When he finally moved to the neuro rehab hospital in December 2011, we were so happy but also worried as he was much further away for us to visit every day, practically the other side of london, and we were unsure of what the next few months would hold.
However once Jamie had been settled into his new room and we’d met the therapy team, we were reassured that this was the best place for him, where he would receive the specialist care he needed. Although I initially found it very hard to take a step back and accept that I was no longer allowed to have a hands on role in his personal care in terms of helping him to get washed and dressed; I had to let go of this and try and fit back into my role as his girlfriend and not his carer.
my dad singing to us in Jamie’s room
Over the next few months, a definite change started to take over Jamie; the spark in his eyes came back and he just seemed more alive for the first time. I felt he knew who i was even though he still couldn’t communicate; like sometimes he would look at me or reach out to me in a seeming show of affection – I had to believe this as I wouldn’t even allow myself to give up and think that he wouldn’t remember me.
I remember saying to him I wanted to hear his voice for Christmas and sure enough my boy came through for me and on 23rd December, he spoke his first words in the 5 months since the attack. I cried and cried the first time he spoke to me again and even though his voice was very soft and completely different to his voice before the injury, all we cared about was that he was finally showing signs of understanding and continued improvement.
J standing on his own for the first time
This was when his recovery really went up a notch and after a lot of intensive sessions with the speech therapist, over the following weeks, Jamie could speak to us in full sentences; finally responding to our calls and starting to have conversations with us, so we knew he was starting to understand. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, that one day we could get past all of this and be a couple again. One time in these early days I asked him how he knew I was his girlfriend and he replied in his quiet voice “I just knew in my heart that I loved you”.
Thanks to the intensive physio, speech therapy and occupational therapy sessions, Jamie’s recovery began to accelerate and before we knew it he was in the final stages of his time at rehab, in the transitional living unit, where he had his own room and shower, to prepare him for his eventual return home. During his whole time in hospital, Jamie’s friends and family continued to visit him as often as they could, with me and his parents visiting on a daily basis; eventually being able to take him home for weekend stays. Even though at this point Jamie was still using a wheelchair, we didn’t let this stop us in any way; even driving to the Hop Farm Festival for a weekend to see Bob Dylan perform!
As the weeks and months passed, I noticed Jamie’s strength returning slowly but surely and soon he was able to take a few small steps unaided.
In the final few months of rehab, Jamie was moved to the transitional living unit at the rehab hospital, to fully prepare him for his return home. This provided a non clinical environment where he had his own room and could start to get used to a homely environment after spending so much time in hospital.
However he was still getting around predominately in a wheelchair and had just started walking indoors with a 4 wheeled rollator, when he was eventually discharged from rehab in August 2012; a year post injury.
So then we began the difficult adjustment to life in the real world, which was in many ways harder than being in rehab. In a neuro rehab facility, Jamie had constant attention each day from his therapy team, but on discharge he had to now apply everything he had learnt into real life situations. We were fortunate that my parents had a big empty house and could transform one of the downstairs rooms in a bedroom for me and Jamie, as he was still not strong enough to manage stairs at the time. After several weeks, the community therapy team came round to assess Jamie and also add additional features to the house which included grab rails to the shower and rails for the hallway, stairs and bathroom.
This initial transition was challenging for Jamie as now he had to find ways to fill his days and keep busy, while continuing his own therapy program. After a few months he was strong enough to travel outside with his rollator so it wasn’t long before he no longer needed the wheelchair which was obviously a huge milestone for him. He began making small trips outside on his own; walking to the shop, getting on the bus to the local gym, which provided a great discounted service for GP referrals.
I think it was absolutely key for him to make these early first steps to independence and also for me to let go and not be over protective. I had to trust that he was capable of doing things on his own again and he certainly proved me right. He had regular visits from a physio, OT & speech therapist who continued to see him for a period of 6 months, until they felt he could continue his therapy alone. It was also around this time that Jamie joined his local Headway group in Deptford, attending 2 days a week. This was so helpful to him as it gave him a reason to get out and about and also a purpose for the day, and goals to achieve. Also meeting other people who had suffered brain injuries and gone through similar experiences to him, helped him to understand more the impact of the injury on his life and that he wasn’t the only one.
We ended up living with my parents for about a year and in this time Jamie went from strength to strength. So by the time he reached the 2 year post injury mark in August 2013, he was starting to walk outside aided only by a walking stick and had also thoroughly improved the functionality in his right arm, continued to improve his speech and had even learnt how to cook me a lovely spaghetti bolognese! We had also now moved in to our own ground floor flat, which was another huge step forward for us towards independence.
One of the hardest things that we found was to adjust to the way people perceived Jamie in public; for example if we went out to a pub or to a festival. Human nature causes people to stare at someone they deem to be ‘different’, mainly out of curiosity, but it can become pretty hard when you are the person they are staring at. I even had to have a harsh word with someone once when i overheard them comment to their friend that they didn’t think that the pub was an ‘appropriate environment’ for Jamie to be in with his rollator. I feel that the only thing we can do in these situations is to educate people and make them aware that a 25 year old guy with disabilities still has the same hopes and dreams and desires as any other person. They need to look past everything and see Jamie for who he is inside, which thankfully now people do. I think a lot of this is down to Jamie’s positive mental attitude and fearlessness. He goes out into the world with his head held high and works towards the goals he wants to achieve and never gives up.
One of these goals in particular was to get back on his beloved BMX bike. And sure enough he surprised us all again in March 2014 by getting on his bike and riding it down the road.
Fast forward to November 2014 and he is riding almost everyday; which has given him a new found freedom and enables him to get around faster than walking with his stick. He also started on a city and guilds bike mechanics course at a charity called Bikeworks, where he worked voluntarily once a week in their bike shop. This gave him a huge boost in confidence, getting him back out into the world of work and interacting with new people every day; at the same time bringing back all of his bike skills, which is something he’d been passionate about before his injury.
He now volunteers a few days a week at his local bike shop, with a hope that one day he can open his own specialist bike shop.
On 20th September, we finally got married in St Johns Deptford in front of a very tearful crowd of our friends and family; with Jamie able to walk down the aisle completely unaided; a huge achievement as he went past the 3 year mark since his brain injury. It was an amazing day for us to finally just be a young couple in love and reflect on the huge emotional journey we had been on in the last 3 years. The love we felt from our friends and family on that day was reflective of the amazing support they have given us during this whole ordeal; without their support network to help us and keep us going when times got hard, we wouldn’t have been able to come so far.
We can now look to the future with hope for a better life, to travel, to start a family and to choose happiness rather than let ourselves be overcome by the dark days. Obviously there are still times when one of us has a bad day and the frustration or anger we feel can be overwhelming, but ultimately we have each other and we will never have to go through this alone. Jamie is an inspiration to me and to so many and just the other day I asked him how he manages to stay so positive after everything that has happened to him and he replied “When I get up and leave the house, I look up to the sky, take a deep breath and just thank God I’m alive.” A humbling thought for anyone to consider and a true testament that you should never give up, even when it seems hopeless, dig a little deeper and believe that things can get better.