Carrick Wilken

Brain injury and how it changed my life forever

Shortly after my 17th birthday I was in accident that caused me to suffer a catastrophic brain injury, and changes that have and will affect the rest of my life. I somehow was thrown or fell out of the bed of a truck traveling down the highway at highway speeds. Unfortunately, I was developing some habits that have become all too common.

I spent 3 months or so in a coma. I lost my vision, suffered paralysis, and had multiple strokes (9 back to back). My story is a story of survival, but more then anything, it is a story of awareness. There is no way I can explain the level of difficulty and frustration disabilities can cause on a daily basis, but I hope it can be appreciated.

When I was found on that fateful night of my accident, I was found by my older brother, then my older sister came onto the scene. I can only imagine how that must have felt for them. There are many coincidences in life, if you want to class it as a coincidence. My older brother was coming back to town with some friends and they found me on the side of the highway. Followed by some other vehicles of course. One of which was a bus carrying one of my older sisters and some of her friends. I can only guess on how I came to be on the side of the highway, but either way I was there, and I was rescued by my older siblings.

I was immediately taken to the hospital and air lifted to somewhere that was prepared to handle such an injury. I have been told that when I was first found It was though some of my behaviour was just the result of being under the influence of alcohol, but in fact it was a result of the head injury and massive bleeding inside my head. When someone hits their head with such a strong blow the brain can swell and create a great deal of pressure. I had to have a bone flap surgery and a drain put in to help with the swelling. It is quite difficult to remember all the fine details-obviously, but it is quite hard to forget the big ones. That feeling of having no bone flap and having to be regularly flushed is something I wish and hope few people have to go through. I required blood thinners to reduce the blood clots I had formed, and in this entire ordeal my parents took care of me and administered most of the blood thinner needles that I required. It is hard to imagine how my parents felt  giving me those needles, but they certainly did, and it certainly helped. In so many ways.

My family were told that if I were to survive I would have little to no quality of life and independence. I was brain dead and actually flatlined on more than one occasion when I was in the hospital, that must have been so hard to witness. I am no doctor or medical profession at all, but I do know that they say when a person brain goes without oxygen for a prolonged period of time they are unable to recover. I went without oxygen and I did lose many things, but with a ton of repetitive work I was able to regain many things – but also unable to regain others. I say repetitive in reference to being asked my name and age often. I spent many, many hours working on different things. Speech lessons are another one of those things that is hard to recall 100% but I do remember bits and pieces. Thank goodness my family and the professionals were patient with me and so willing to help. I credit my family – specifically my parents – with being most of the reason I was able to recover in such a way.

They told my family that I would never walk or talk again, they said that I would more or less be dependent on the breathing machine and on attendant care forever. There’s no doubt I was dependent on them for a while but with help I was able to regain those abilities too.

When I was hurt I was quite into sports and work, just being active in general. That was one of the different things I certainly took for granted. I worked for my father’s custom carpentry home building company, I worked on some friends’ farms as a hired hand when I could, I worked with my older brother with some of his jobs, and I helped my grandfathers growing up when I was able. One ran a small beef farm and the other ran a construction business also. The time I spent on the job is something I loved and will never forget. I was in the beginning of an apprenticeship and working hard to do what I always wanted to do: construction and carpentry work.

I also loved sports. I played hockey throughout my childhood and throughout the teenage years, up until I was hurt. I played baseball throughout my childhood and rugby throughout high school. Now that I am unable to do those things, I am so thankful I was able to experience it while I could. I spent a lot of time fishing and a lot of time out biking and fort building with friends growing up. The fresh air and the opportunity to spend time in/learn about the wide world around us is invaluable for a child’s life and development. Quality time with friends and family together is something that is also something that is super important, in my opinion.

I work hard on a daily basis to enjoy life to the fullest. Being blind and living with the risk of seizures is not easy. My mission in life is to try and help other become aware of head injury and the change vision loss brings. I am blind, and it effects every part of my life. I can’t deny it is unbelievably frustrating, I do not look blind because it is the result of the head injury and strokes. When I say look blind I mean I do not have any difference in my eyes and do not have a guide dog. I do have my white cane that helps me so much it is unbelievable. Many people are unaware these things play a crucial role in someone’s life. Looks can be very deceiving, they can be misleading.

If I tried to say suffering a brain injury didn’t affect me cognitively I would be lying. It definitely did. I was once really quite good at math and really fairly good at problem solving in many different ways. I certainly didn’t always apply myself in ways/situations I should have. I could catch onto things on the jobsite quite quickly and write with ease. Since the brain injury though I find certain things to be difficult, which is quite common, but nothing to fret about! Like every other obstacle in the world, you just have to find another way. I do rely on cues I have set up for myself: for example, my alarm clock, trying to go sleep at the same time so I wake up at the same time. All trial and error really. Unfortunately, in some cases (certainly in my case) more often than not its errors that you have to learn from. I was only 17 at the time of my accident and was not yet done high school. When I was able, I set up some stuff through my occupational therapist (O.T.) and the high school to finish up! The O.T was such a great help to me, she was patient and explained so much to me too! Helped with the work and showed me how to do certain things. As a matter of fact, I completed two courses online with her help, in nutrition and dog training! That occupational therapist and once again the family helped me in so many ways. Their patience and understanding was and is invaluable! One of the challenges I live with as well is some bad memory difficulties. There are definitely some things I will never forget, like the feeling of losing the ability to move my hands and feel the world around me as well as I once did. I cannot remember what it is like to seem like a “normal” person and I cannot remember many things that so many people take for granted every day. I can appreciate these many things but cannot remember them.

What I can remember though is the tranquility of a parent’s love. Not just the love my own parents and family gave me, but also the love and tenderness I witnessed by other parents. My family has done so much for me over the years and helped me in so many ways. They have helped me learn the importance and striving for a better future and a better more optimistic view of life.

I am incredibly proud to be a Canadian, I feel honoured to come from such a beautiful country that has helped make it possible for me to recover in the way that I did. I also train as hard as I possibly can daily with the hopes of representing our country and bringing hope to more people. If I can show the world brain injury and sight loss: prove to them with a lot of hard work it can be overcome. I was once unable to walk, unable to do much at all – but now I can push hundreds of pounds on a leg press and bike a mile in a minute, and row as fast as some professional rowers. As a child I loved different sports, I loved my hockey, grew to appreciate and really enjoy the baseball and rugby. I watched boxing and watched wrestling whenever I could; always wanted to try those sports because they looked like so much fun and looked like I could have excelled in them. There is no way to get that back but there is other sports that I have become extremely passionate about. I lift free weights 4-6 days a week. I love the rowing and weightlifting/cross fit. I have become an avid cyclist and regular walker. I was going to a cross fit gym in Goderich, Ontario before the pandemic and the trainer there helped me so much! Understanding, open minded, he explained things to me and very encouraging! Now that we are able to safely go again I am working out at the YMCA. The atmosphere there is great, it is a clean gym, open concept, well-run, and the trainer I’m working with has helped me so much! Great guy, also patient and takes the time to explain and show me stuff.

I can’t stress the importance of exercise and fitness in my life. It has helped me in so many ways – not only living healthier, but also with aggression, keeping my strength up, helping me in the pursuit to my goals, and helping with confidence. Whether you strive to reach a competitive level or just want to try to exercise more, I suggest an exercise routine of some kind. After the accident I was in rehab and worked with trainers and rehab workers. Also, my father helped a lot with exercise! They left me with a positive feeling and left me more confident, which I think is good for anyone trying to recover from a head injury – or any injury for that matter.

My K9 companion has become another valuable part of my life. He is not a service dog by any means but rather a companion and close friend. I believe dogs are our best friends for a reason!

There is no way I can make people realize how important it is to be there for each other, there’s no way anyone can fully understand until they have to go through these things on a daily basis, but I just ask for you to consider it. Consider it but also appreciate how good we all have it! Although it is quite hard sometimes, were all able to learn: sometimes with more help but there’s nothing wrong with that! Nothing to be ashamed of. Brain injury and sight loss are hard in so many ways, but if you don’t try, don’t give it your all, that will make it even harder!

I do what I do for the family, the friends, but I also do it for every person in the world that has had to come through a struggle of any kind, had to beat the odds with their back against the wall, and triumph! Brain injury and sight loss are hard to live with, but I am lucky to be alive, and lucky to see the 2.5-3% I can see. I am lucky I was able to regain the ability to walk-row-bike, I am most lucky though to have had the second chance and the environment to recover!

That is my story. If it can help provide some hope in any way, I hope you will let it inspire you to never give up and always strive for what you love!