Sarah Briggs was a nationally-ranked skier competing at an elite level when a crash on a hill in Quebec altered the course of her life. In the second of two winter-activity themed stories by BIST members living with the affects of acquired brain injury, Sarah shares her inspirational story about her road to recovery.
I can say things will get better, but the truth is that they only get better up to a certain point, after which you learn to live with the “new” you. Do your best, try not to compare yourself to others, your journey is your own to follow and a great adventure
– Sarah Briggs.
I sustained my injury at the age of 19, on January 13, 1994 in a downhill ski race at Mont. Saint Anne Resort in Quebec. Travelling at the approximate speed of 100-120km an hour with almost flawless technique, I was poised to win the race or at least finish in the top 3. Then, one of my ski bindings released in a rough section of the course.
The next part happened so fast that I only have vague recollections, and rely mostly on what was told to me by others who were watching the fall. The hill drops dramatically immediately following where I had lost my first ski, a section of the course called “the gun barrel”. My other ski popped off and shot approximately thirty feet in the air, or so I’m told, and I basically did a face plant in the snow, sliding down the entire steep pitch on my face, finally coming to a complete stop at the bottom when the incline flattens out. I was wearing a helmet but no face guard.
According to a coach who was watching in that section, I stood up, so they all thought I was fine. But then I sat back down again.
My skis were both found, and when put together should have made an “I” shape, yet instead formed a “Y.” This illustrates the sheer forces involved in the crash. I also somehow tried to swallow my ski pole in the fall as it got stuck in my mouth and jammed a hole in the roof of my mouth, which is still there today.
It gets a little blurry from here, but I was still aware of tremendous blood loss. Many must have come to my rescue, including the hill/race doctor, ski patrols, my coach, and now I truly believe that God was there the whole time protecting me.
When they took me down the hill in the toboggan, I remember putting my hand up to my face and feeling all open flesh, so I had to essentially hold my face together. It also appeared that time stopped, as everything was taking so long.
The whole time in the ambulance, I was frightened that I was on death’s doorstep. Honestly, I did not know if I would make it to the hospital or whether I would even come out of this situation alive. Apparently, it took the ambulance driver approximately 13 minutes to get to the nearest hospital in Quebec City, which would normally take 25-30 minutes at the regular speed limit. Let’s just say my coach was on edge with how fast the man was driving! Somewhere en route to the hospital, I passed out or was heavily sedated because I have no recollection of entering the hospital.
My next memory was of waking up in the ICU and seeing two clocks on the wall, due to “double vision”. My parents and friends came to see me, and even though I could not really see, I communicated by writing on paper. I’m not sure it was even readable. Later, my friends told me that when they had seen me there in the ICU, my head looked like a soccer ball and they did not recognize me.
Four surgeons operated on me for approximately 11 hours, repairing major facial trauma, including a broken jaw (mandible & maxilla), cheekbone (zygomatic bone), eye socket, lacerations diagonally across my face, loss of about five teeth from my upper jaw (now buried on the hill), and finally a blood transfusion to replace about 2L or 1/3 my blood supply. It’s possible that I had an anoxic brain injury due to the amount or volume of blood lost.
I spent about five days in ICU and another few days in my own room. I remember having the tubes pulled out of my throat and not being able to drink juice unless it was very diluted because it would burn going down. I needed oxygen for a while until I learned to breathe again on my own. On the last day, about nine days after being admitted, I walked out of the hospital much to the surprise of my doctors. That day, the doctor had to suction blood out of my right ear, where I had ruptured my Eustachian tube, part of the inner ear, not certain if the blood was from the ear injury or blood that escaped from my brain. There was no apparent trauma to my brain observed by the doctors at that time, mostly because it was not detected on an MRI or CAT scan.
I travelled home by plane with my jaw wired shut, and stayed with my parents for several months to recover. I saw many doctors, a tutor, ate out of a blender with a syringe, lost more than twenty pounds, and did many exercises to teach my face how to make facial expressions again.
I remember thinking in the beginning that the recovery was taking so long and that things would never get any better. My tutor told me that even though it seemed that way, things would eventually improve. Since improvements are usually very gradual, I had to pack my patience and learn to reflect, as looking back from time to time can help you see how far you’ve come or how much you’ve changed.
I can say things will get better, but the truth is that they only get better up to a certain point, after which you learn to live with the “new” you. Do your best, try not to compare yourself to others, your journey is your own to follow and a great adventure.
Five months later, I returned to my high school and took a reduced course load, but finished my final year of grade 13. I had also returned to about the middle of the pack in terms of my physical training as an elite ski racer when we had our spring fitness testing. Nine months later, I attended my first year of an undergraduate Physical Education/Kinesiology Degree at the University of Calgary.
I was unaware of my brain injury for about eight years following the initial trauma. It was not until I was in Teacher’s College at Queen’s University in the fall of 2001, that a team of professionals including an OT, Psychiatrist and a Neuropsychologist who specialized in learning disabilities, all raised the question about brain injury. Originally, I had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in my final year at the University of Calgary.
Although I still did not have a firm diagnosis of brain injury, merely the hint of it, I was forced to withdraw for medical reasons. They told me that ADHD looks very similar to frontal lobe brain injury and they could not believe that no health care professional had mentioned the possibility of brain injury to me before.
After my Teacher’s College dream died, I was completely devastated. I had no idea what I would do with myself and who I would become, because my identity was all wrapped up in becoming a teacher and having been a ski racer in the past.
I have had to find a new place and purpose for myself, as well as change my goals and the expectations I have of myself. I kept trying to find meaningful work and put myself back into a classroom teaching setting a few more times without a successful outcome. I am trying a new approach with volunteering to start, and maybe someday part time paid work if I can tolerate it.
I get tired and “overloaded” faster. I need more sleep and am slower to process information. I have short term memory loss and am less able to juggle multiple responsibilities. My frontal lobe injury did affect many of my executive functions, such as attention/focus, decision making, planning, organizing, impulsiveness and a lack of better judgment.
In other words, I need to plan less in a day, have shorter “to do” lists, and include lots of repetition. This is part of my acceptance. Knowing when to slow down, reel myself in and say “I’m ok, the way I am now”. I am getting used to the “new” normal as they like to call it.
Fitting into the world with people who do not understand brain injury, the “invisible injury”, that is certainly now an epidemic, and how to explain it to them is a challenge, when it’s difficult enough for me to understand myself. I continue to learn as much as I can about brain injury, and to challenge myself by trying new things. I got involved with Brain Injury Association of Canada (BIAC), which eventually lead me to Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST). I always did the best I could to improve myself, listened to my doctors, surrounded myself with family & friends, ate healthy, and got outside daily or as often as possible to get some physical activity. It’s difficult to get out of the house, but I always feel better afterward.
I have been a member of BIST for six years. BIST is a wonderful community of people to get to know in a very personal way, because we all share something in common. We were all changed forever by a brain-altering event in our lives. The programs have enabled me the opportunity to be involved in the brain injury community, provided a consistent place to meet regularly with other brain injury survivors and learn from each others’ experiences. The other members who are professionals or caregivers have been supportive as well from a different perspective. At times, we partner with other agencies, which expand our friendship circle. BIST has supported me socially because I honestly feel the people I meet there are my friends, and the best friend I ever met there was my husband Pinky/Michael.
Sarah Briggs, BIST member and volunteer.