Evan Wall was a bright 19-year-old from the small town of Shellbrook, Saskatchewan whose only concerns were football, engineering college and partying. He was a top student with every reason to look forward to a very bright future until 2016, when a severe car accident and resulting traumatic brain injury brought his carefree life to a screeching halt.
Evan still doesn’t remember the late-night accident on a country highway. He was a passenger in a truck that flipped and ejected him through the windshield into a roadside ditch. Paramedics weren’t hopeful about his survival as a Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) air ambulance carried him to Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital. He spent two weeks unconscious in critical care. Along with bruised lungs and other more minor injuries, Evan sustained a diffuse axonal brain injury (DAI). The neurologists couldn’t predict whether Evan would wake up or spend the remainder of his life in a vegetative state.
His anxious family was thrilled when Evan did open his eyes after a few weeks, but alertness took much longer to return. Evan spent six weeks in the neurology ward learning to communicate with head shakes and hand signals. During this time, he wore diapers, was fed by a stomach tube, and learned to sit in a wheelchair.
“After six weeks, I was more alert but still not talking or responsive beyond answering yes or no questions with hand gestures. Degree of alertness after a brain injury can vary greatly, and diminished alertness can be one of the permanent effects. Fatigue from not just physical but also cognitive activity is a very common condition after a brain injury, one that I still live with.”
Evan’s speech and motor coordination had been badly damaged. He spent the following winter in the rehabilitation unit of Saskatoon City Hospital, where he undertook a daily regimen of speech, occupational, recreational and physio therapies in hope of recovering his abilities to walk, talk, eat unassisted and many other basic life skills.
“Everything I was doing now was incredibly painstaking and slow going. You might think the frustration would have driven me through the roof, but my mind was fully engaged just dealing with the tasks at hand. In this new headspace, my sense of self-reliance was challenged at every turn and there was no more room for my former blasé attitude toward achievement. The option of that mindset had been plucked out of my life. The humbling was sudden and absolute.”
When he was released from in-patient care to return to his parents’ home in Shellbrook Saskatchewan, Evan had spent a total of six months in the hospital. Evan now faced a life irrevocably altered. Gone were the athletic skills and facile academic prowess he had built his life on in the past. He would have to recreate himself.
“The work was grueling and very lonely. What I was doing and experiencing was present in my mind, but higher-order thinking would take time. A few months earlier, I had been a sharp engineering student able to solve calculus equations in my head. Now, my consciousness was fully occupied with seemingly mundane tasks and movements. Ironically, the learning and adaptation going on inside my brain was more dynamic and demanding than a healthy adult would ever have to endure. I was working harder at learning basic life skills than I ever had before, in university or any other aspect of my life.”
“I wasn’t that Evan Wall anymore, and I truly didn’t know what that was going to mean yet. Everything was new and scary without the hospital support I was used to. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to get to work and heal as soon and as much as possible.”
Daily strength training at his local gym soon became a saving grace. Over time, Evan’s body grew stronger and there were improvements in his coordination as a result. When he realized that good health would help optimize his recovery, Evan also started taking better care of himself, and put drinking and smoking behind him for good.
Evan’s family connected with the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association and through it, Saskatchewan Health’s ABI Outreach Team, which runs the PARTY Program (Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Trauma in Youth) for high schoolers. Evan was invited to team up with paramedics, fire fighters and police to help educate high school classes about the potential outcomes of risky behaviours. Since 2018, Evan has presented talks at high schools across Saskatchewan and is known to be a very relatable and engaging speaker.
“Hearing from a brain-injured kid close to their age really brought the message home. There was little difference between me and the current students when it came to interests and party lifestyle. The students were very engaged when I described the nitty gritty details about living with a brain injury and seemed to take the subject of safety seriously when they heard about my having to wear diapers, how I no longer work or attend school, even what it’s like to talk to girls now. I was happy to help contribute to brain injury education and do something with my time to help keep other teenagers out of hospitals.”
Five years after his accident, Evan has recovered an altered form of his voice that gives some people the erroneous impression that he is mentally challenged. He also walks unassisted, but his walk is slow and cumbersome. Evan lives on his own in Saskatoon, where he still visits his local gym daily. In fact, Evan has become an avid body builder and has even competed in physique building competitions.
“Bodybuilding is one of the purest forms of self-discipline because you’re literally fighting yourself all the time. Even during exertion, the body shouts loudly and constantly that it wants more carbs, but it’s not getting them. The results can be spectacular, but the self-discipline required to get there is enormous. I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I hadn’t gone through the physical and emotional rigors of coming back from the dead.”
“Challenging my limits has always been part of my journey. I did it physically in my youth. Since my injury, I’ve had to challenge my limits mentally and emotionally as well. And I’m still doing it today. I can say in all sincerity that living with this brain injury, I have become well acquainted with physical weakness and, in dealing with it, have become tougher than I would have ever imagined.”
To his dismay, Evan has found that the outside world reacts differently to him since his accident. Some acquaintances speak to him differently than they used to. Strangers look away or, when they do interact with him, often talk to him like a small child. Evan feels there is much society can learn about interacting with disabled people more respectfully.
“If there is one thing I know first-hand from being both an abled and a disabled person, it’s that able-bodied people react distinctly differently to one versus the other. Before my accident, I never would have imagined I would one day talk about ableism, ableist fragility, and microaggressions. I was a strong, agile, and capable teenager who, having grown up with a sister with autism and epilepsy, was raised to be considerate of other peoples’ differences. Prejudice in any form never crossed my mind or my path. I hadn’t even heard of the word ‘ableism’ before my injury.”
In 2020, Evan took on a collaborative writing project about his journey with a writer friend, Susanne Gauthier. Over many coffees and interviews with family, friends and colleagues in the brain injury community, Susanne drafted Evan’s story in full detail - from his point of view. Their co-authored memoir is entitled Rebuilding a Brick Wall, published by DriverWorks Ink, Regina SK 2021, and available in Canadian bookstores.
What does Evan want people to take away from his story?
“For someone with an injury, that you will always move forward if you refuse to give up. Even though life looks completely different from before, there are always successes and joyful moments that make the journey worth it, not to mention wisdom!”
“For able-bodied people; you may not think you get uncomfortable when you meet a person with a disability or treat them differently, but are you sure? Microaggressions are still heavily embedded in our culture. We have only just begun to acknowledge the variety of microaggressions towards those with ability differences that are still rampant.”