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Life-changing injuries

How the life-changing injury occurred

Life-changing injuries (also called traumatic or catastrophic injuries) can result in brain injury, spinal injury, limb loss, loss of sight or hearing, burns, paralysis and chronic pain. They are commonly caused by incidents on the road, falls or assaults. We spoke with people who were injured in various ways including swimming and skiing accidents, road traffic accidents, through medical procedures and falls. One man was injured while on duty in Afghanistan.
 

Aiden describes the injury in which his arm was left paralysed.

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Aiden describes the injury in which his arm was left paralysed.

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
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Tell me about your injury.
 
In 2007 when I was 20 I was riding my motorcycle too fast around a bend, decided it would be a good idea to go up on the kerb so as not to be on the wrong side of the road on a blind corner, and hit some bit of street furniture – I'm not sure what it was, not a road sign I don't think because it was not lit up – and ended up at 90 degrees! I think it was made of plastic but could be wrong. I broke my left wrist, shattered my left kneecap into many pieces, broke a bone in my neck (I forget which!) and, most importantly, damaged the nerves in my shoulder meaning an almost total paralysis of my left arm, the only movement I was left with was a small amount in the wrist (about a quarter of what it should be) and the ability to move my fingers, but only about half of the strength and dexterity that I had before.

 

Sometimes people didn’t know exactly how their injuries were caused because they lost consciousness and there were no witnesses to the incident (or witnesses disagreed). Bryan went to buy fast food after a night out with university friends and was found four hours later at the foot of an underpass staircase with a head injury.
 

Sam’s injury was caused when he was run over by a lorry, but he does not remember how it happened...

Sam’s injury was caused when he was run over by a lorry, but he does not remember how it happened...

Age at interview: 29
Sex: Male
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I was run over by a lorry, I think about 28 tonnes. I was cycling over to a girl’s house that I was seeing, and I don’t know what happened, because I was in a coma for two weeks. And because there was two cameras and one was pointing the wrong way and one was out of film, and there were two witnesses who disagreed about what happened. I went into a coma.
 
The lorry ran me over at the chest and sort of crushed a couple of vertebrae and broke my shoulder, shattered my shoulder, and broke pretty much every rib I have into like three or four pieces and I think I was, I had my lungs collapsed. I was kind of like dying. And then the rapid… I was quite close to [hospital name] and the rapid response people got out there. 
 
And they sliced into my chest, and on the road and resuscitated me, and then sped me to hospital. So it was, it was quite a familiar place where it happened actually on [street name] and yeah, and I was, then I was sort of dying, and in a coma and in and out of things. 

 

 

In the confusion after his injury, Nick Y took responsibility even though he was not sure who...

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In the confusion after his injury, Nick Y took responsibility even though he was not sure who...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Male
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Well as the driver came over I’m in this sea of pain because a 12 tonne bus has just run over my leg. I was absolutely in agony. I was in and out of consciousness I think and also my mouth tasted of tarmac. I sort of hit the road and banged my, you know. I saw this shape coming towards me and I said to him, “I’m sorry. It was my fault. I’m sorry.” And I think I was really saying, “Please help me.” Anyway I mention that because when it came to a criminal prosecution that excused the driver. They said, “Mr Black said it was his fault. End of case.” 

Often after life-changing injuries people don’t remember their injury occurring and can be surprised to wake up in hospital, days, weeks or sometimes months later. This can be because of post-traumatic amnesia, memory problems or the strong medication they are prescribed in hospital. People may never remember what happened, which can worry them. Sometimes they tried to regain their memory through speaking with a trauma specialist or filling in details provided by family members, friends, information from hospital reports and newspaper articles. CCTV footage could also be used to find out what happened. 
 

Louise, an artist, is doing a photography project to try to help her remember what happened. She...

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Louise, an artist, is doing a photography project to try to help her remember what happened. She...

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
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People that have lost memory or been displaced from certain events in their life, they become more inclined to photograph things more fervently because, because of the loss of time, and the loss of something you continue to record. So that could be something to do with it.
 
And how do you think not knowing has impacted on your life?
 
Well I’ve been doing this project full time, which has just been photographing my body in all these strange places. A lot of the positions I do, I look like I’ve fallen. So, I’m kind of like on the ground in like fallen positions, so maybe it’s like I’m trying to see what happened through pictures.
 
Does it bother you that you can’t remember what happened?
 
Slightly yes, yes, it does.
 
And why is that do you think?
 
Because the nature of the accident was so bizarre, I would be curious to know how that could have happened. How I could have climbed up? I don’t do climbing or anything. If you’ve had a few drinks you’re not likely to climb anything strange. I’m not.
 
It must be hard to think about something so significant happening and you not remembering what led up to it or the actual process.
 

I kind of think things happen for a reason. This is why I’m going to go back there to see if I remember anything, but I mean it’s possibly something that I did. Maybe I climbed that? And then if one were to climb something like that then one has a death wish, which I don’t believe I’ve ever had, but I have, in terms of performance wise, you know. I have used performance in my work and stuff, but I’ve never done anything to a dangerous level. It could have been an accident. It’s a strange one.  

 

When he was in a coma, Wesley’s mum made a photo album of him and used it when he came round to...

When he was in a coma, Wesley’s mum made a photo album of him and used it when he came round to...

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Male
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I fell off a moped in Turkey. 
 
Okay.
 
Well that’s all I know. From what I was told, or what the newspaper cuttings and that said. On a moped, hit a pothole, came off the moped and I was in a coma for like four months. So me, personally, I don’t really know too much about what happened apart from Mum and my family keeping notes and paper cuttings and photos, about what happened and what I went through to get to where I am today. 
 
So, on that basis the memory just sort of forgets all of that. Which is probably a good thing, because I wouldn’t particularly want to remember and go over the injury every night before I go to bed, which is quite nice. Which, no, I actually enjoy that bit.

 

 

He doesn't remember his injury and has no photographs to remind him of his time in hospital, so...

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He doesn't remember his injury and has no photographs to remind him of his time in hospital, so...

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Male
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I was then transferred from [place] to [place] in [place], that’s where my family lived, nearer them. That’s where I learnt again to walk and talk. Then I was transferred from there to [rehabilitation hospital] rehab in [place]. That’s in June of ’01, two months after my crash. I woke up in that one day thinking, OK I’m in a hotel room, my clothes are there, this is either holiday or – if so where’s girlfriend? In my bed? Or I’m with work, [investment bank] and away on business. Where’s my suit?
 
And I walked out of my room to the nurses, and I said, “Excuse me where am I?” “You’re in [rehabilitation hospital] rehab in [place].” “I’m sorry.” “You’re in [rehabilitation hospital] rehab in [place]? “Why am I here?” “You’ve got a head injury.” “What are you on about?” “You had a motor bike crash.” I said, “If I’d had a motor bike crash, I’d know about it.” “No. You’ve got amnesia.” I said, “Oh yeah, amnesia. Show me a report or something because I don’t believe you. I’d know about it. I don’t believe in amnesia. 
 
But the best thing they said to me was, “Look at your scars.” Again I’ve got a trachy scar here, my left arm was pinned, without those scars they are the only memory I’ve got of the crash. I remember the motorbike. The job at [investment bank]. The day itself, zero. Walking again, talking again zero. So in a way I’m glad I’ve got the scars to prove to me what’s happened to me. Hm.
 

 

Not remembering how the injury happened suited some people; Nick Z described his amnesia as a "self-preservation mechanism" and Kenneth thought it was ‘your mind’s way of shutting things off so you can carry on and survive’.
 
Some people remained conscious at the time of the injury and could clearly remember what happened. Dave dived from the beach into a wave while on holiday and fractured his neck. He said the actual injury was painless but the drowning sensation was more traumatic. Bill, who was hit by a car while riding his motorbike, described the “unbelievable pain” he experienced and how he thought people could hear him in Central London as he screamed so loudly.
 

Dave sustained a spinal cord injury on holiday when he broke his neck diving into the sea.

Dave sustained a spinal cord injury on holiday when he broke his neck diving into the sea.

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Male
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 I suffered a severe spinal cord injury in September 2005 at the age of 25. I was living and working in London at the time. Three years after graduation from university I went on holiday to Portugal with a number of friends. One day while on the beach I went down to the water for a swim, dived into the water into a wave off my feet, and suffered a spinal fracture of the neck, resulting in immediate paralysis from the neck downwards. And I suppose luckily I had two friends that were with me at the time, because obviously complete paralysis means you can’t move. So I was face down drowning in the water but the two friends and some passers-by managed to get me out of the water in time, on to the beach. I have to say that it was a fairly painless experience, and certainly the most difficult sensation was drowning. 

 

Bryan sustained a brain injury when he fell off a platform at a tube station. He was reassured by...

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Bryan sustained a brain injury when he fell off a platform at a tube station. He was reassured by...

Age at interview: 36
Sex: Male
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I had been out drinking with an alleged friend, who was a new friend. Because of engineering works I had to take an unfamiliar route home on the tube. I got on the tube at [station name]. My last memory is of being on the tube, and thinking, God, there aren’t any announcements of where do I get off? And, subsequent to that, I walked off the edge of a platform that didn’t have any tactile edging on it whatsoever, like it was supposed to have, and whacked my head off of steel rails six feet below essentially. And passed out.
 
I regained consciousness. I didn’t have any idea where I was. Sort of looked up and saw this roof thing, and sort of thought, “That’s kind of weird, why am I lying here?” This guy was in front of me, I think he said, “I’m a Tube supervisor.” He also said something else. I can’t remember what that was. I still didn’t have any idea where I was to be honest. It’s a weird sensation to have absolutely nothing going through your head, but that’s kind of what it was like. I was so stunned, I just sort of lay there. I think I tried to get up and the guy sort of went, “No, no, no, don’t.” And I then heard the alarm going off, telling people to evacuate the station. And then I think I tried to get up again, and the guy was like, “No, no, no, no. Stay where you are. Stay where you are.” Then the ambulance crew arrived and that’s when I got really, really scared, because they sort of went, “Is the current off?” And I started putting two and two together and went, “Oh my God! Oh shit!” Because I could feel gravel under my hand and I was sort of going, this is really weird. I don’t understand. I just don’t understand this. I don’t understand anything. And so they climbed down and I have to say they were fantastic. They were really, really good. Because the guy that basically just sat and maintained physical contact with me the whole time, which was incredibly comforting in that situation, just having somebody there who would sort of hold on to you and keep reassuring you. Because I remember just keeping repeating, “I’m really, really scared. I’m really, really scared.” 
 
And I became very, very aggressive, because I was sort of going, “Where’s my stuff?” My mobile had actually fallen out of my pocket when I’d fallen at the tracks. I’d had a light jacket on. I remember becoming really, really aggressive and sort of going, “Where’s my stuff? Where’s my stuff?” 

 

Life-changing injuries can be caused by other people, accidentally or intentionally. For some of those we interviewed fights broke out during a night out or they were mugged. Others were injured through hit and run incidents or through driver error. Occasionally a minor injury could become life-changing even after medical treatment.
 

Ambrose tripped and broke his ankle for the third time, and needed to have it reconstructed. He...

Ambrose tripped and broke his ankle for the third time, and needed to have it reconstructed. He...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Male
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And so the plastic surgeons came, the bone doctors came and microbiology doctor came and they, then the microbiology doctor said, “What there is growing in there” – and then obviously looking at the x-rays – he was saying, “It would be very, very difficult to actually completely clear it of infection. It would be, you know, four months of intravenous antibiotics then goodness knows how long oral antibiotics.” And unfortunately, well fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the plastic surgery team was that the pain wasn’t being controlled properly. So I was saying to them, “Well yes, I can see that your new fangle dangle machine is healing the tissue, but I can’t put any weight on it.” So for me to be able to get back to work and you know, back to normal life it’s no good because I can’t use it as a foot, and an ankle and a leg. And because that would then be, you know, like a planned amputation, their procedure, which is right to make sure everybody, you know, the person who’s asking for the amputation and the doctors that are, you know, going to perform it, you know, we had meetings with the psychologist, the leg amputation team, the plastic surgeons, the orthopaedics, who after discussion and discussion with me, and you know, they’d … because I’d known them for years they were able to say, “Ambrose has had this for a long time. He knows what it feels like. He knew when we first did the reconstruction there was a chance, well not a chance, it probably would need taking off at some point in the future, and it appears that we’ve got to that point now. That now is the right time to have it amputated.” 

People felt differently about their assailants. Some talked about forgiving the person, while others felt unable to as the impact on their lives was so severe. One man who was badly beaten in a random attack said he felt a bit angry that the friend he was with did not intervene to help him, but the friend said he was held back. 
 

He doesn’t hate the girl who caused his injury, but Bill cannot forgive her. The experience has...

He doesn’t hate the girl who caused his injury, but Bill cannot forgive her. The experience has...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
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Bill' Yes. It is bizarre. But you remember it, that’s the thing. And I remember screams as well, but it turns out actually when I spoke to the girl, she got prosecuted dangerous driving and after she pled guilty and after the case had been settled in the Magistrates Court, we were outside and she just came up to me, she ran up to me, and she flung herself in to my arms… Yeah. And she just said, “Sorry, I’m sorry.”
 
Catherine' “I’ll never drive again,” she said didn’t she?
 
Bill' And I said “That’s stupid and I was crying as well. It was stupid of course you’ve got to drive again”. I said, to her, “You’re only a young girl.” Her parents were very concerned, because apparently they’d see both sides of it. And I’m not sure of the whole story, but obviously the daughter had done this to me, but I think somewhere in their family there was a victim as well, so they, they’ve experienced both sides of it, and we think, from lots of different other things that actually we’ve been at a funeral a few years previously of this girl’s aunt. And the aunt, Catherine had nursed in hospital, and because Catherine sings or did at that point in time, she was asked to sing at the funeral, as a personal request by the person that had died. And we think this girl was actually at this funeral. So we’d met but not met. Our paths had crossed and gone again. But the mother asked whether or not, how I felt about her. And I, i.e. her daughter, and I said, “Well I don’t think I can ever forgive her, but I don’t hate her.” And I’m still of that opinion. I’ve tried to forgive, but I, you know, I’ve been through so many problems subsequent to, you know, to the accident, that I don’t, I don’t think she deserves to be forgiven. But I haven’t got it in my heart to hate her, because she didn’t mean it. No she didn’t mean it.
 

And I think they were grateful for that, so I don’t know how other people would deal with it, but that’s the way I dealt with it, you know, because if she had deliberately, you know, done a stupid move or manoeuvre or anything, you know. But it wasn’t; she thought she had a green arrow there and she just made a split decision well a decision in a moment of a time, you know, a split second decision. And got it wrong. And you know, I shouldn’t hate her for that. But she doesn’t deserve forgiveness. Maybe I will at some point in life, I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t know.  

Sometimes the perpetrators were caught and imprisoned, fined, or given community service. One man was deported when he was found guilty of hit and run. Several people thought the sentences given were too short and they felt angry about this. Jack felt there was no point in being angry because “no sentence would make up for a lost limb”. 
 

His parents have been more upset about his limb loss than Jack was. He feels it has changed his...

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His parents have been more upset about his limb loss than Jack was. He feels it has changed his...

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And the person who caused your injury was prosecuted?
 
Yes he was prosecuted. Got a two year sentence, served one year and then he was deported – he was an illegal immigrant. I wasn't too bothered that he got a short sentence, it didn't really bother me. What sentence could have made up for a lost limb? There wasn't a sentence so that didn't bother me at all. He was deported so he shouldn’t have been in here. That was a bit annoying. I was quite angry at the government really that they allowed him to be in the country and it was their fault, it was border control’s fault for allowing him to get in. Again that subsided, that sort of anger. It was more my parents actually – they were more angry about the whole situation. I've not been. I've been OK with it. He was insured, the guy – don't know how that happened – but he had car insurance, which again has benefitted me. I've not got a lot to be angry about really in terms of what's happened. He was caught, he was jailed, he was deported and I've got someone to sue so, it could have been worse. Could have died as well, there's that. I don't know what he looks like or anything. My policeman brought photos, but I didn't want to look at him, I didn't want to know what he looked like, it was something I was quite keen on – not seeing his face.
 
Why is that? 
 
I did not want to have the guy who'd done this to me etched in my head for the rest of my life, I didn't want that. But I was thinking about it the other day – if I was to meet him I don't think I'd get angry at him because I think it's had such a positive effect on my life this accident, I don't think I could get angry at him, I really couldn't. I'd be tempted to thank him if I'm honest with you. I'm not just saying that; I genuinely mean that. It's had such a good impact on my life. I'm not angry. Mum and Dad are angry at him more because of what it's put the whole family through and them as well. Just seeing their son, their eldest son go through all that, it can't be nice. I almost feel that I got away with all that you know the whole emotional scarring. I don't have any of that; they have more of that than me so. 

 

 

Her husband was assaulted by a man who served nine months of his eighteen month sentence....

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Her husband was assaulted by a man who served nine months of his eighteen month sentence....

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By the time I’d met him, the man that had attacked him had already been in jail and come out of jail, because I think he had eighteen months, but he only did about nine months of it. So within nine months he was, you know, he’d done his time. To me, when I’d heard that it was definitely, definitely not long enough for what had happened to [husband’s name]. And like [husband’s name] says, you know, he’ll be on medication for the rest of his life. He’ll still have certain problems for the rest of his life. And this guy has done that and he’s, he’s done his bit and now he’s back out there doing whatever he wants to do. And that’s another thing [husband’s name] finds unfair. He finds it very unfair that, you know, he’s been left with these problems – can’t work, can’t drive, always has to take medication – and yet somebody, the guy that done it is just out there doing whatever he wants to do. 

Sometimes, even when the cause of their injuries was out of their control, people felt others blamed them. It was somehow their fault.
 

Kenneth said others thought he was responsible for his injury; ‘if you’re the victim of crime,...

Kenneth said others thought he was responsible for his injury; ‘if you’re the victim of crime,...

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Male
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You got to wonder whether it’s all been changed for some reason or not, you got to wonder about that, whether it’s God’s will or something. I don’t know. Highly unpleasant to say the least. But yeah, you’ve got to wonder why it happened to you anyway. I mean most people are going to think that, why me? You know, what have you done? I don’t know. Apparently I overdress. There we are. So, yeah, I guess I have been dressing down for a while. I certainly have, you know, actually for a long time I really wouldn’t get dressed at all, you know, in my regard to dressing. Dress down I suppose.
 
You would have dressed down since your injury?
 
Oh totally. Yeah, you feel much more vulnerable well you’re well dressed. You know, nice three piece, Harris Tweed. Saville Row tailored suit, well you know... I mean I suppose that’s part of the reason they say, you know, you’ve drawn attention to yourself. But, you know, when that’s what you sell, that’s what you’re going to wear so. That is the downside to that one.
 
And who suggested that you overdressed or that you dressed too well?
 
Well, you know, somehow it’s, I think people like to think it’s your fault somehow, that you encouraged it. You know, I think that’s the idea. I think generally most, somehow if you’re the victim of crime, somehow you asked for it. That’s what people are trying to infer. Well… that’s what, yes a lot of, someone’s got to be guilty and if they can’t find the person then obviously it’s you. And I suppose dressing in a certain way will draw attention to yourself, much in the same way if a women is raped, you know, the idea that she might have dressed in an inappropriate way has drawn attention to her, and therefore that’s the reason. Well it’s that kind of logic.
 
But you know, if you work in the world of fashion you just sort of, that’s just the way it is, you know. It would not be possible for me to function badly dressed really. It just wouldn’t work. Casual’s fine. But I’m perhaps a little bit too sharp for some people.

 


People also were responsible for causing their own injuries; they were driving too fast, had been drinking alcohol or became involved in fights. Sometimes they worried what family or friends thought of them, which could cause feelings of guilt and shame. Sam thought it was unhelpful to dwell on how the injury is caused, saying it’s “the worst use of your time”.  

Last reviewed October 2015.
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