Making headway on injuries

First published in Ray Mallon The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

THERE’S a saying that if you knew what the future held, you would never get out of bed in the morning. I was thinking of how true it was this week.

I opened the conference organised by Headway Teesside, which supports people who survive brain injury. It’s the only charity that I am patron of, which indicates its importance to me.

Brain injury doesn’t creep up on you. It is generally caused by trauma – an accident in the home, at work or on the roads.

Around 135,000 people are admitted to hospital with a brain injury every year. It causes half the deaths of people under 40. People between 15 and 29 are three times more vulnerable than other age groups. The fact that people who suffer brain injuries are more likely to be young, fit and active makes it particularly tragic.

These are people looking forward to full, happy lives. In an instant, their existence changes. They have to re-learn and re-evaluate everything they had taken for granted. In some cases this includes the fundamentals of walking and talking. In others it’s about coping with depression, memory loss, losing your job or a relationship.

They have to face all this without forewarning and until recently, precious little support or understanding. It is a test that no one can pass unaided.

Headway does a great job supporting survivors of brain injury. It holds a weekly dropin, it raises funds for practical initiatives – cycle helmets for school children, for example.

It lobbies for better understanding and better provision for survivors. It plans for the future.

When I first got involved with Headway, I went to see a fantastic rehabilitation facility, Whickham Villa on Tyneside. It was clear something similar was needed on Teesside.

From there the idea grew for the Gateway Centre on Middlehaven – a £10m neuro-rehabilitation unit that will help people with brain injuries restart their lives. That idea will hopefully become a reality in the next couple of years.

About the same time, I got talking to people who had suffered brain injuries and were rebuilding their lives. I won’t insult their intelligence or yours by saying I understood what they were going through – only they or their closest family can know that.

There were lots of things they wanted and deserved, but there was one thing they valued above everything else: understanding.

Sometimes they would need more time to do things, sometimes they would forget things or be a bit clumsy; on some days, things might get on top of them in a big way.

But whatever their problems, they still needed and deserved respect as individuals.

They were trying - probably harder than the rest of us – to lead productive lives. In difficult circumstances, they were still positive about themselves and their contribution to society.

I met more of those people this week. Then I got in my car and drove off, determined to try and do more to improve facilities, foster greater understanding. As I pulled away, I paused for a moment and thought: just a wrong turn, a miscalculation or piece of misfortune, and I too could be going down the same road as them. Then I drove on and went about my daily duties.

But I will pause again, every now and then and think how fortunate I am and how it could all so easily be different. Then perhaps I – and others – will understand a little bit better.

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