Not Just Concussion: Francesca’s Story
‘Breath is sucked from me on impact. I’m feeling nothing except a force so great, that surely, I’m travelling through time itself—I’ll be in tomorrow, when the others are still in today. I don’t feel the ground rebuke my body. I’m on my back looking upwards but the sky isn’t there. It’s dark and I’m dazed, but my eyes are open. I hear nothing except a high-pitched ringing in my ears like crickets late at night. And then a rim of light appears to one side and I realise that the darkness is moving. I’m under the mare’s belly as she’s scrambling over me. Instinctively, I clench. Death wraps itself around me like a blanket, as fate flips a coin.’
By the end of September, the breeding season was already in full swing. The day was not running to schedule. I was short-staffed and by three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, none of us had lunched yet. A dinner date with my husband to celebrate our wedding anniversary was looking like collateral damage.
When the veterinarian and one of my stud grooms failed in their attempts to restrain a mare for sedation, I provided another much-needed pair of hands to get the twitch secured on the animal’s nose. For a matter of seconds, we thought we’d won the battle. But then the mare recoiled from the twitch, swung her rump sideways and reversed a single step to make contact with an electric fence wire—five hundred kilos of horseflesh catapulted itself over the top of me.
Handling a volatile animal such as a thoroughbred is fraught with risk, but it’s something everybody in the racing industry accepts. Getting injured is a given and I’ve had a lifetime of hurt. When I woke from an unconscious state a half hour later, the ring of concerned faces staring down at me were those of my staff. And it was the voice of the veterinarian telling me to lie still, holding me there on the cold ground, waiting for paramedics. Curiously, it should have been her lying there instead of me, because she’d been directly in front of the horse and I’d been slightly to the side.
Rather foolishly, I returned to my managerial position on the stud and spelling farm in Hamilton, New Zealand, after only a week’s rest, nursing an arm in plaster to the pit and a grossly swollen face. The mare had broken my ulna, cracked two ribs and trodden on my head, causing damage which at that point, was mitigated by discomfort everywhere else. Three months later, I came to an abrupt halt. Literally. My brain and my mouth lost contact with each other after a particularly stressful morning on the job. The muteness was so profound that I could only gesticulate the need to go home, immediately, to my bewildered staff. And so, I began my walk with a companion so dogged, that it eventually had me repatriate to Australia and give up all hope of returning to the racing industry—in my former capacity. Its name was concussion.
As the injuries occurred at work, I was in time contacted by a caseworker from the Accident Compensation Commission (ACC), who rallied the troops to begin a proper assessment of my traumatic brain injury and set me on a path to recovery. The ‘troops’ treated my condition with the seriousness and expediency it deserved. This was not just concussion.
An occupational therapist set me straight concerning my laissez-faire attitude towards concussion and its successor, Post-Concussion Syndrome, during her initial consultation. I admit, I believed like most people other than my medicos—doctors, a spinal surgeon, neurologists, a neuropsychologist, neurosurgeons, a vestibula physiotherapist, and a psychologist—that concussion was temporary. An inconvenience at most. And whilst it has now become the subject of reporting in sports media, it still hasn’t gelled in the social consciousness that recovery can take considerably longer than broken bones. Sadly, I shared this ignorance. Concussion does not just resolve itself whilst life goes on, unchanged. It asks for rest. Then it pleads. And then it demands, shutting down brainwave activity—all the way to muteness if necessary.
Fatigue took hold of me from the outset but failed to be recognised in its entirety because I was so sleep-deprived before the incident. I refuse to use the word ‘accident’ because there was contributory negligence on my employer’s part—an electric fence wire should never be present in limited space. And, the horse should have been in the crush, but because the facility was inadequate, we found ourselves in the yard instead. I’d worked increasingly longer hours each week beforehand and over a hundred in the immediate six days prior (New Zealand doesn’t have the protective labour laws we enjoy here). For many months, I slept for periods of up to thirteen hours straight. The former me, who functioned exceptionally well on six and could survive on two or three hours a night during the spring foaling months, still requires a minimum of ten to feel normal.
The haematoma at my temple pounded in unison with my pulse, but as it was considered a miracle that the horse’s foot did not penetrate my skull, it and the accompanying dizziness were considered par for the course. The dizziness worsened, however, into full-blown vertigo, which saw me careering into walls, falling off toilet seats and almost coming to grief in the shower when I stooped to pick up a bar of soap. It was six months later and ten consecutive days’ worth of head-shaking exercises to re-settle the crystals in my inner ears—vomit inducing stuff—that reduced the vertigo to a level which I am able to live with. And then there was the musical accompaniment that remains with me still, the cricket-like high-pitched ringing in my ears—tinnitus—which I have vowed to ignore lest it drives me to insanity, like it did Van Gogh.
Photosensitivity was initially so severe that fluorescent light actually hurt. In time, it made me cringe. It still makes me squint. The brightness of my computer screen is turned back to half. My reading glasses have glare-resistant lenses, and I wear sunglasses when it’s overcast. The tunnel-vision, which made me feel as if I was wearing a ball cap with the peak pitched forward, has at least receded. And the grey veil before my eyes—like flyscreen over a window—has vanished, and I can appreciate colour once more. There was pain in it. Not so the blinding migraines though, which lasted for up to four days and reasserted themselves every week for several months. I lay on the bed in my darkened room counting the hours of my life passing me by.
I’m now a full-time student, at fifty-three, attempting to capitalise on a lost career by learning how to write about it instead of living it. Unlike other injuries sustained throughout my life—numerous and almost without exception, serious—I can’t quite put this one behind me. At 12:30 am, as I write this, I’m wide-awake instead of slumped over my computer aching for sleep. I’ve popped a sleeping pill, which in about two hours’ time will hopefully allow—but not guarantee—me to drift off, waking tomorrow around lunchtime. I’ve tried in vain to adjust the timing; bring it back to normality. Nothing works. My brain has slipped a few cogs which cannot be recalibrated.
If for some reason I forget to take a pill or can’t because I have an early morning appointment, which precludes the time it takes for the pill’s effects to dissipate, I might drop off into a fitful sleep at six or seven in the morning and then feel utterly nauseous for the rest of the day. Closing my eyes will ease the sting of having them constantly open, but the brain behind the sockets is raging with thought and cannot be lured into slumber. It’s during those ungodly hours between midnight and dawn, when my tinnitus is in full song, that I try to remember—or imagine—what it’s like to truly hear nothing. And then there is this fear that I smother, but from time to time manages to surface, whispering, what will become of you when the pills no longer work? How will you get to sleep then?
Perhaps though, the worry of sleeplessness down the track will never eventuate. If recent research is anything to go by, a correlation between concussion and dementia has surfaced. Will my brain, which although it didn’t bleed but was shaken back and forth against the skull, one day decide that the effort of sustaining my ability to think is all too much? Apparently, my risk of developing dementia has doubled. The only upside, which I admit will sound disturbing, is that when deterioration reaches that point of ‘dignity lost’, I’ll be oblivious to it.
We in the horseracing industry tend to wear our scarred bodies as if they’re some kind of ‘rite of passage’. Our injuries are testimony to courage and determination. But there’s no honour or glory in concussion. It won’t feature in a feelgood piece or a salutation to a sporting hero. Recovery is a lonely journey without a voice—begging to be heard.
* This piece was submitted voluntarily by a member of the Connectivity Lived Experience Advisory Group. All words are the authors’ own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Connectivity Traumatic Brain Injury Australia.