You often hear the phrase that someone is fighting or battling their illness.
Some people believe this terminology is unhelpful, because with a fight there are often winners and losers. The physical and mental challenges of recovering or living with a brain injury can be incredibly tough without feeling that you are losing – especially if you have a particularly bad setback.
Indeed, fighting your symptoms is the worst thing you could do according to survivor Keith Poultney.
You can’t fight a brain injury. You have to give into it and rest when you’re tired. It’s hard to accept, but by fighting it you will hinder and slow down your recovery,” said Keith.
“Things will get better but it takes time and unfortunately no one can tell you how long that will be.”
Keith, 40, sustained a brain injury from encephalitis after being bitten by a tick while doing some volunteering work in Nepal in 2017. He said: “I was taking part in a voluntary project teaching English in a remote village in the Kathmandu Valley. Towards the end of my time in Nepal I was bitten by a tick inside my right ear.
“I didn’t know I had been bitten and only realised it was still embedded in me about two days later when I started to feel discomfort and pain.”
The tick was removed by one of Keith’s friends and thought that would be end of it. However, about three days later he started to develop flu-like symptoms.
He said: “I was not overly concerned as a number of my friends had colds or flu. A few days later I travelled to India, and things got so worse, I was forced to attend a local hospital.
“They treated me with antibiotics, but what they didn’t know was that the type of infection I had developed was resistant.”
Keith remained in India for a further two weeks, and the all the while his symptoms gradually got worse.
He said: “I flew home as planned but the flight, a 12-hour flight via the Middle East, was the worst experience of my life. I have never felt so unwell. I had a temperature of 40.5 degrees and was unable to keep anything in.”
Once back in the UK, Keith was immediately admitted to his local hospital in Portsmouth. The medical team treating him thought he was dealing with a tropical infection, and he made enough progress to be discharged after a week.
However, over the course of the next week he started to feel unwell again and he ended up back in the same hospital suffering hallucinations, severe headaches and confusion.
Eventually it was discovered that the infection Rickettsial Typhus had been lying dormant and reactivated encephalitis - causing swelling in his brain. He was transferred to a specialist tropical infectious disease unit until there was no active encephalitis and the infection had been eradicated.
Once the swelling had gone down and his condition had become stable, Keith quickly realised things had changed.
“I felt different in myself. I had real problems with my balance and was unable to walk in a straight line,” recalled Keith.
“I physically felt as though I was impaired or drunk. I could not gauge space or distance and would often walk into door frames or knock things such as drinks over.
“I also kept having audio and visual disturbances causing me at times to feel like I was in some form of alternative world.”
Keith, who is from Waterlooville in Hampshire, said his loved ones and friends also began to question his mental health.
He said: “I lost weight and had little appetite. I found that most of the time I was emotionless and cold to everything however things could quickly change and simple sights or sounds could flip my emotions from sad to happy with no real explanation.
“I had, and still continue to have, real problems concentrating, planning and problem solving. I was very noise and light sensitive and avoided going out or socialising where possible.“
The support Keith has received from his local Headway group in Portsmouth has been instrumental in helping him rebuild and readjust to his new life.
He said: “The care I received in hospital was first class but once I was discharged I felt very alone and forgotten.
“The NHS did not prepare me for what lay ahead, thankfully Headway Portsmouth was there to pick me up from a very low point in my life.
“Without its help I know my recovery would have been slower and more frustrating. Headway provided me with what I needed and gave me the chance to talk to people who had been through and are still going through similar circumstances.
“Being able to talk to them and know what I was experiencing was normal in the circumstances gave me great reassurance.
“Hearing how they had learnt to live with and adapt to their conditions gave me real hope for the future.
“The support Headway was able to provide to my wife, who like many careers are often forgotten about, was also first class.
“It needs to be remembered that those helping you will also need help. My injury had a huge impact on my family and friends too.”
Keith still struggles with fatigue, emotional and memory problems, as well as cognitive issues, but has made such good progress that he has been able to return to work for his old employers.
He said: “My employers have been very understanding and accommodating. Without their flexibility and support I believe my mental health would have been significantly harmed. I’m working full hours albeit in a restricted environment. I do not ever expect to be able to undertake my former duties due to a number of complications.”
Now looking forward to a new chapter in his life Keith said he takes one day at a time.
He said: “I hope to continue to recover but feel I have reached a point where I can accept and live with the complications I am left with.
“I know my brain has been altered and that will most likely never change. But I also know that I shouldn’t try and deal with this on my own.”
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