Health

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Brain injury is something that 'happens in a second'

Karyn McMorrow is one of 13,000 who acquire a brain injury every year, she tells Edel Coffey

Karyn McMorrow in the great outdoors of Blacklion, Co Cavan, after having regained her independence. Photo by Lorraine Teevan.

In 2011, Karyn McMorrow was just like any other 22-year-old graduate. After years of studying in Galway, she decided to see a bit of the world. She moved to Thailand for six months to teach English in a secondary school there.

After six months, she liked it so much that she decided to stay on for another term, and so she got a job teaching in a big primary school with lots of students and staff.

Her employers put her up in an apartment and she liked the town where she was living. It was small and quiet and about an hour from Bangkok.

Her apartment was on the second floor of the building and, one morning, November 1 2011, she went out onto her balcony.

"I don't remember it happening at all. There was no railings, and it was a two-storey drop. I can't remember the day before. I can't remember anything really.

"I can remember being in school and nights out with my friends, but there's nothing clear about what happened before."

Karyn had fallen from the balcony and sustained a brain injury.

"I had two bleeds on my brain. My short-term memory was gone. I had a foot drop on my left leg initially and was walking funny, but the rest was to do with my brain.

"There wasn't a mark on me. After I was in hospital for a month, my two brothers came over. I don't even remember any of that. My brothers took pictures of me but I don't remember."

Karyn came home to Ireland and moved back in with her family in her hometown in Cavan.

People with a brain injury may look fine but can experience many problems that mean they are not able to resume their lives as they were before. That be very difficult to come to terms with. As a young woman, this loss of independence was especially tough.

"I moved out of home when I was 17, went to college, stayed in Galway, I was totally independent and then had to come back and move back into the house and it felt like everyone was keeping an eye on me.

"It took me a good year to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't the same person. Not that I wasn't actually the same person, but I would have been very moody and stuff.

"I could talk to someone in the morning and then I'd see them again in the evening and I wouldn't remember having spoken to them that morning.

"It was very hard. I got very frustrated, and very angry with the world because it wasn't my fault. I had done nothing wrong so I couldn't understand why."

Karyn's family knew she needed help and her father suggested she go to Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Ireland's Transitional Living Unit in Sligo.

"I fought against going to Sligo," she says, laughing now. "I did not want to go. When I went, I stayed in there for a month. I didn't like it. I didn't realise there was anything really wrong with me and I didn't think they could help me. I think it was denial. Teresa O'Boyle is in charge, and I couldn't recommend the services more.

"I'm not just being nice, I wouldn't be where I am without the help I got. I would be quite outspoken. I was angry, and ignored them or rolled my eyes but they continued with me."

Karyn initially stayed at the transitional living unit in Sligo for four weeks.

"I went back in again for another few weeks and even then I didn't realise the help I was getting. When I'd first go in on a Sunday evening or Monday morning, they'd write an itinerary for the week and each hour I'd have something to do.

"There are counsellors and everything else that you might need. I didn't appreciate it, it's only in the last few months I appreciate it. I see how much I've come on and people are always saying how much better I am.

"I'm a lot happier and more content too. I have plans for the future and am able to go places."

Before her treatment, Karyn couldn't go anywhere on her own as she would get lost. "Now I can get anywhere," she says. "I honestly can say I wouldn't be where I am now if I wasn't in touch with them."

In a paper he wrote for Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, the clinical psychologist Frederick R Linge wrote about the importance of regaining independence. "I would say that it is imperative that brain- damaged people (especially youngsters who have no previous achievements to fall back upon) be provided with challenges and responsibilities.

"What is the point of struggling to learn, to absorb, and to achieve on an intellectual level when one is not allowed to exercise one's new powers in the real world? Such a person is literally, 'all dressed up with no place to go'.

"No matter how 'hard' it is for family members, teachers and others to let the brain-damaged person 'do it on his own' and no matter how much 'easier' it would be to take pity on him and do it yourself, and no matter how long it takes or how messy the job when done, the brain-damaged person must keep moving towards the fullest development of his potential."

Through ABI Sligo, Karyn began a work experience job in a creche where she is now volunteering part-time and she plans to go back to college to do a Masters in primary teaching.

"I started working in a creche in Sligo," she says. "At first I was working there once a week then I started doing three days a week in Manorhamilton and I was well able for it. I was making friends at work, and interacting with the kids."

But there was a particular sort of anxiety involved with starting to work again.

"I'd forget people's names initially and I would have been nervous about talking to strangers because they don't know, they can't see I've had a brain injury, so I'd worry people would think I was stupid or that I wasn't listening to them."

Now she credits ABI with turning her life around. "I can't compliment them enough on the help they gave me. I was going in the wrong direction. They made me see that things could get better, that there are other people who have had brain injuries.

"It can happen in a split second. It can happen to anyone. The thing to remember is you can get through it, you can go back and live your normal life. I thought I was going to be babysat for the rest of my life.

"It just takes time and you have to accept it. I'd say it was only about a year ago that I accepted it. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could see I was going to be able to go back doing things, to go back to college. That was brilliant in my eyes."

  • Acquired Brain Injury Ireland's annual fundraiser, Bake for Brain Injury runs March 10–16. Register at www.bakeforbraininjury.ie or call 01 280 4164.

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