Brain PowerPersonal

Olympic Trials

Footsteps on a snowy frozen waveIt didn’t take me long to get into the Olympic spirit, the trialling spirit. I say trialling because the stories — what some eschew, just get to the events already — is what makes the Olympics meaningful. Imagine working for four years towards one race watched by billions, training to improve, trying to avoid injury, fundraising to keep the training and competing going, to pay for equipment and coaches, and crashing out of the gate. Or being injured in the training or qualifying run. It’s rather like brain injury as a young adult — you’re working hard to establish your career, you’re building up networks, taking night courses to expand your expertise, you’re client-raising to keep your fledgling consulting business going, or, like me, spending hours after work on the phone or meeting people to interview them for a complicated non-fiction book. Then on the eve of an achievement you’ve pursuing for years on an inconsequential trip, you crash. Game over.

Seeing how the athletes handle adversity is inspiring to me. Usually. This year, it took me a couple of days to stifle the voice pointing out the oodles of people around them, pulling for them, tangibly supporting them, and most of all their coach(es). Every single athlete has a coach to guide them, goad them, hold them up when an injury fills them with fear. People with brain injury may look like they have that, but over the long run, not so much. The spouse tells them to try harder, willfully refusing to educate themselves on what it takes just to pull back the bedsheets and put painful feet on the screaming floor. The parent tells them that they gave themselves brain injury. Friends find reasons not to pick up the phone or meet them where the person is physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Siblings tell them to get on with their life.

The coach knows more than the athlete in some ways so that they can teach, guide, be by their side and encourage through every struggle. They learn. The seek out new methods, new tech to help their athlete attain higher, faster, stronger. They don’t stop after a year, saying why aren’t you top. They keep at it for as long as it takes. Years. Families stick by, even move, spends tens of thousands over decades.

But people with brain injury, facing the same sort of journey because of the stale medical standard of care, must attain their Olympic podium in a year. It’s only possible if receive treatment within 24 hours or days. Ironically, I think only athletes get that. Some of these athletes who recover from concussion or stroke live in centres where I know there are treatment facilities for what I receive. If I had those treatments in January 2000, I would be back to my career, would not have lost my networks, would be fully independent again and able to earn an income. I have no doubt. Even without support.

But that’s not my reality. I live with the long-term consequences of the failure of medicine, of health care professionals working in silos and refusing to bridge the divides and learn from each other. I live with the knowledge I could have a coach, but the people who could have been never saw the rewards of that so walked away. And the person I have now resists; so it’s been like pulling a deadweight to beg, nag, demand, meltdown over and over to get incrementally more what I need to restore some semblance of (book) reading. Just reading though. So much fun being your own advocate. Not.

So for two weeks I escape into the Olympics, stifle my grief, and admire the accomplishments and the people who surround and lift up the athletes to attain their highest potential. And if they crash, they rally round and do it all over again, if that’s the athlete’s goal.

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