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Patient story: “The police asked how far away we were…it was as bad as I feared”

Peter Freeman tells NR Times how his daughter’s brain injury was the beginning of a powerful learning journey for the whole family. Words by Kirsty Rigg and Rebecca Bird. 

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Ask any parent to share their biggest fear when it comes to their children and the chances are, you’ll find a common theme – a dreaded phone call from the police.

For Peter Freeman, however, it was not the phone call that burned into his memory, instead it was the moment he arrived at the hospital after his 17-year-old daughter’s car crash in 2010.

Thankfully, despite two broken legs, a fractured pelvis and, most significantly, a traumatic brain injury, Nicola survived.

While the initial shock may have been behind them, the Freemans’ ordeal had just begun. Nicola’s brain injury meant she had lost the ability to talk, walk, eat, read or even sit.

But with the help of a team of expert doctors, nurses and therapists, as well as the support of her family, Freeman said she is now on the road to recovery and regaining her independence.

The day their world changed

It was Saturday, May 29, 2010. Nicola Freeman had been enjoying a fun bank holiday weekend, and was excited about her school prom that evening.

Her plan was to get her nails done, then go and pick up some friends before heading to the event at her school, where she was due to sit A-levels in June.

Meanwhile, her dad, mum and brother were heading to an Elton John concert at Vicarage Road Stadium in Watford.

Before the concert began, Freeman’s wife Pauline received a phone call saying that something had happened to their daughter – she had been in a car accident.

Leaving the venue, he and Nicola’s mother Pauline, a former intensive care unit sister and lecturer in Critical Care Nursing, rushed to the hospital.

It was during the journey they got another call, this time from the police asking how far away they were.

“That was when I realised it was as bad as I feared,” he told the NR Times.

Nicola, a new driver, had been driving in torrential rain and took a corner too fast. She overcorrected and the car spun, hitting a tree at 45mph.

It took emergency services an hour to cut her out of her vehicle and she was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital.

During the weeks following, Nicola was taken to the specialist neuro hospital at Queens Square, put into a medically induced coma and sections of her skull were removed to reduce the pressure on her brain.

“If the brain swells there’s nowhere for it to go in a solid box, so we knew if the pressure built up, oxygen would stop going to her brain,” Freeman said.

‘Keep going forward’

Freeman, now the treasurer for the United Kingdom Acquired Brain Injury Forum (UKABIF), said Nicola’s recovery was a slow process.

Her acquired brain injury (ABI) was widespread because of her brain “bouncing in her skull and due to the difficulty of pushing blood and oxygen through her brain”.

Over weeks and months, she made gradual improvements, such as passing blinking tests and small movements of her arm.

“Slowly things started coming back,” Freeman said.

Towards the end of the year she began to walk again and was even able to collect her school leavers’ certificate that December.

Nicola is now living in supported accommodation and volunteers in a charity shop in St Albans and in the community allotment and café.

Freeman said some things have been affected to a lesser extent or in strange ways.

“She cannot manage her own finances without support, but doesn’t binge shop anymore,” he said.

“She takes longer to process some information and thinks she has understood, but not as was expected.

He added that she can crossroads and usually follows familiar routes, but not always, and often does not allow enough time for her journey.

“Life isn’t as it might have been, but there’s still things to do in the next six and 12 months. 

“She still needs support to build towards working and increasing independence but we keep going forward.”

‘Phenomenal’ healthcare

Freeman praised the healthcare professionals that helped Nicola rebuild her health and life.

“The hundreds of people in team Nicki have been phenomenal,” he said.

“In reality, you know resources are limited and time and money spent on Nicki isn’t available for someone else who could benefit more. What I do know is that every penny spent on rehab saves pounds in the future, so it is a real investment to spend on rehab.”

He stressed that it is so important to “keep seeing the positives and use that to get your loved ones the resources they need”.

But he warned other families not to blame the staff “if they can’t wave a magic wand”, however hard that is.

“Be the most effective advocate you can be for your loved one and build a team around you to do that,” Freeman said.

Advice for families

NR Times asked Freeman to share some advice for families of those with brain injuries.

“Don’t panic and somehow be patient in the worst circumstances you can imagine. Build your trust in the team caring for your loved one, they are on your side,” he said.

“Don’t look back before the injury, that is the past you can’t go back and you can’t change what happened. You have today and the future, so use that time wisely.

“Be honest with yourself, it will never be as it was before, no one knows if your loved one will survive, or how much they will recover.

“We discussed organ donation as a family as we knew it was Nicki’s wish and then got on with the next hour, day, week as they came along.”

He added: “We were advised to always look forward 6 and 12 months from now and see where we had reached then and how far that was from today. That’s still important after 12 years.”

New opportunities

Freeman said Nicola and her family have taken every opportunity to do things she would not have done before.

She has met the Countess of Wessex, president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, received her Gold DofE from the Earl of Wessex, visited 10 Downing Street and compared survivor tales with Olympic rower James Cracknell.

She has spoken about her recovery at charity events, been in the BBC documentary series ‘The Unbreakables’ and went to the awards ceremony with the producers and met comedian Lenny Henry.

She has been on the set of BBC drama Call the Midwife, on screen in Fatal White and Then Barbara Met Alan, and into parliament to lobby her MP on access to specialist schools and colleges and neuro-rehab.

Nicola has also met Alan Titchmarsh, Jo David, Emilia Fox, Laura Main, Jenny Agutter, Liz Carr and Ruth Madeley.

“So, she has been able to see the positives in her recovery and stay optimistic for the future,” her father said.

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