Friends are vital to brain injury survivors

GB Paraclimber and catastrophic head injury survivor, Dave Bowes, tells us how friends and the climbing community help him cope.

It is typical for survivors of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) to experience social isolation and loneliness due to life changing symptoms, which often completely alter the person’s character.

It can be hard for old friends to understand and accept this ‘new person’ but the irony is that it is in the aftermath of a TBI that sufferers need their friends the most.

Dave has talked to us in the past about his decision to enter the Paraclimbing Nationals and go on to compete internationally in order to raise awareness of TBI, highlight the fact that it is a hidden disability, and to raise the profile of head injury charities, such as Headway.

Traumatic brain injury symptoms

The pressured environment and noisy crowds of competitive Paraclimbing do not mix well with Dave’s TBI symptoms. Competing is a struggle for someone who suffers from permanent symptoms of concussion, no sense of balance, a sleep disorder, over sensitive hearing, migraines and depression. Dave still made the decision to compete because he wanted his message about TBI to be heard but he was not expecting the reaction he got from the climbing community.

Dave said: “I entered the Paraclimbing nationals because I knew I would get noticed and would look out of place. I have full use of my body, four limbs and two functioning eyes. I thought people would question my right to be there – like parking in a disability space. To my complete surprise I was accepted with open arms and people fully understood my story and situation. It was something I’d never expected.”

Every time we talk to Dave, his fellow Paraclimber Phil Michell, the GB Paraclimbing team and the climbing community in general get a mention. It is fair to say that Dave would be in a very different place today without them.

He says: “Just to have Phil and the team there to boost my confidence is enough to get me climbing. You need support to push you and help you out. When you have a TBI it is very easy to get lost in bad feelings and do nothing. Even if it is only a micro amount of effort to get started and climb, to a person with a TBI just getting to the wall throws up all sorts of issues and there is a psychological wall to climb before you can even get on that real wall.

“Phil can see that sometimes I don’t have the mojo to do anything but he can convince me that we might as well do some climbing instead of having another coffee – and it can completely turn around my day.”

The Paraclimbing camaraderie

Friendship is clearly very important to the GB Paraclimbing team and the camaraderie of Dave’s fellow climbers is what helps him continuously work on ways to conquer the limitations of his disability.

Sometimes though it takes someone fighting the same fight as you to really push you and show you what can be achieved despite the odds.

Paraclimber and coach, Mikey Cleverdon suffered a stroke at the age of 27. Just one year and 10 days after the stroke, Mikey had made a mighty comeback to his full climbing potential. Every brain injury is different with unique consequences for each individual but the symptoms a stroke victim faces can be similar to an impact brain injury, like Dave’s road accident. Stroke victims can be left to cope with a catalogue of injuries, including personality changes, impaired sensation, paralysis, language problems, deafness, blindness, memory loss and seizures.

Dave says: “Phil is one of the closest to understanding me and my disability but even he can’t understand it to the full extent. Unless you have a brain injury you can’t really know what it’s like. Mikey has a similar hidden disability to mine and has to cope with the same issues when climbing, such as over-stimulation and energy levels.

“He fought back up to the level he was climbing before his stroke and is even climbing at higher grades. He’s an inspiration and I’m psyched to compete against him. It is important for me to push the envelope of what can be done post injury and Mikey has refused to let it beat him. I’m not ghosting myself when competing now at competition level. I know I can talk to Mikey and chase him to better my performance.”

Friends vital to rehabilitation after acquired brain injury

Being with friends is a vital part of rehabilitation after a catastrophic brain injury. It is widely accepted that meaningful social contact and community integration – including sport groups – helps TBI sufferers improve their confidence, self-esteem, social skills, cognitive ability and quality of life.

But it is not easy for friends and colleagues. The brain injured person will no longer be the same person that friends knew before the catastrophic event. The injuries are frequently life changing, the depression, migraines, poor memory, crippling fatigue, short attention span, poor concentration, mood swings, impulsive behaviour and cognitive impairments that affect speech and speed of thought, can completely change who they are, which can be at best awkward and at worse impossible for old friends to cope with.

Hidden disability

The other difficulty is the fact that TBI is usually a hidden disability. In most cases a TBI suffer will have no physical symptoms. The sufferer’s appearance may not have changed at all and that can make it hard for friends to understand the dramatic behavioural changes they see. There is a deep social stigma that often means genuine TBI symptoms are interpreted as anti-social behaviour.

Studies have shown that there is a prevalence of acquired brain injury in the UK male prisoner population. Studies undertaken in the UK in adults and juveniles have shown a significant number of the prison population report that they had suffered a head injury. In adults, the rate is around 47 per cent and some studies in juveniles report a much higher rate of 70 per cent. Of those who self-reported to researchers that they had suffered from a brain injury, 73 per cent reported that the injury pre-dated their very first offence.

Dave has a long way to go to change society’s prejudices and kneejerk judgements when it comes to hidden disabilities. But by continuing to climb competitively he is in a high-profile position to educate and make a difference – with a little help from his friends.

Dave suffered multiple brain injuries as a result of a road traffic accident in 2007, which left him with a neurological disability. He refused to let the injuries stop him from climbing. He has since become British Paraclimbing Champion, ranked second in Europe and fourth in the World, and through hard work and dedication earned a place on the able bodied GB Ice Climbing Team.

His achievements are incredible when you know that his brain injuries left him with permanent symptoms of concussion, no sense of balance, a sleep disorder, over sensitive hearing, migraines, depression and a complete change of personality.

Birchall Blackburn Law is a proud sponsor of Dave and The GB Paraclimbing Team.

You can follow Dave through his Twitter @bowesdave and Instagram ‘bowesdave’ accounts.