What a brain injury feels like

“I didn’t feel normal, but I looked normal. And that meant people treated me like I was normal.”

Elizabeth Lopatto has described her recovery from concussion after a collision with a car when she was cycling to her yoga class. In her article in The Guardian, which featured as ‘The Long Read’, Elizabeth gives an account that covers the moment she came round on the pavement after the crash through to when she is back at work. Due to her job as a science writer, Elizabeth had written a lot about the effects of brain injuries, covering concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the US National Football League (NFL).  However, she says nothing prepared her for the experience of having a brain injury herself.

Symptoms

In the piece, Elizabeth runs through the checklist of symptoms and says: “What happens with any concussion – including mine – is a recognisable set of symptoms: confusion, fatigue, difficulty remembering new information, nausea, dizziness, mood changes and sensitivity to light and sound. “The number of concussions receiving medical care has been on the rise in the past few decades, in part because people are more familiar with the idea of brain injuries.” Elizabeth explains how her memory was impaired. She also explains how she was affected by mood changes and how she had a ‘personality change’ that was relatively uncommon as she went from being a pessimist to spending about a month after the crash being “incapable of doing anything other than looking on the bright side.” Elizabeth also explained the physical challenges. Referring to how she felt when she first tried to walk after the crash she says: “My body had become a clumsy mecha suit, and I was trapped inside, trying to operate what felt like a large hunk of metal.”

Discharge and recovery

Once walking, Elizabeth was discharged quickly from hospital with a diagnosis of concussion. Elizabeth says: “I figured my recovery would take about a week. I was wrong.” She continues: “There is no treatment for concussion except for patience and time, but people seem not to believe that.” In the article, Elizabeth highlights some books she read that share concussion experiences and says how it’s hard to predict how long recovery will take. She states: “Social factors matter. Loneliness and isolation make recovery harder.” Elizabeth returned to work and found she had a shorter attention span but that work also gave her ‘little victories’. She still feared ‘The Headache’, as she called it, but she had overcome many of the initial challenges she’d experienced. Now she has bought a new bike and is back cycling to her yoga class. Commenting on how brain injuries are perceived, Elizabeth says: “Our society really isn’t equipped for people with brain injuries, which are real but invisible. “Even though I knew my balance wasn’t good enough to stand on public transport, I was scared to ask for a seat on a crowded train. An injury no one can see doesn’t inspire sympathy.” Elizabeth’s original article appeared in The Verge where Elizabeth is Science Editor.
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