Teacher runs Toronto Marathon to Raise Funds for Helmets! An interview with Brad Nichols.
1. How did you initially feel after realizing you had a serious injury that would affect your life as you
Brad: In the early stages of my time in the ICU I kept telling myself, “it’s just a concussion”. Ignorance was truly blissful. The information I didn’t know over the first few days (or maybe I simply forgot) was that the base of my skull had shattered and pierced my brain with a fragment 2.5 cm long, about half the length of my pinky finger.
Gaining this knowledge didn’t significantly faze me as I kept feeling as though I was getting stronger. A nurse came in daily to give me some logic testing. I kept getting better, showing improvements with every visit, cognitively and physically.
Two weeks later I was moved to Windsor’s Regional Rehabilitation Centre. I was administered a condensed
neuro-psych assessment. During the test I became frustrated with the absurdity of tasks and testing, feeling as though I was being set up to fail. The absurdity was colluded with nothing more than my inability to process the information and logical expectations given to me.
A few days later I sat with my wife as the results were shared with us. I heard a few days earlier that some fragments of my skull had pushed into my brain, but I continued to feel better daily, so I brushed the information off, not comprehending just how deep the fragment had sunk. The data accurately measured and revealed what the doctors and my family already knew, that I had a life altering traumatic brain injury affecting the processing of my temporal lobe, greatly affecting my speech and processing of information.
I felt as though the testing must have been skewed by the painkillers, or that I just had to bounce back from a simple concussion. My thinking and understanding of the injury was significantly flawed in the early stages of the diagnosis. As improvements slowed down it became evermore apparent that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix. I quickly came to dread assessments with each new doctor, loathing the results, sickened with anxiety as the scores were tabulated. I never wanted to hear the results, they only reasserted the well known fact that I had a significantly injured brain.
I can’t even say that the diagnosis blanketed me in darkness on its own. It took a year of rehabilitation to truly pinpoint my cognitive shortfalls and another year to face the emotional detriments that slowly began to tear my world apart. I never understood why I was so easily overwhelmed by noise in social settings, or why I was so easily frustrated and enraged in interacting with my family.
In summation, I never truly had an epiphany or that one “ah ha” diagnosis moment that overwhelmed me. The
realization took a couple years to truly understand how my life had changed. In this process it became clear that my life goals and aspirations weren’t about to just be put on hold, they were slowly being shredded to pieces.
2. How and where did you find the strength to turn your negative into a positive? Was it an inner
strength that you didn’t know you had, or have you always been tenacious when faced with challenges?
Brad: At the time of the accident the only thing that I cared about was my wife, Jaclyn, and the baby she carried. She was in the passenger seat, 5 1/2 months pregnant, and when our car came to a rest, it was violently obvious that Jaclyn was in a great deal of pain. I grabbed her and kept asking her if she was okay. She wasn’t responding to me, too shaken with pain and concerned for the baby. I slid out my shattered window and raced to her door. She was in so much pain, screaming in agony. As people stopped to help us, I was told to sit down. Before following their directions, I remember how she reached up to my face. Her white mittens filled with blood from the side of my head, pouring down her arm, throwing off paramedics as to where the blood came from. From that moment on, looking down at Jaclyn, nothing changed, I only cared about her and my growing family.
In my recovery I knew I had to be physically and mentally ready for the birth of my beautiful and healthy little girl, McKinley. With my flap removed to stabilize my brain’s pressure and stored in my abdomen, I was rendered somewhat immobilized in regards to rebuilding my strength. I focused solely on cognitive brain challenges. I read and played brain language games for 8-10 hours a day and met with a Speech Language Pathologist once a week to assist my word recall.
Upon being released from the hospital, my wife and I moved in with her parents prior to McKinley’s birth. I required 24 hour care until the restoration of my augmented flap. Having just sacrificed her dream trip to Paris, my mother in law watched over me, allowing me to focus on my cognitive rehabilitation, helping Jaclyn to pursue her dream to become a full-time teacher.
With what would be my second last surgery, my flap was restored, bringing the pain and pressure of my head to bearable levels. I had never been so happy to sneeze pain-free. The reduction of pain permitted me to stretch out and go for walks. When the stitches healed, I went for my first jog, seven minutes long. A few days later I was able to run for 19 minutes, pain free. My daughter was born the following day.
I wasn’t where I hoped to be in my recovery, but I knew that it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. I could not have possibly worked harder, and I am happy to say I did everything I could to get my self ready to be a dad. While her birth marked the best day of my life, being a parent truly challenged, stressed and fatigued me in so many ways that I never envisioned, but the goal remained the same, to get better physically and mentally.
3. Tell me about the community support you have received while you endeavoured to run this race for
Brad: The endeavor in the hope of raising awareness and funds for bike helmets was a very personal matter. Until shared in the Windsor Star and on a CBC segment, my colleagues didn’t even know that I was training for a marathon, let alone the fundraiser. Also, being in only my second year at King Edward Public School, I had never shared my brain injury with my students. I am now glad my students know what I have been through as it has created a dialogue of understanding and appreciation regarding the brain. Kids simply don’t understand just how important their brains are, just as I didn’t prior to my car accident, but now I hope my students will view their brain as an asset and as a key to happiness.
Getting back into the classroom was a massive deal for me, by far even more monumental than running a marathon. It took more work to get back to work, but when I did, I looked at the learning process differently and I also analyzed my students’ daily activities differently. Mainly, I came to loathe students who failed to put forth efforts in the learning process. Seeing unmotivated efforts left me wanting to say, “I’ll trade you brains”, because they didn’t know how amazing it is to be mentally able to learn.
In regards to the helmets as a fundraiser, my goal was inspired in the classroom lesson I shared with my grade four students on how to partake in an oral debate. I posed the question as to whether kids should be forced to wear helmets or not. In this discussion I was appalled with the admissions that five kids didn’t even own a helmet, let alone 10 of them who rarely used them while on a bike.
I really wanted to make the marathon that I had been training for meaningful. Prior to taking on the fundraiser, I was just training for a race. By doing something that was so close and sensitive to my experience pushed me to train harder and to overcome and work through a bothersome IT band injury, but the fundraiser also allowed me to be more open with my disability.
My wife really helped motivate me to keep working harder. While it was never easy to be wished well on my runs during our daughter’s (and now our three-month-old son, Elliot), bedtime, Jaclyn consistently surprised me with more updates regarding Facebook reactions, emails and media interest she generated through constant correspondence between friends, the BIAWE and the Star, motivating me to enjoy what I was doing during the training.
As our story was shared with the Windsor Star, encouraging emails poured into my inbox, sparking great success of the fundraising endeavor. At some point in the past summer, I had been in contact with BIAWE and notified them of my plans. Just that May they managed to give 250 less-fortunate students a helmet at Brock Public School.
As the race has concluded, our joint attention will promote awareness in preventing the brain injuries of students at my current and former schools, and we hope to present 130 less-fortunate kids with a bike helmet this spring.
4. Going forward, how do you see yourself having a positive effect on others with ABI, and/or in a
Brad: I’ve never seen myself as having a positive affect on others with an ABI. At times, I realize that I got lucky. Based on the multiple contusions to my brain, I don’t, neither do my doctors, know why I recovered the way I did. I have entertained the thoughts that maybe instinct played a role, that my body and brain anticipated that I couldn’t afford to fail, that I needed to be a functional father to my daughter.
I would be ecstatic to learn that this endeavor encouraged somebody with an ABI to do something similar, or that the media exposure prompted a parent to enforce his/her child’s helmet use. But my main goal remains steady, to help prevent kids from going through what I went through, simply by encouraging them to protect the most powerful and important thing they possess, their brain.
I will be working on this helmet endeavour until this upcoming spring and with its conclusion I hope to be able to focus on raising awareness regarding driving (litigation pending).
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