Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω
Early in 2004, Pamela Jane Kilgore, now 50, fell down a flight of stairs — 26 of them to be exact.
They were wooden.
It was raining.
There was concrete at the bottom.
It happens to a lot of people.
As Kilgore herself says, “It can happen so bloody quick.”
After the fall, Kilgore had a “full-cranial” operation, where surgeons removed most of her skull in order to access the brain to remove blood clots and relieve pressure. She doesn’t remember much about the doctor who performed the operation, except a joke she made about a vacuum cleaner following the surgery.
In a brightly lit, off-white room, plain but for a desk with a computer and a filing cabinet, Kilgore recounts the ordeal and what her life has become.
“It’s because of alcohol that I fell,” she starts, wanting to get that admission out of the way, as if it somehow will affect the rest of the story. I suppose in a way it does.
“My brother came around the corner, and he said ‘don’t effin move, you’ve probably got a broken neck,’” after which she fell unconscious, and was transported by ambulance from Revelstoke to Kamloops.
“I woke up, I guess, after about four days,” she says, but she couldn’t remember waking, as she was then placed in an induced coma to aid the recovery process. “I guess I was flailing around a bit when I was awake.”
She finally awoke from the coma, looked around and saw her family. Her sister and nephew were at her bedside, and she was wondering why they were crying. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell is the matter with you?’”
And then she noticed she couldn’t talk.
“This must be some kind of nightmare,” she said to herself.
Almost month later she checked herself out of the hospital, because, as everyone knows, they can’t keep you in a hospital against your will — and at the time, she had not yet dealt with her addiction and wanted her fix.
Because of the neurological damage caused by the brain injury from the original fall, it wasn’t just her addiction issues that were more difficult for Kilgore to overcome. She also had some serious difficulty with her balance and her memory.
“Six months after that, I fell off a hospital bed and broke my hip. Six months after that, I fell out of another hospital bed and broke the other hip,” she says.
The second hospital-bed fall, which broke her second hip, also “fried the right side of my body,” she says, and demonstrates how only one of her ankles rotates freely when she holds up her leg and shakes it with her hands. “Unless I mentally tell myself to pick up my foot, I fall.”
She recently fell as she walked through the front door of the office we were currently sitting in — the Kamloops Brain Injury Association (KBIA) — and split her head open, for only the most recent time.
She pulls her bangs back to show me the scar. “That was like a month and a half ago.”
“Brain injury is really unique for each person, because we have different lobes in our brain that do different things,” said Kristy Buchner, KBIA education and prevention coordinator at a meeting earlier that month.
According to Buchner, the brain injury recovery process is so different for each person because depending on the area of the brain that has been, there are likely to be different systems and issues — the Frontal Lobe controls personality or speech, while injuries to the back of the brain might effect sight, for example. (See fig. 1)
The not-for-profit KBIA, located on Victoria St. right in downtown Kamloops, is a publicly funded operation (with help from various community fundraisers, private donors and partnerships) where those who have suffered brain injuries can go for various kinds of help.
According to Buchner, these supports include helping those having problems with finances, discussing brain injury with family members, accompanying people to doctor’s appointments, or helping to organize schedules for people with memory problems — right down to supplying day planners.
They offer group workshops that focus on specific issues (like emotional management, current brain injury topics in the news, or posture, balance and strength sessions) or are for specific demographics (they have a women’s group that’s more focused on “crafty” things). They have also partnered with ASK Wellness and Kamloops Hot Yoga for a weekly yoga day, as well as — funds permitting — periodically engaging in outings to the B.C. Wildlife Park, bowling, camping or other activities that might not otherwise be available for clients.
Aside from these various client services, KBIA also has an education component. Every year, KBIA representatives go around to all the primary schools in the area and speak to grade four classes about brain injury and the importance of helmets being worn during activities where possible head injury could occur and to the secondary schools to talk about intoxicated driving.
They also recently fitted 182 helmets at the Kamloops Bike Rodeo and will be putting on an awareness campaign this fall at TRU.
A brain injury survivor comes along to tell their story at these sessions and events.
Buchner says that although the stigma of brain injury isn’t as severe as it is with mental illness, for example, there is still an aspect of judgment from others in regards to how people who have sustained brain injury are treated by others.
“There are definitely some situations where people don’t want to access services to avoid being labelled,” she said. “We call them ‘survivors of brain injury’ rather than ‘brain injured people’ because they find [the latter] labels them.”
Part of the stigma of brain injury, it seems, is disappearing due to an increased awareness amongst the public.
“I think it’s more acceptable now that you have a brain injury. It’s brought up to the surface a lot better. It’s more open and accepted,” according to Kilgore.
She remembers her thoughts on brain injury before she actually sustained one.
“My idea of a brain injury was totally wrong. I’m thinking of someone who can’t do anything, can’t talk, bla bla bla, and their brain is fried, right? That’s what I thought a brain injury was. Apparently that wasn’t the case, because I talked my way out of the hospital,” she laughs.
So how did Kilgore, who fell down a flight of stairs in Revelstoke and checked herself out of the hospital to return to her life of addiction there, become the person she is sitting across from me at the KBIA?
“They actually came from Kamloops to Revelstoke to see me. I guess the brain injury was a little more severe than I thought,” she laughs. KBIA gave her two conditions she needed to live by: stay in the hospital and stay clean. She’d dealt with addiction issues most of her life, but since they approached her in March 2004 with these parameters, she’s been off drugs, and now attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has been dry since 2007. “I open up the meeting every morning by 11:20,” she says with a smile.
She stayed in hospital as was requested (moving from Vernon to Revelstoke hospitals and then on to Royal Inland Hospital (RIH) in Kamloops), but soon after she arrived at RIH, she found herself in her own apartment instead, as that requirement was lifted once she was closer to KBIA and their services. “There’s so much more here [in terms of support],” she says.
She has life skills coaches in Kamloops, thanks to KBIA, who help with everything from transportation to grocery shopping.
“They don’t just let you go. They don’t just come in and fix a few things and then let you out. They’ve been with me for nine years and they still make sure that I’m okay every week. Somebody always touches base with me every week, just to make sure I’m okay.”
Life as it is
Aside from being clean and dry, many things have changed for Kilgore since the fall.
“I always second guess myself on everything. I wasn’t like that before,” she says.
She also has problems being in crowds.
A year and a half into her recovery she couldn’t be in a large group of people at all without panicking, she said. She’s now able to attend Christmas concerts, parades and various large gatherings for more than an hour, but it’s still difficult.
She wants to get back in the workforce, and has been looking into what she should consider as a career path, and she’s had some help. She attended the Career Orientation and Personal Empowerment program at TRU, which is designed to help women engage in self-reflection and teach skills like anger management, build self-esteem, encourage balance and time-management and explore career paths.
She’s been told the best type of work she should consider would be something repetitive.
“And then I’m thinking if I do that it’s going to drive me crazy,” she says, “but it’s not going to because I know how important it is for me. It’ll be easier for me to function.”
Can anything good come of a brain injury?
It may sound like a strange question. To some degree it is.
For Kilgore, however, there’s not only the aspect of living a clean and sober life now that she is a brain injury survivor, she also appreciates things more.
“One of the things that really amazes me,” she said, “is that the things that I took for granted before that are really, really important for me now.”
She doesn’t take remembering things for granted as most of us do. Even small things like conversations on the street are precious, because they sometimes don’t stick. Or sometimes they do, but only weeks later.
“Memories about my family — I cherish those a lot more now,” she said, because she doesn’t have many of those memories left, and has difficulty making more.
For more information about brain injury, the KBIA has compiled a long list of links and resources, which you can find at kbia.ca.