The things no one tells you about brain injuries

Peter Holmes, from Alwoodley in Leeds, was injured in a jetski accident whilst on holiday.
Peter Holmes, from Alwoodley in Leeds, was injured in a jetski accident whilst on holiday.
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When Peter Holmes was involved in a jetski accident, doctors didn’t think he would survive. Three years on, as he prepares for the Great North Run, he talks honestly about the road to recover.

I’m not exactly Bear Grylls, but three years ago this month, on a hot and sunny day by a Serbian river, I put fear aside and leapt on to a jetski for the first time.

I’d been promised a thrilling but safe time riding the jetski on the river Sava accompanied by an experienced jetski rider from a popular Belgrade riverside sports club.

Still lobster red from playing boules in the midday sun the day before, the risk of an involuntary dip in a cooling river didn’t sound remotely like anything to fear. I’m not a great swimmer, but I’d been given a lifejacket. No jetskiers wore helmets. “Go for it!” my family said, encouragingly, and that’s what I did.

Seconds later, my jetski and another machine crashed at speed in the busy river, and my life was turned upside down.

I have no memory of the accident, or its causes, but I was found face down and unconscious in the river. My sister Vikki, who set off jetskiing from the riverbank on another accompanied machine at the same time as me, was one of the first to reach me after hearing what she said sounded like a small explosion.

She found me in a large slick of blood, and like many others quickly at the scene, feared I was dead. Doctors believe my head struck the second jetski. The young rider accompanying me suffered a broken leg.

I was pulled to the shore and held by my mother in her arms until medical help arrived. I suffered what doctors categorised as “extremely severe” traumatic brain injury and spent 10 days in a coma after the August 14 accident. The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), a technique used worldwide to measure the severity of a coma, scores patients from three to 15, three being the worst. Below GCS 5, the survival rates are extremely poor. I was initially rated four, one more than Top Gear’s Richard Hammond. You don’t get much worse than that and live to tell the tale.

The accident wreaked havoc for me and my family, but I’m still here and a work still very much in progress. I keep saying to myself that I’ll not allow a few seconds on a jetski to determine the course of my life. Inform my life, yes, determine, no.

Physically, I’m fine now (apart from a bashed nose and a few small scars),and have been busy training for the Great North Run next month to raise money for Headway, the head injury charity. But, as Headway will tell you, head injuries are little understood. And what we fail to understand, we fear.

Nobody likes talking about head injuries; the scars are often mental ones - invisible but very real and painful - and ones that often lead to embarrassed or awkward silences, particularly among well-meaning friends.

Sadly, we hear “head case” often used as a term of insult. I am a head case in the true sense, but I now see light at the end of a long tunnel and hope that in some small way I can give encouragement to victims and families facing similar challenges. That’s why I am writing this article, and that’s why I’m running in Gateshead on Sunday .

I spent 10 days in a coma after the holiday accident, seven of them at the Belgrade Emergency Health Centre. Doctors in Belgrade saved my life, but, according to my parents, conditions were pretty grim. My horrified family, allowed only the briefest of visits each day, saw me strapped to my bed like a prisoner because the ill-equipped hospital did not have beds with protective guard rails to keep patients safe.

I was flown by air ambulance to Leeds Bradford Airport on August 22 (thank God for holiday insurance!) and admitted to the intensive care unit at Leeds General Infirmary.

As a parting gift, a senior Serbian doctor had given my Mum, a civil servant, a typewritten list of things I couldn’t do for a year: no chocolate, no cheese, no fizzy drinks, no coffee, no sex, no sport and no sun (unless wearing a hat). Doctors in England advised me to ignore the ill-judged advice and throw the list away, but I treasure it to this day.

At the LGI, I received the same fantastic medical support as Richard Hammond did at the hospital following his rather more spectacular crash, in a jet-powered car, near York in 2006. Doctors pulled no punches, telling my parents there was a long road ahead with no guarantee of a full recovery. Surgery was ruled out, but my brain needed to slowly reboot and I would have to learn things, like walking and talking, all over again.

Only later, of course, was I told of this. It was 18 days before I spoke my first words, to a speech therapist, who rang my Mum to break the happy news, and I was handed the phone.

“Hi Mum, it’s Peter” I said, after all that silence. And, with a bit of prompting, I added: “I’m fine”. It was hardly Shakespeare, but it got Mum screaming with joy. I took my first unaided steps later the same day.

My rehabilitation continued in a specialist unit at Chapel Allerton Hospital in Leeds, followed by weekly appointments with a psychologist at St Mary’s Hospital in Armley until September last year to help me cope with increased anxiety and fatigue, along with difficulties concentrating and thinking flexibly.

I had trouble sleeping and was on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. My moods are still as changeable as a British summer, and I still get impatient and frustrated when my over-protective family seeks to wrap me in cotton wool.

Heated arguments with my family were common in the early days, and they sometimes lasted for days. Rows still occur, but happily they’re now rarer and a lot shorter. We’re getting better at understanding one another.

The accident happened in the middle of my A-level studies at St Aidan’s School in Harrogate, where my twin brother Alex was also taught. My studies were put on hold for a year while I relearned the basics.

It was tough seeing Alex, my shadow for so many years, going it alone and winning a place at university ahead of me. School staff showed great patience and understanding, and I was gradually re-acclimatised to the world of academia.

I stumbled plenty of times, took far too long agonising over essays and worried constantly about what fellow pupils thought of me, but I persevered and Hull University offered me a place, to study geography, while promising to support me in my quest to make sense of my new life.

I over-analyse, suffer from paranoia and bouts of depression, as doctors warned I would, but I do my best to put on a brave face and smile. And I’m afraid I’m rather obsessive. I used to be Bart Simpson, but now the Queen could visit my bedroom it’s so neat and tidy while my clothes have to be washed to death and hung in a certain order in my wardrobe.

I know what Richard Hammond means when he says he’d like to get a T-shirt printed on the front with “I’m all right” for the benefit of the countless people who ask him how he is. “But”, he said, “I’d like to put ‘I’m still ****ing poorly on the back for those who forget I’ve got a way to go.”

I returned to Serbia earlier this month, to see my Serbian family and friends and finish the holiday cut short by the jetski accident. I’m a passionate Arsenal fan (sorry Leeds) and during my early days at the LGI my Dad repeatedly told an open-mouthed son lacking any memory that the Gunners had lost 8-2 to Manchester United.

It’s been a long battle but, happily, Arsenal are getting better, and so am I.

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