Work, my brain injury and me

Elizabeth Wood was making progress in her career, working to become chartered and enjoying being mum to a lively toddler when disaster struck. How has she adapted to living and working with a brain injury?

It was summer 2019. I was back from maternity leave, working on flood-risk science as a senior analyst. Life was great – I enjoyed my work as a team leader and project manager. Outside work, I was busy running around after my one-year-old and putting together the final paperwork to apply to CIWEM to become chartered.

Then something happened that threw everything up in the air. One morning, I had a medical appointment. My husband and I dropped our child off at nursery and were driving towards the hospital when another car pulled out from oncoming traffic, crossed onto our side of the road and slammed into us.

My memories from the weeks before and after the accident are very hazy. The crash injured me and my husband. I had head injuries. We were rushed to hospital, where doctors diagnosed me with a traumatic sub-arachnoid brain haemorrhage.

Thankfully, my husband made a rapid recovery after the crash. I spent several days in hospital, then returned home to start my recovery. I thought I’d be back at work within a couple of weeks, but it soon became clear that it would take me much longer to recover.

I had many unpleasant symptoms that are often associated with head injuries like mine: anxiety, fatigue, difficulty remembering and concentrating, struggling to think and to find the right words. Although I could get about, I was at risk of seizures, so couldn’t be left alone. I needed help from my parents and in-laws to do everyday tasks. My head felt fuzzy and noise overwhelmed me.

Friends and family tried to help, but so many things felt overwhelming. I preferred the quiet, controlled space of my own home. I started to lose confidence in myself.

Workplace counselling

During the three months that I couldn’t work, I depended on support ­­– from family, friends, my colleagues at JBA Consulting, my GP and NHS counselling services. JBA’s employee-assistance scheme helped me to access counselling quickly, fixing appointments with a nurse who understood my injuries and helped me to work out how and when I might return to work.

That helped me to decide to phase my return. I was desperate to return to work and to regain a sense of normality, but emotionally I was struggling.

I didn’t know how long it would take to get my life back to how it was before the accident. I needed a lot of reassurance – that I was recovering and doing well; that the things I struggled with were completely normal after this kind of trauma.

My company was incredibly supportive. When I returned to the office, colleagues helped me to realise when I was doing too much or putting too much pressure on myself. They found ways to help me to manage what I could do – and adjusted my workload to make sure I didn’t take on too much.

That meant I could head home early if I got tired or if things became too much. I worked from home as much as I needed to.

I tried different strategies to manage my office time effectively, such as introducing ear plugs to try to block out background noise when it overwhelmed me. My colleagues soon got used to waving at me over my computer screen to get my attention.

It was tricky to balance being in the office but not getting too worn out. It took almost six months to get back to a near-normal working pattern.

But there was also the question of applying for chartership. I had been close to submitting – I had met with my mentor to discuss it just the day before the accident. I remembered almost nothing about that conversation.

I became determined to submit my application. That created a target to achieve as I recovered from the accident. But at times it felt like one step forward and two steps back.

I talked to my mentor and to my line manager and they encouraged me to work in short sessions to complete the application. In the end, I submitted my application just three months later than I’d planned.

CIWEM invited me to attend a professional review interview (PRI). I was so pleased. Everyone was supportive, adjusting the interview process to accommodate the challenges I still faced. Because it was difficult for me to travel, the membership team set up a remote interview for me – months before the Covid lockdown made Zoom and Teams meetings the norm.

The membership team briefed the interview panel about my circumstances. The interviewers agreed to let me write down their questions so that I could refer back if I lost track of what they were asking.

Having been briefed, the panel understood that I might repeat myself because my memory was still sketchy. They made me feel at ease and were patient with me.

And that’s how I became chartered – with a lot of determination to finish the application and prepare for the interview, and with the PRI team adapting the process to support my circumstances.

Head-injury impacts

Today, I feel an immense sense of gratitude towards everyone who helped me. Four years on, my life is almost back to normal. In the main, I’ve moved on. I’m even busier now, as a mum of two, and can enjoy doing most of the things I did before the accident.

There are lingering effects. It took six months for me to even think about driving again. The driver who hit us was asleep at the wheel. The investigation confirmed this – but that leaves me very anxious about other drivers being too tired to drive safely. That has stayed with me. I no longer enjoy driving as I did.

And my memory isn’t what it was. I used to be quick with dates and numbers. Not anymore. Now I need to write them down.

Sometimes, if I’m tired, I struggle to find words. It’s like I have to flick through a dictionary in my head first. And my five-year-old sometimes corrects me when I pick the wrong word. That’s hard.

But I count my blessings every day. I’m so lucky that my injuries weren’t more severe, that my husband recovered quickly from our accident and that I’m back doing a job I love. And as I embrace the future, I’m grateful that my memories of those early months after the accident have started to fade.

Dr Elizabeth Wood MCIWEM, C.WEM is a chartered senior analyst at JBA Consulting

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