Today’s post is written by @poorlittlenell (her Twitter handle) she is sharing her experience of her sons Acquired Brain Injury that he sustained at birth. This really captures the fear, the frustration and then the blossoming that occurs. I’d like to thank poorlittlenell for sharing such a beautiful story with me.
Trigger warning: contains a distressing description of the birth.
The weather that week was unseasonably cold for Sydney in November but as I looked out of the hospital window, sunshine broke through the clouds. I watched a man in Chris Evans glasses make his way purposefully across the car park. Beyond him, vehicles whizzed by on their morning commute.
“Don’t they realise,” I thought, “that the world has changed?”
My son had been born half an hour before. He was not with me on the recovery ward. Only thirty minutes previously, after a nightmarish birth, I had watched him die. Then medical staff poured into the delivery suite. A nurse tore the small alabaster body away from me. Slumped on the delivery table, all I could see was an emergency doctor holding up a pair of heart-starting paddles, the kind they use in medical dramas.
“Clear!” someone instructed.
“This isn’t happening,” I thought. “This type of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
I asked the nurse beside me if my baby was OK but her eyes were fixed ahead, her expression filled with horror. She did not reply.
“Why shouldn’t it happen?” I realised. “What makes me immune from losing a child?”
Ten minutes later, fitting, eyes rolling, my son was rushed to Intensive Care.
They had brought him back from death. He had survived.
Eight years later, on a dazzling October morning in Scotland, I faced my son’s paediatric key worker at the day programme he was attending for his anger issues.
“He has Acquired Brain Injury,” she explained to me, “caused by his oxygen deprivation at birth.”
Mystified, I asked: “What’s Acquired Brain Injury?”
My son’s diagnosis should not have come as a shock to me. From the moment of his traumatic birth, his medical problems had been numerous. As soon as his fits were under control, his high muscle tone and favouring of his left side led to him spending a year in physiotherapy. A skull x-ray for suspected craniosynostosis had come back clear but an MRI scan had revealed him to have enlarged ventricles and possible other brain abnormalities. On top of this, until he was almost four, he was hospitalised at least once a month with his severe asthma. At the same time, he diagnosed with multiple life-threatening allergies. Once these were addressed, his asthma began to improve but by then we had left Australia for a new start in UK, leaving his medical files to take the slow boat after us.
On the day my son was born, I was told there was no guarantee he would ever walk or talk. Later, when he showed the doctors he was bouncing back from death with astonishing aplomb, they reassured me I had cause for cautious optimism. This prediction, at first, seemed to play out beyond my most fervent hopes. While physically slower to develop, my son had vast energy and, apparently, uncanny mental sharpness. When he was a week old, he would follow me around the room with his eyes. At three weeks old, he was smiling, laughing and verbalising. After that, he was never, ever quiet or docile. He was always “on”, every dial in his personality turned to the max. The out-of-control tantrums began at six months old and from eighteen months old he stopped sleeping.
At this point I began to realise that his level of activity, intensity and emotion was beyond a range that could be described as “normal”. But, due in part to us moving house five times, his age and the severity of his other medical needs, the doctors were reluctant to give a concrete diagnosis.
I spent every available moment reading about paediatric conditions, desperate to find an answer for his concerning behaviour. With his hyperactivity, he could have had ADHD but this was not the full picture for him. His intense obsessions, rigidity, heightened anxiety and “ticking” with certain words and phrases, made me suspect he was on the Autistic Spectrum. Yet despite having many social blind spots, he was extremely sociable and capable of strong empathy. Being so intensely curious, he even seemed to match the profile of a Gifted Child. Except that he had never been able to memorise nursery rhymes or learn the simplest of songs. He would forget basic instructions the moment they had been given.
Eventually, it was his aggression that drove me back to the doctors and to Child and Adult Mental Health Services. His frustration had reached such unbearable levels that he would lash out, kicking and punching me up to sixty times a day. He pulled the bathroom door off its hinges and flew into rages where he would smash his toys and throw the contents of his bedroom down the stairs. My journey to have his behaviour addressed led us to the day programme and to his diagnosis of Acquired Brain Injury.
Nowadays I give a wry smile, thinking about my years in the dark over my son’s Brain Injury. When I see a checklist of the symptoms, he ticks every box. He is the Poster Child for ABI, a walking description. His impaired working memory, his processing delays and concentration problems seriously affect his day-to-day life. They mean that although he is currently attending mainstream school, he is nowhere close to receiving an adequate education. He has Executive Dysfunction – the brakes are off on his emotions and anxiety. While he is aware of certain “norms” of behaviour, when he is swept onto the emotional rollercoaster he cannot simply step off. These and his other symptoms are invisible. The outward signs, spotted by those around us, look like weirdness, naughtiness, even delinquency.
“I’m just wondering why you do that?” a small girl asked us the other day, pointing to the ragged sleeves of my son’s school jumper, where he had gnawed the cuffs completely away.
At Legoland, a father with teenage children frowned at us when my son, frustrated by a long wait in a queue, began repeating an inappropriate word at the top of his voice.
A neighbour was concerned and baffled recently that my son, out of my sight for less than five minutes, had failed to warn some younger children away from a dangerous activity. “He’s ten. He should have known they could have been hurt.”
When a person has Acquired Brain Injury, there is a hesitation to explain. I live in dread of his schoolmates discovering the name of his condition and adding “brain-damaged” to their list of insults. On the other hand, when I have been pushed to inform outsiders that he has a neurological disability, I have been met with scorn: “He’s not disabled!” or “Looks fine to me!” Acquired Brain Injury opens the door to a new level of complexity in understanding disability. To have a barely-functioning short-term memory is, of course, different to having barely-functioning legs – yet is, in its own way, as debilitating.
The insulting and dismissive reactions to Acquired Brain Injury are in the minority. The most common response is the one I feel the biggest need to challenge.
“He has a Brain Injury?” The listener’s expression becomes bereft. “But how awful. How sad. How terrible.”
No. My son survived. He is with us and he is so much more than the sum of his brain cells. He has huge energy and enthusiasm, boundless creativity, a sense of humour that has me laughing every time we are together no matter how challenging the day might be. I am frequently left in awe at his tenacity and determination. He has worked unbelievably hard to learn ways to handle his frustration, to the extent that he is no longer aggressive towards me. Yes, the child who would pull doors off their hinges in fits of rage no longer shows violence towards me. I find little incomprehensible notes scattered everywhere that he has written to himself as reminders of Important Things – Important, to him, almost always means Minecraft. School is difficult but despite the stress he is under every day, he keeps soldiering on, with the work, with finding friends, with his allergies, with everything.
I remember the brilliance of the sun on the day he was born and on the day of his diagnosis, a tactless contrast to the darkness of our circumstances. But in my memory, the sunshine has come to symbolise hope. Not a day goes by when I don’t give thanks for my son’s life. To see your baby die in front of you then be resuscitated, to learn he has irreversible brain damage – that is traumatic. The shock will stay with me forever. But the alternative for him was death.
In the ten years since he suffered the brain trauma, one grief has stood out in my mind: “What was he meant to be like? What did the brain damage take away?”
Last week, my son answered this question himself when we were talking about the Science of the Future. I had heard a proposal for a computerised implant for people with brain injuries that could repair the damaged part of their brain.
“If that technology ever came about,” I asked my son, “would you use it?”
“No,” he replied without hesitation. “Because if I did, I wouldn’t be myself.”
I realised then that he is a whole and complete person. My son with Acquired Brain Injury is who he is meant to be.