How I graduated from university after my TBI

BY: MARIA LISCIO

Out of nowhere things can change and make you feel as though everything you’ve worked so hard for doesn’t matter. That happened to me the summer before my last year of university when I was struck by a car, as a pedestrian, on my way to work.

I do not remember anything about what happened, other than leaving my house and then waking up in the hospital in an enormous amount of pain. I had severe traumatic brain injuries, including a concussion, brain bleeding and brain bruising.

Until this time, I always focused on achieving high grades in school. I pushed myself to excel in every course I took. I majored in psychology at Ryerson University with a full course load every year. Although it was challenging at times, I worked hard and landed on the dean’s list.

I did not realize the extent of my injuries until I returned home from the hospital. Doctors, social workers, family and friends, said I should take the year off school to recover. I was completely taken aback. I thought, “How could I possibly take the year off? This is my last year and I want to apply to masters programs in a few months!”

Empty University Lecture hall
PHOTO VIA PEXELS

School was one of the most important things in my life and I being told I shouldn’t go back threw me off guard.

I learned I had a mild cognitive impairment, which caused problems with focus, concentration, and writing. I noticed my writing difficulties right away, I spelled words incorrectly and my sentences didn’t make sense. I was devastated.

How could I go from being a straight A student, to not being able to spell words correctly?

Even after hearing everyone’s advice, I did not want to listen. I was determined to go back to school, maintain my high average and graduate on time, no matter what. And let me tell you, it was extremely hard.

I told all of my professors about my situation the first week of classes. They were all very understanding and told me if I ever needed extra time with an assignment or extra help, to let them know. During this time, I was still attending frequent doctor, therapist and specialist appointments. Trying to manage everything took a huge toll. I broke down many times and cried because I could not focus, I could not remember the topics I was studying, and my essays did not make sense.

Fortunately, my friends and family were always there for me during my struggles, helping me and making sure I was getting enough rest.

Woman studying with her head in her hands
PHOTO via PEXELS

Due to my injuries, my fatigue levels were very low.  I took a nap almost every day after school, before starting my homework, in fact, I scheduled them in. Without enough rest, I couldn’t focus and concentrate on what I needed to do.

However, there was one time in particular where I knew I had to persevere and prove myself. It was during one of my mandatory psychology classes, and the material was so different from the majority of my other classes. I was very confused, so I asked my professor for help. He tried to help me, however, he also told me that if I didn’t understand, I should drop the class.

I was furious! Drop the class? Not graduate this year? There was absolutely no way I was letting that happen! That comment made me realize that just because you don’t understand something, does not mean you should give up. I studied long hours, and, as always, I took naps when I needed to. I made sure I ate enough to fuel my body. I continued visiting my professors and asking for help, and I spent a tremendous amount of time working on essays.

I wanted to prove to myself and others that my brain injuries, and the struggles caused by them, do not define me and what I am able to do.  

Before my accident, I had worked part-time at a grocery store for almost six years. Initially after my accident, I did not work for three or four months so I could adequately recover. Then I tried going back to work but I could not manage it. I experienced extreme fatigue and dizziness from standing during my shifts. Even though it was unintentional, I also felt as though some people did not understand the extent of my brain injuries because they were not something anyone could physically see.

Working and being a student was something I could no longer do. I was trying so hard in school, and it was time consuming. I resigned my position to focus solely on my studies.

Through all of my battles, I managed to yet again get straight A’s. I have never been so proud of myself and what I was able to achieve, despite the circumstances. However, my most proud moment was achieving 90% in none other than, the psychology class I was told I should drop.

I graduated university that year, with honours, making the Dean’s List and most importantly making myself proud of this achievement.

I am now working for a health care clinic and I am still planning on applying to masters programs in the future. I continue to experience more fatigue than I am used too, and some difficulties in writing and focusing.

Even with these difficulties, I am going to try and preserve as best as I can.


Maria Liscio is an ABI survivor who is working towards a career in health care. She currently works at a health care clinic that assists many individuals with ABI. Maria uses her personal experience to connect with others facing life’s challenges, and strives to encourage positivity.  Follow her on Instagram at @maria.liscio.

 

 

 

 

Yoga Brain

BY: ALYSON ROGERS

Before my brain injury, I was convinced yoga wasn’t for me; I was a year-round athlete and long-distance running legs were not yoga legs in my mind.

After my brain injury, I was convinced yoga wasn’t for me; I went to a few classes and struggled to keep up and do the poses.  I usually left with a headache and feeling defeated.  Ten years and 6 concussions later, I practice yoga everyday – both on and off the mat.

In 2017, a bad concussion completely changed my lifestyle. In under a year, I went from an active person who went out for drinks with friends after work, to someone who stays home due to fatigue and symptoms; someone figuring out a new life on medication and alcohol-free.

I’d like to say there was some magical movie moment where I wandered into a yoga studio and found my place, but in reality, I dusted off the yoga mat I never got around to donating and rolled it out onto my living room floor because I had nothing else do to at home.  I remembered poses I had learned in classes and did simple stretches. I was pleasantly surprised at how good I felt afterwards and kept coming back to my mat. I’d found a practice that didn’t hurt my brain, but benefited it.

Fast forward to November 2018. I was searching Myrtle Beach for a yoga mat while I was on vacation because I couldn’t imagine going four days without one. Yoga had become a huge part of my life. I practiced at least 3 times a week, was seeing improvement in my flexibility, recognized how good yoga made my mind feel, developed an interest in spirituality, began exploring meditation, and was reading yoga books, including Yoga Girl by Rachel Brathen and Yoga Mind by Suzan Colón.

The physical and philosophical aspects of yoga did more than make me flexible and centre self-care in my life; it helped with my concussion symptoms and how I feel about having a disability.  After I started practicing yoga, I noticed improvements in my concentration, balance, spatial awareness and other physical symptoms. I also saw improvements in my mood and overall mental wellness. Learning about the philosophical tools of yoga allowed me to have a healthier and honest perspective of my current concussion issues, and having a brain injury in general. I’d found something that was both beneficial for me, and that I could do no matter what symptoms I was experiencing on a given day.

I’ve written about my brain injury for years and decided I would write about the benefits of yoga for brain injury in the hope of helping other survivors, but I didn’t. If I was going to do this, I would have to be honest about the emotional and mental symptoms of brain injury I had experienced; I was ready to write about it but not attach my name and face to it. Stigma lives on and it was staring me in the face; what if someone from my workplace saw it?  Would people think I’m “crazy”?  Would I be taken less seriously?

This is how Yoga Brain came to life on Instagram (@yogabrain).  I created an anonymous account to talk about yoga and brain injury. At first, I didn’t show my face in any photos; if someone I knew saw it, they would know it was me, so it stayed hidden for quite some time.  Slowly, I started to show me face, and 6 months after creating the account, I put my name on it.  The shame and embarrassment I felt about brain injury symptoms I had never talked about faded away, and I was ready to be a face for more than just physical brain injury symptoms.

Since creating Yoga Brain, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of connecting with brain injury survivors, yogis, yoga teachers and organizations all over the world. I was invited to be a guest on the Concussion Talk podcast and have been featured by Can Recover, Beyond Concussion and Fierce Calm. Brain injury can feel like a lonely place, but by putting myself out there, I’ve learned from others and used my experience to support other survivors.  My posts document my yoga journey, brain injury journey, and my new life that includes travelling (something I never thought I’d do after my brain injury).

Yoga Brain and my love for yoga took me on a journey I never expected. I recently finished my 200-hours Yoga Teacher Training Certification…in California.  I’m not sure where this will take me next, but I can’t wait to find out.


Alyson is 26-years-old and acquired her first brain injury ten years ago. She graduated from Ryerson University and is a youth worker at a homeless shelter. In her spare time, Alyson enjoys writing, rollerblading and reading. Follow her on Twitter @arnr33 or on The Mighty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How being buried in an avalanche led to yoga teacher training: Michael Levine

BY: MERI PERRA

Tuesday, March 19, 2013, an adventurous ski getaway in Whistler, B.C. changed the course of Michael Levine’s life forever. A Class 2 avalanche struck while Levine, along with his brother and a friend, were hiking up the back side of the mountain in the backcountry of Whistler Blackcomb. Levine’s friend and brother escaped relatively unscathed, Levine at first did not.

“I was fully buried under four feet of snow,” Levine said.

Beginning the search, both his brother and friend were miraculously able to locate him and first discovered his snowboard boot, Levine’s brother and friend were quick to react and shoveled him out, to find him unconscious and non-breathing.

“They went to clear my airway and found my mouth was full of snow,” Levine said. “They [shook me] and moments later, I began breathing on my own.”

The Whistler Avalanche search and rescue Team helicoptered into the area to rescue Levine, his brother and friend. They were then transported to the Whistler Health Care Centre, where the life-saving rescue made the news.

Diagnosed with a concussion at first, Levine took a flight back to Toronto a mere two days after the accident. He showed up for work that week, as a financial adviser at a downtown Bay Street firm, where his Branch Manager immediately recognized something wasn’t right with his health.

“My eyes were completely blood shot, I had headaches and sensitivity to screens, light and noise,” Levine said.

So began Levine’s journey to recovery. In fairness, Levine says, not many health practitioners treat avalanche survivors in Ontario, and many did not know what to do. He was determined, trying to find the right care until he started treatment at the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic at the University of Toronto. It was at the MacIntosh Clinic where Levine learned he had sustained an anoxic brain injury due to lack of oxygen to the brain, in addition, to his concussion.

“The recovery was extremely challenging for the first two years,” Levine, who says he has not taken any prescription medication or over-the-counter pain medicine since his injury. “I was advised by my doctors to take a leave of absence from work which started out as three months, then turned into six months, and then it ended up being a year and a half.”

Skiing in the backcountry is at your own risk and adventure seeking skiiers are strongly suggested to proceed with caution. Levine, his brother and friend were experienced and equipped adventurers prepared for the day.

Whistler, appeared safe and enticing despite having variable weather patterns that week, and Levine was capable and adaptable to the conditions when the event occurred. Doctors said his health beforehand helped him survive and recover, initially, as well as he did.

Levine had no choice but to adapt to this new way of life. His exercise routine had to change. Elevating his heart rate put too much pressure on his brain. Socializing and working became a much slower pace than he was used to. He limited his workout routine to gentle yoga and the stationary bike. He had to give up weight lifting for over a year. He dealt with short term memory loss, fatigue, lack of energy and continued to experience sensitivity to light and noise.

Levine says the multidisciplinary team at the Toronto Rehabilitation Clinic, where treatment included occupational, physical and speech therapy moved him to the next level of his recovery. Cranial Sacral Therapy, Levine says, got him even closer to the final recovery stage and it became a significant part of his ongoing support to improve his health.

“I knew what I was capable of before the accident,” Levine said. “Now I had to learn to adapt to this new way of life. I had to really listen to my body and if I really don’t have any energy I had to say no to people or events. It was a learning experience.”

Levine says it wasn’t ‘just one thing’ that helped with his recovery. Talk therapy was also an important component to my recovery during the second phase. Not to leave out the fact that food is medicine for Levine and he focused on nutrition and supplements.

Levine says recovery from a brain injury also became a chance to find his true purpose and reevaluate what is important in his life. He took a detour from the financial world for two years and worked as a stylist in the menswear industry. This allowed him time and space to reflect, heal, reorganize and prioritize.

Today Levine is back in the finance office, working full time developing a business with a team. He is mindful of his time management balancing work, social, rest, exercise, and achieving optimal health and well being in today’s fast pace environment. And congratulations to Levine he has just completed the 200 hour yoga teacher training at YogaSpace.

“Yoga has been a part of my life for the last seven years,” Levine said. “It’s a great way for me to give back, and share with others in the community.”

You can catch Levine’s community class at YogaSpace this Sunday, January 28 and on Sunday March 11 at 8:45 a.m. on both days. He’ll also teach at the Attic at Lululemon (318 Queen West) on March 17 at 3 p.m. The cost is $5, and all levels are welcome, Levine says he teaches a strengthening flow class, which is open to beginners and more experienced.

We have a hunch a lot more is coming for this ABI thriver, especially for you yogis out here.

“I’d love to customize a [yoga] sequence for ABI survivors,” Levine said.

Sounds  nama-awesome. 

Yoga Space

148 Ossington Avenue |Toronto, Ontario, Canada | M6J 2Z5


Meri Perra is the Communications Coordinator at BIST. 

How to best return to work following a concussion in the computer driven 21st century

BY: COLIN HARDING

One in five Canadians will experience a concussion from sport in their lifetime. Suffering a concussion can lead to a range of debilitating symptoms such as constant fatigue, changes in mood, headaches and difficulty concentrating.

Returning to work after a concussion can be challenging and if not done properly may slow recovery. There are activities and techniques that allow for the smoothest transition back to normal life and the best chance for a full recovery.

The following are some tips on how to recover from a concussion and return back to work while maintaining your health.

There are good days and bad days and accepting that things will take time is important to maintaining a high level of mental health.

Say yes to help & support

The Centre of Disease Control and Prevention recommends gathering support as an important part of recovery and may help lift the burden of a concussion off an individual’s shoulders. Support can come from many places: a partner, a family member, a healthcare professional or a manager at work.

Having open channels of communication can lead to a greater understanding and empathy during recovery. It is easier for your peers to understand your situation and support you through the process if they know what has happened.

For example, a manager who knows their co-worker has recently experienced a concussion should lessen the workload initially as the individual begins the transition from rest back to work and this may help decrease their symptoms and stress.

Woman at her desk with head in her hands
PHOTO: enerpic.com

Avoid triggers

Once someone has experienced a concussion it is important to recognize what triggers his or her symptoms. Every concussion is different and these triggers may range from person to person. The backlight on a computer screen may cause headaches, exercise may cause nausea, and conversations may cause fatigue.

Every individual has a different set of factors that will influence their symptoms. If an activity makes symptoms worse, then it is important to stop that activity and rest. For instance, if conversations’ are overwhelming, take a break from social engagements.

Manage your energy

It may sound simple, but managing symptoms and energy amongst all of the different aspects in your life can be a real challenge. Once the symptoms are resolved someone may wish to return to work. Returning with a decreased workload, taking scheduled breaks and being cognisant and respecting symptoms are helpful to ensure that transition goes smoothly.

Accepting that an injury has happened, and that it will take some time to recover from, is another important aspect to consider when living with a concussion.

Be patient

There are good days and bad days and accepting that things will take time is important to maintaining a high level of mental health. The recovery process and managing setbacks can be incredibly frustrating, and patience can be one of the most important aspects of a recovery.

A person should focus on the activities that they can control and feel like they are making progress on, as opposed to the activities that are out of their control. Light exercise (As long as a person does not experience worsening symptoms), a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep are part of the foundation to achieve health and could be part of a recovery plan.

Having a concussion can initially be draining and frustrating. Having the support from work and peers, being aware, managing symptoms, and accepting that recovery takes time can go a long way towards making the transition back to normal life successful.

 


Colin Harding is the CEO and founder of Iris Technologiesa Canadian healthcare technology company that is improving the lives of peoplewho have suffered from a mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) or live with chronic migraines.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Iris Technologies Blog

Goal setting after a brain injury

BY: ALISON

Before my concussion, I was always busy.

I worked long hours, travelled three times a year, hosted parties, played sports, volunteered and maintained a blog. I had one-year fitness goals, five-year career goals, 10-year family goals, and 30-year financial goals. After my injury, my symptoms were so debilitating and unpredictable that I couldn’t even make plans for 10 minutes in the future. I was close to giving up entirely, until I changed my perspective and approach to goal-setting.

women standing in running shoes
photo credit: 2012Vegas 676 via photopin (license)

How to Set Goals After a Brain Injury

Step 1: Change Your Perspective and Set Your Goal(s).

First you have to decide what you want your goal to be. It is imperative you don’t set yourself up for failure by having unfair expectations. If you set an unrealistic goal, you will de-motivate yourself and give up. Through accomplishing a series of challenging, yet do-able goals, you will achieve the once seemingly impossible ones.

Set simple goals that are achievable in the short term (i.e. daily and/or weekly). Then gradually work your way up to more difficult goals.

After my injury, just lifting my head off the bed to drink water was exhausting, so my first goal was to perform one task every three days. Tasks included taking a shower, folding clothes, or going to an appointment. Once I could do that, I slowly increased the frequency and difficulty of the tasks.

I then added outings to my goals, which later included running errands. Eventually, I was performing multiple tasks each day, having outings a few times per week, and running multiple errands per outing.

As my energy levels improved, I also set my first fitness goal, to walk for at least 10 minutes each day. Over time, this evolved to taking longer walks and faster-paced walks. Once I had more confidence in my capabilities, I focused on social goals. I started with phone conversations and one-on-one meetings, before working my way up to group dinners at bustling restaurants. Finally, I started hosting parties in my home.

Exercise is well-known to improve brain function, depression, anxiety, and sleeping problems. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that moderate exercise is the best treatment for concussions.

a freshly made bed
photo credit: Mazzali bedroom via photopin (license)

Step 2: Plan Out Your Goals and Take One Tiny Step at a Time.

Now that you’ve set your goal, the next step towards achieving it is to make a plan. Write your plan down on a piece of paper so you can follow it easily and cross things off as you complete them.

The best approach to planning (and executing that plan), is to take things one tiny step at a time. Break down each goal into as many small, manageable components as you can, then tackle one component at a time. The definition of ‘manageable’ is different for everyone and will change as you recover.

For example, these were the tiny, manageable steps that I planned for my goal of going for a walk:

  1. Stand up (you could break this step down further. e.g. lift head off bed, then lift head and shoulders off bed, then sit up, then sit on the side of the bed, then stand up.)
  2. Drink some water
  3. Change my clothes
  4. Gather my cell phone, keys, and health card
  5. Put walking/running shoes on
  6. Leave the house (i.e. simply step outside)
  7. Start walking (even if it’s just a few feet) and rest as needed
  8. Walk home and rest as needed
  9. Stretch
  10. Drink some water

When you start executing your plan, the most important thing to remember is to focus only on the task. Don’t even think about how you’re going to tackle the next step until you’ve completed the current one. That means, not worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to complete all of the steps, and not counting the number of steps you have left.

Taking one tiny step at a time will earn you little wins, keep you motivated, and make your goal seem less daunting. Take breaks when you need them and try again later.

It helps to have someone else’s support when you’re working towards a goal, but only if they understand the importance of taking things one step at a time. I remember one night in the winter, my partner wanted to take me to the mall to help me achieve my daily walking goal. I was fatigued and dizzy and convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it. But he talked me through one step at a time. He said, we’re just going to get in the car and we’re just going to drive to the mall. If you’re still not feeling well when we get there, you don’t have to get out of the car, we’ll come straight home. So he helped me up off the couch and into the car. He drove me to the mall, turned the engine off, and asked if I was able to get out of the car. I was, and in that moment, we set a goal of walking to the mall entrance and back. When I got to the entrance, I felt okay, so we went inside. That night, I ended up walking for longer than my daily goal.

drinking a glass of water
photo credit: Denise via photopin (license)

So when you’re faced with a particularly daunting moment, keep repeating to yourself, “I’m just going to do this tiny task. That’s not too hard.” One and a half years of tiny steps later, I jogged 5 km in the BIST Run, Walk & Roll. I’m working towards running a 10 km race next year.

Step 3: Be Flexible and Be Kind to Yourself.

Celebrate each tiny success and never criticize or punish yourself for set-backs. Goal-setting after a brain injury requires time and practice through trial and error, so be patient with yourself, do what you can, and be flexible with changes to your plans. If something’s not working for you, try again and then try something different. You might need to re-evaluate your goals, revisit them at a later time, or break certain steps into smaller components. Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.

Step 4: Set New Goals and Keep Challenging Yourself.

As your symptoms improve, you’ll be able to accomplish more each day. When you’re further along in your recovery process, gradually increase the breadth and difficulty of your steps. Soon, you’ll be working on various goals (e.g. fitness, cognitive, financial and social) simultaneously.

Eventually, your goals will become more and more challenging, complex, and long-term. No matter what your physical barriers are, there’s always something to learn, something to improve, and new ways to challenge yourself. As long as you take things one step at a time, you’ll look back one day and surprise yourself with how far you’ve come.


‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.

 

 

The name is Reeves, Mychal Reeves, and this is how I found work post-ABI

BY: MYCHAL REEVES

When I was 11, I suffered a brain stem tumour. Coming back from a vegetative state and finishing school were only stepping stones along the path I have chosen, a path which, eventually lead to me to work in a hotel as a house person.

Mychal Reeves
THE NAME IS REEVES, MYCHAL REEVES; PHOTO via FACEBOOK

There are a lot of job postings out there, and there are many ideal candidates to fill those positions. People with disabilities are no exception, many of us have valuable skills to bring to the workforce. However, factors such as discrimination, prejudice and other economic barriers may stand in the way of us finding employment.

The only way to stand out in the job market is to be prepared, and utilize all the tools at our disposal. There are many resources, which specialize in helping people with disabilities find work. I learned a lot of professional skill building through an umbrella program at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, which consisted of many different employment agencies that represented various job fields.

Once I located my local branch, I was partnered with a job developer who worked with me to find job postings online and helped me regularly update and / or modify my resume. That is how I landed my first job – and the rest is history.

Mychal Reeves
MYCHAL REEVES IS READY TO CONQUER THE WORLD

When working with a job developer, it is important to continue your own search for employment. You will learn quickly that you are one of the many cases they are working on, and therefore you are not their only priority. I also recommend that you stay in regular contact with your job developer to keep your case fresh in their mind and show that you are dedicated to finding work.

When a job developer finds a job opportunity he or she feels might be a suitable match for your skills, they will give you a call to see if you’re interested and to help you apply. Then it’s your show. Once you have an interview, you should start researching the company because as the interview workshops at any job agency will tell you, one of the most frequently asked interview questions is, ‘What do you know about this company?’ Another frequently asked question is, ‘How can you help this company?’

Call 211 or the Job Opportunity Information Network for help finding work

This last question is, in my opinion, is the most important one, and is loaded because it not only shows that you have a working understanding of the business, but it gives you the chance to apply your skills and experience while confirming you will be an asset to the company.

Many people will doubt you solely based on the fact that you have a disability. It is up to you to prove them wrong and highlighting your skills is a great way to do that.

Come to BIST’s Community Agency Fair on February 24th to find out about the many ways non-profit services can help you to lead a full life post-ABI

BIST communit agency fair, february 24 6-8 pm toronto reference library

Mychal is a member of BIST. This is his first article for Brain Injury Blog Toronto. 

Thriving after TBI: injured Corporal gives back to fellow soldiers

BY: MERI PERRA

It’s possible the expression, keep soldiering on was created for people just like Corporal David Macdonald. In recent years, Macdonald has climbed the Himalayas, run two half-marathons and he just completed his first full marathon. He continues to serve in the Canadian Forces as a reservist, while working as the national partnerships director at Wounded Warriors Canada.

It’s not a bad list of accomplishments, considering that just six years ago, Macdonald spent three weeks in a coma at the U.S. military hospital in Germany, with no fewer than 47 broken bones in his body.

DAVID MACDONALD
CORPORAL MACDONALD WHILE ON LEAVE FROM THE ARMY THIS SUMMER

“I was involved in a vehicle roll-over on a combat patrol near the end of my tour. I broke my pelvis, I dislocated my left leg, and that had to be surgically put back in,” Macdonald said. “And I had a traumatic brain injury.”

Beyond his injuries, Macdonald says that waking up in Germany, alone, having left his platoon behind, was worse than any injury he suffered.

“[You spend] two years, training, living together, we bonded,” Macdonald said. “To find out that they were still in Afghanistan and I was halfway around the world was just devastating to hear. I wanted to be back with my platoon mates.”

information: brain injuries which are the result of blast are different than other brain injuries

Today, Macdonald, like many injured members of the Canadian Forces, is living with effects of PTSD as well as his traumatic brain injury. He has no memory of the incident which changed his life forever. And while he is learning to accept the reality that some memories have disappeared (he says there are moments from his high school days which are gone forever), the fact that he can not remember this specific, significant moment in his life has been particularly hard to accept.

“My last memory in Afghanistan was orders the morning before the patrol,” Macdonald said.

We hear stories about the challenges members of the Canadian Forces who are living with PTSD and brain injury face. There are the facts: roughly six per cent of the Canadian military personnel deployed in Afghanistan have acquired brain injuries as a result of their service. In the U.S., this number skyrockets to 22 per cent of all military injuries. If you’re in the military, having a brain injury increases your chances of also having PTSD.

Most brain injuries acquired during military service are the result of blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Motor vehicle crashes, such as Macdonald’s, and gun shot wounds, are the other leading causes of brain injury. Brain injuries, which are the result of blasts, have different symptoms than other types of traumatic brain injuries. Typically, post-concussion symptoms for military personnel last longer than civilian concussion symptoms, and members of the military are more likely to have concurrent symptoms such as PTSD and / or addiction issues, along with their TBI.

Macdonald knows the facts. Many of the initiatives and partnerships Wounded Warriors Canada supports are about helping members of the Canadian Forces, and their families, deal with PTSD. In his current position, Macdonald handles third party partnerships, events and fundraising for partner charities.

“Last year, we gave out $1.36 million in funding to these programs and it’s just growing from there,” Macdonald said.

Programs Wounded Warriors supports include a nine day equine assisted learning program for soldiers and their spouses living with PTSD, a fly fishing program and the donation of funds to support service dogs for military members.

“Your odds of developing a form of PTSD almost double for veterans, ” Macdonald said. “There is a certain stigma, because [some] people don’t understand you can recover from it, you can go on and live a normal healthy life. It’s not incapacitation by any means.”

David Macdonald
CORPORAL MACDONALD IN THE HIMALAYAS

Over time, Macdonald has come to accept his new reality. But immediately after he recovered from his injuries, he said he needed to prove to others, and to himself, that he could still be in the military. And while he was physically fit for duty, Macdonald said he continued to suffer physical and mental pain, “stereotypical” things, he says, people dealing with trauma experience. His marriage fell apart and he pulled away from his family and friends. He contemplated, and attempted, suicide.

“I was going through things like depression and I had a lot of anxiety issues, [but] I wasn’t recognizing them.”

Then a communication came through his unit. A documentary project, March to the Top, was looking for recovering soldiers to go on a climb through the Himalayas. Macdonald, who at the time was the only soldier in his unit who was wounded, was initially a bit sceptical of the project, which was described to him as a ‘good go’.

“Half the time a ‘good go’ means that … you get to do an amazing cause and you get to meet people,” Macdonald said. “Or it can mean that you’re shovelling dirt in Northern Alberta for six months.”

It turns out, March to the Top was a legit ‘good go’ and the experience changed, and possibly even saved, Macdonald’s life. Accomplishing the feat of trekking in the Himalayas made Macdonald realize that he needed help. He learned that what he was feeling was normal, and diagnosable. It was PTSD.

CORPORAL MACDONALD WITH AN AFGHAN NATIONAL
CORPORAL MACDONALD WITH AN AFGHAN NATIONAL

“It allowed me to open up and come forward in the military and say, ‘hey I have issues, I need help.’ And that’s what started the process for me getting the help I needed,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald’s attitude is one that accepts the realities of his injuries while allowing himself to thrive. He talks about post-traumatic growth, and feeling stronger as a result of experiencing  injuries and trauma. It’s important to him that he is able to help his fellow veterans through his job, a duty he takes seriously. Until he accepted a paid position with Wounded Warriors this past February, Macdonald juggled volunteering as the provincial coordinator for Ontario while working full-time at a bank, and doing his reserve duties. The man keeps busy.

March to the Top team
THE MARCH TO THE TOP TEAM; PHOTO: CBC

“I  don’t necessarily see my PTSD as a weakness anymore,” Macdonald said. “I used to see it more as part of my life, now I can be stronger because of it.”

Macdonald says he doesn’t know the “future” of his brain injury.  He says it can rear its ugly head at any time, and some days are harder than others.

“Something they ingrain you with in the military is never give up,” Macdonald said. “This is not a limitation, this is something that is now a part of you, but you can still excel, and you can still do amazing things.”


Meri Perra is the communications and support coordinator at BIST.