Written by: Earleen Dover

In Canada, we live in a fast-moving world. Millions of people, each with two stories. One that they share with the world we confront each day and one that maybe our close friends, family and caregivers understand.

This is one of many invisible illnesses; where sometimes the hardest part of life is understanding where you fit into a world that functions well. Also, the current global pandemic has forced many of us to change every part of our lives. Our entire society, with different abilities and without.

Ten years ago, long before the pandemic, I acquired a brain injury. And I developed it outside of my home province of Ontario. I had what is described as a secondary brain injury, not caused by physical injury or trauma, but by medication I had received. This created startling challenges because I had a series of strokes, causing temporary loss of all language and mobility.

I went from a few weeks in the ICU, two months of hospitalization and in-patient rehabilitation, to many more months at an outpatient rehabilitation centre. I had an amazing care team throughout, including doctors, nurses, neurologists, physiotherapists, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, as well as transitional life coaches for persons with disabilities. I went from a stretcher to a hospital bed, to a wheelchair, to a cane and finally, on to my feet again. I was told that my recovery had only happened because of my age at that time.

The most alarming aspect of a brain injury that I have learned is that healing takes time more than anything else. You cannot force a brain to heal. You cannot force a brain to behave as it once did. Forming new pathways to send your body information for speech and mobility is one of the remarkable things that a human brain is capable of. I can only stress how grateful I was for the people taking care of me.

The extreme changes in my mood, including memory gaps, lasted for about 5 years, with friends and family trying to figure out where I had gone. I can look back on that time and see how sad it made everyone in my world. Realizing the effect your setback is having on everyone around you was incredibly frustrating both while it was happening and now that time has passed. Of course, back then, I was still struggling to find words and dates through a clutter of disordered thoughts, as the past was slowly coming back.

Unfortunately for me, the French I had learned while growing up in Ontario schools was now a jumble in my head. Even after a series of new French classes I took after the illness in Montreal. Because of this, it was necessary for me to return to Ontario. So, I decided to start over with the English I was finally able to use again.

Life in the part of Ontario where I live has a sometimes-frenzied pace that only seemed to increase upon my return. A new way to live among family was my first task. When I returned in 2014, I was aided by non-profit support for those who have suffered acquired brain injuries. This helped with my feelings of isolation, though could not assist me with understanding why I could not go back into the field of work that I had left. Non-profit communications was something I was advised that I could not go back to.

Since then, a few years have been spent in college obtaining practical skills I had not learned along the way. In addition to years gaining new hobbies and reclaiming old passions from my youth. I have had temporary work and have kept myself busy with friends, family and volunteer opportunities, which are now virtual.

Today, I know that growth and development as a person have been the greatest rewards of my illness. Everyday, I have a greater understanding of why it is so important to approach the outside world with kindness, respect and compassion. To treat every situation as an opportunity for further understanding. To love every sunrise and sunset. This was always who I was, but there were many years of trying to remember how I had become that way.

To those in search of community and new friends, or for those struggling with an acquired brain injury, I would like to highly recommend seeking out a community organization through the Toronto Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Network.