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From intensive care to a degree in art: one woman’s brain injury journey

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Lorraine Currie has watched her daughter recover from a serious brain injury and go on to exceed her expectations. She tells NR Times what it’s been like to see her daughter’s slow recovery.

When she was just 17 years old, Grace was hit by a car as she crossed a small village road after finishing college.

She suffered a severe head injury and was resuscitated twice at scene. After being taken to Shrewsbury hospital, her only hope was to be transferred to Stoke hospital, which is a regional trauma centre, who accepted Grace even though it didn’t have a bed.

She went into intensive care for six weeks, from September 2010 to November, then she was stepped down to special care until December. Grace’s parents, who are both social workers, drove the two-hour round trip to see their daughter every day. Then, Grace was moved to a local rehab hospital, where she stayed for 12 months.

“My experience when she was in hospital was a feeling of being disempowered – when they’re in that intensive nursing situation there’s very little you can do,” says Grace’s mum, Lorraine.

Despite feeling powerless, her parents quickly devised plans to help support her cognition, thinking and planning.

“We set out to do whatever we could do in the beginning, when we were in intensive care and the rehab hospital,” Lorraine says. “Massaging her hands and feet, making up games, throwing balls to get her to use both hands, bringing in bubbles, helium balloons – that’s how we saw she followed things with her eyes – building bricks, matching colours and doing jigsaws.”

When Grace was discharged, she had to be fully holstered in a hospital bed in the dining room. She wasn’t mobile or continent, and progress was slow. She had physiotherapy for two years, but apart from that, Grace had a huge drop-off in care when she got home from hospital.

“When Grace was discharged from hospital, she didn’t have any consultant follow-up or rehab follow-up,” says Lorraine.

“She was on various NHS waiting lists, but the process was so slow. We didn’t want to do her personal care – we were her mum and dad, and that wasn’t the right relationship for us,” Lorraine says.

A family friend who worked as a carer in a brain injury unit sold her house and moved in with the family, becoming Grace’s full-time personal care assistant. Eventually, Grace went back into her old bedroom, and after two years, her full-time assistant moved out and rented locally, as she wasn’t needed as intensively anymore.

Grace lost her ability to read after the accident, and couldn’t recognise letters, despite being quite academic before.

“We had to develop things ourselves, like make memory cards and recipe cards and weekly planners; all visual because she has a poor memory and can’t use written aids.”

Lorraine says there’s a lot that families in the same situation can do to add to the work of professionals.

“You can do some very straightforward things. I encourage anyone in this position to not leave it all to professionals because every minute you’re spending with that person you’re improving their cognitional and wellbeing,” Lorraine says.

For example, Lorraine took a piece of laminated paper and wrote ‘shower’ on one side and ‘bath’ on the other, which can be turned around every day.

“We’re battling on a number of fronts, including poor memory, and her thinking, problem-solving and executive skills are slower than they were. But Grace is getting better at using Alexa, which has been a life-saver,” Lorraine says.

And then, two years ago, at the age of 25, Grace moved into her own home five miles away in the village next to her parents, with four staff personal care assistants. Lorraine made her daughter aids to help her live independently, including a ‘what if’ picture book, demonstrating what to do in minor household emergencies, such as spilled water on the floor.

“It was incredibly hard because everything worked well here and she was happy here. If anything, we had to force the issue and encourage her,” Lorraine says.

“We’re getting older and we want Grace to have the resilience to live life. She was an independent young woman so it felt like the right thing to do. Now it’s paying dividends; she can play her music loud all the time and she likes being in her own place.”

Grace has since gone on to do what her parents could never have imagined.

Before her brain injury, Grace was planning to go to university to study psychology.

“After her accident, that wasn’t possible, and it took her a while to come to terms with that,” Lorraine says. “So she looked at what she could do that didn’t involve reading.”

Grace had been supported by the local learning disability college, who came to the house to do basic literacy and numeracy with Grace. Then, she developed an interest in art.

“After a while, Grace got bored with that, because she didn’t see anyone else, so she went to college, then she felt like she reached the limit there, so we pushed her to go to ordinary college to do photography.”

Grace was then accepted into Chester University and transferred onto its fine art course. She did her third year spread over three years, and just recently graduated with a first-class degree.

“It’s incredible for someone who has to record things,” Lorraine says.

However, it took three years to get Grace’s support staff to understand that the notes they took for her in lectures were pointless, Lorraine says. She argues that there’s a need for support staff to think outside the box to cater to people’s needs.

Lorraine says not only should more people with brain injuries be encouraged to go on to higher education, but they should also receive support from staff who are trained specifically in brain injury.

“Why shouldn’t you get to carry on education? Grace had support staff funding by her disabled student allowance, but none of them had experience in brain injury,” she says.

“There’s a huge gap in this country around brain injury and academic aspiration. I’d like people to take heart from what Grace has done, she’s profoundly disabled, but we don’t work with her disabilities, we work with her abilities.

“Never in a million years could we have seen this when the accident happened. She’s worked ten times harder than anyone else to get there.”

Grace is now building her own website and hoping to submit her artwork to some galleries and build her success as an artist.

“Grace has a lot to say visually that she can’t say verbally,” Lorraine says.

Her work is unique to Grace, Lorraine says, because she lost her lower visual field.

“If she paints a huge person, their legs peter out because she doesn’t see that bit,” she says.

Grace’s art helps her get through difficult days, Lorraine says.

“If she’s feeling angry or she’s not having a good day, she loves throwing paint. She’s got shoes covered in paint splats – we converted the double garage into a studio, now it looks like someone’s gone in there and thrown paint everywhere.

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