and severe fatigue, to the point where I had to close my eyes because my brain couldn’t function anymore.
“I lived like this for four years of my life. Many people couldn’t understand the nature of the disability I was facing, because it was so hidden. Even some family members couldn’t understand why I was so fatigued that I had to go for a lie down, or why I couldn’t work. This lack of understanding only created more stress.”
Two years after her injury, Helena discovered Headway North West London which gave her a sense of belonging and connection.
“After the accident I lost many things, including my career, and that sense of belonging we have when we love the job we do every day. I wasn’t working anymore; I was just recovering at home as quickly as my body was allowing me. I felt disconnected from life.
“With Headway North West London I found a connection again. I not only found a sense of belonging, but also that a lot of other people had their difficulties, different injuries with different symptoms, but we all knew and understood each other’s struggles. I made friends for life.
“I didn’t feel different from everyone else, and with this, my heart started to brighten up again and I had the confidence to move forward from the darkest times of my life.
I started running meditation sessions and mindfulness training for Headway members and their carers. It helped me focus on something positive and helping others made me keep going.
Helena discovered a talent for art after her brain injury, an activity which she found very therapeutic and a crucial way to cope while waiting for NHS appointments in the earlier stages of her recovery. More recently, she has been putting her artistic flair to use to support Headway North West London.
“After facing such hard days living with the effects of brain injury and all the limitations I had, being able to create art made me feel I could still do something great.
“Becoming an artist after my accident meant I could help Headway North West London members by running a drawing session with them, and I have organised day trips for the members to come and see my exhibitions, which has been a wonderful way for us to connect with each other."
Helena carries a Headway Brain Injury Identity Card, which has helped her immensely.
“I was afraid to go out by myself and reach a point of extreme mental fatigue. I was afraid of feeling extremely vulnerable and needing to call my husband for help to get home safely.
“The Brain Injury Identity Card has relieved me of a tremendous mental pressure and has encouraged people who were dealing with me in shops and underground stations to speak at a pace I could handle. This meant I would last longer and could go out to places close to home that were familiar."
“The symptoms I face nowadays are on the mild spectrum. I manage by doing tasks with rest time. My wellbeing was extremely affected by the trauma. I needed neuropsychology support and therapy, as I suffered from depression and anxiety fearing being in another accident, but I found cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and neurolinguistics programming the most helpful to me.”
Helena is looking forward to a bright future.
“When I had the accident, life took so much from me but then gave me the love of my life.
“My husband Rob has been my rock, my world, my everything and it was for our lives together that I have fought like I never imagined before.
“I have fought to recover physically, mentally and to accept what had happened to me. I have fought for us together, for our bright future. And it was our love that turned the darkest period of my life into the best.
“Now, I have also become a mother and, again, life has shown me that I was even stronger than I thought. It has shown me how love can be so healing. I also have family support.
“I wish to keep training Headway members in mindfulness, teaching them strategies in a user-friendly and caring way, to cope with the symptoms they face daily, as well as keep inspiring others with my personal story.
Brain injury can be very hidden. A lot of people struggle to understand and that can be very distressing. Focus on the ones who do understand you and support you. Also, don’t focus on the things you cannot do anymore, instead focus on what you can still do and find something you are passionate about.
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