Published: April 2020. Date of brain injury: June 2019 (young person aged 15 years).
Sam was a speedway rider with the Mildenhall Fen Tigers team, when he had a serious crash at the British Youth Championships in Glasgow in June 2019. The event was abandoned and Sam was taken to the paediatric intensive care unit in Glasgow, where he was put on life support.
The early days
Sam first opened his eyes three days after the crash but he couldn’t focus or track anyone when they talked to him. He was then taken off the ventilator although he was still unconscious. Sam was unsettled and having seizures before being given medication to suppress them.
A meeting with Sam’s neurosurgeon warned us of the harsh reality of his severe brain injury, and that his recovery would be a long one. It was hard being so far from home, in unfamiliar surroundings, as we waited for an MRI scan to tell us more.
Sam’s MRI results
The scan revealed the fibre in the brain had sustained damage consistent with Sam’s type of head injury. Ten days after the accident we were flown in a medical plane to a hospital closer to home. Sam was experiencing episodes of rapid movements followed by sleeping, which we were told was to be expected for his type of injury.
Twelve days after the accident Sam started to make good progress with his arm and hand movements, being able to grab and hold certain objects and giving his brother a weak high five. He was wheeled outside in his bed for his first breaths of fresh air in two weeks.
Time in hospital
After a month of intense physiotherapy in hospital Sam was able to sit up, eat a little by mouth (although he was still primarily fed by tube) and take a few steps unaided. He was making progress but it felt like we had a long way to go.
Sam effectively lost his sight for a month, and he couldn’t speak for five weeks or walk – although he could use his legs for a short while, so we were hopeful things were going in the right direction. He had to learn to talk and walk again.
In those first weeks Sam was able to communicate by giving a thumbs up or pulling a funny face if he didn’t like something – it was great to see his personality was very much there, and all the nurses and specialists took a shine to him. He had a brilliant teacher that came into the hospital to help him and she commented on his infectious smile. It made us feel positive in so many ways, but in others we realised there was still such a long road ahead. He also suffered from post-traumatic amnesia, which was very difficult to deal with.
Communicating with Sam
As a special needs teaching assistant familiar with British Sign Language, I had been using sign language to help communicate with Sam and this paid off when he managed to communicate that he wanted to get better and ride a motorbike once more. It marked the moment that his true determination and motivation started. The fab staff at the hospital made his physio sessions fun and his fitness began improving daily.
Talking to friends and family
We set up a Facebook page to keep all of Sam’s friends and supporters updated on his progress. It was a fantastic source of support, and we were overwhelmed by everybody’s good wishes.
I posted videos of Sam’s latest progress – and as Sam got better we shared these with him so he could see just how far he had come, along with all the encouraging messages of support. Sometimes he would give a little nod, so it did help him to see all the support he’d got. It certainly helped us as his family too, and made us feel like we were not alone.
From hospital to rehab
Sam was given a place at The Children’s Trust specialist centre in Surrey for three months. He moved there in August 2019, and a tailored recovery plan was put into action, with the focus on intense rehabilitation. His first full day there was a mixture of emotions.
Sam’s determination to want to ride again motivated him to tackle any tasks given to him. His left arm was weaker and he told the physio he wanted to work on it because it’s his clutch hand. At that point not an hour passed when he didn’t mention speedway – it was what was driving him on. But in reality he was struggling physically and becoming fatigued quickly.
Making new friends
As well as treatments such as physical and occupational therapy, our stay at The Children’s Trust gave Sam the opportunity to interact with other teenagers who were going through a similar thing. It was great to see them all spur each other on. Sam was a big motivator for the rest of the centre – his friends there didn’t want to use their wheelchairs after seeing Sam walk.
In November we returned home after five months away. Sam returned to school part-time, something that in our darkest days we had feared might never happen. After such a severe brain injury, returning to school felt nothing short of a miracle. By January Sam was managing four full days a week at school, but he was still getting very fatigued. He could also feel down, sad and frustrated at his recovery – there were many up and down days.
Now we are nine months on from the accident and Sam has the extra support he needs to help him further his education. It’s been a long hard battle to fight for the support he needs, which has opened our eyes in more ways than one. Sam was preparing to sit six GCSEs this summer, which was an achievement in itself.
We hope he now has the support in place to take up the college place he has been offered in September to do the course he always wanted to, in motor mechanics.
Challenges following a brain injury
Despite Sam looking like his old self his injury is now hidden and he is dealing with the effects of his injury daily, including handling other people’s perception of him that he should be ok and ‘back to normal’ by now.
Sam still struggles with fatigue, but he recognises that rest is key. Sam’s positivity is incredible. Even when we have our down days he appears with his Ipad and puts old comedy classics on YouTube and makes us laugh. We laugh and then remember how lucky we are to have Sam the way he is.
As parents the whole ordeal has been very humbling. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions and it’s nothing any parent can be prepared for. Sam’s making so much progress on his journey, we’re so lucky to have him still.
Sam’s aiming to get his fitness back and build up his strength. For a boy who used to pretend to ride speedway on his push bike when he was five, perhaps it is not surprising Sam has been determined to get back to racing.
Every opportunity Sam gets he is on his push bike, riding slowly to improve his coordination and concentration. He realises how lucky he has been to come back from such a bad injury and he has worked really hard on his recovery. We could not be more proud of him.
Incredibly, just eight months after the crash he achieved his goal and got back on his bike. His next goal is to compete again. But whatever happens, as far as his brain injury goes, that’s a race he is determined to win.