An Invisible Injury

“My heart took care of my heart, my arm took care of my arm. Never did I ever stop to think that my brain took care of everything.”

Sitting at her kitchen table in her clean, modern Belleville home, sipping her coffee and toying with her ever-present iPhone, there are no obvious outward signs that would suggest Jean Hamilton had suffered and was recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

It was June 12, 2009; the day her life changed forever.

“It was 10:30 on a Friday morning,” Hamilton recalls. “I thought ‘what a beautiful day’ and that’s the last thing I remember. The accident was 45 minutes after that.”

That fateful summer day, Hamilton was travelling by motorcycle with her husband, Dennis, to Michigan to watch the NASCAR races, an annual tradition of theirs. After stopping at an Oshawa gas station to fill up their bikes and with her husband was travelling just ahead of her – “thank goodness” – they headed back out onto the 401.

She knows she was tossed from her motorcycle, but beyond that, Hamilton remembers nothing.

“There’s probably six months of my life, I don’t remember too much,” she says, very matter-of-factly. As the conversation takes a more serious turn, Garth Brooks’ “Two Piña Coladas” proves to be too much of a distraction and Hamilton slips away from the table to click off the radio.

Settling back into her seat, she begins to rattle off her list of injuries as if they were statistics on the back of a sports card. Ribs, broken. Teeth, knocked out upon contact with the pavement. Shoulder, ruined. The bone at the base of the brain stem, broken and plagued by blood clots. Brain, swelled to twice its usual size. All tolled, Hamilton spent 36 days at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and another four months at St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital in Kingston.

Through it all, her husband took pictures as evidence for later.

“Do you want to see them?”

She doesn’t wait for prompting, instead leaving the kitchen table, disappearing through a door and down a set of stairs into the unlit basement. The archway above the door reads ‘Love Laughter & Friendship always welcome here’ in a fancy cursive font; something of a family motto Hamilton explains when she is questioned about it on her return. She’s holding a pink and white striped photo album, with it’s cover decorated by an image of her blazing red Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Flipping through the pages, she lands on a post-surgery photo: she is laying in her hospital bed, wearing the always embarrassing hospital gown, and her face swollen beyond recognition. Her hair is cropped closely on one side of her head, bisected by an angry line of staples that start at her forehead and curl around behind her ear.

“They were too cheap and only gave me a free haircut on one half,” she laughs quietly. In a seemingly unconscious movement, she runs her hand over her head and tucks some errant hairs behind her ear, tracing the hidden path of scars left by the staples.

While these more obvious signs of trauma paint a very clear picture, it’s the invisible internal injuries that are hardest to overcome.

“Your brain is like a ball with a zillion things plugged into it,” explains Hamilton. “And each thing is plugged into it: heart, left arm, finger, taste, smell. They say within the first year there’s a lot of things that will plug back in, but then there’s a lot that don’t.”

To this day, she cannot smell or taste anything. As if on cue, an alarm rings on her iPhone. It’s her ‘supper reminder.’ Along with the loss of her smell and taste, Hamilton no longer has hunger cravings and in the past, unintentionally, has going up to six days without food.

Like many others afflicted with brain injury, Hamilton’s short-term memory has suffered more than anything. She recounts episodes of starting small kitchen fires and flooding the sink because she answered a phone call and upon hanging up forgot what she’d been doing. Recalling the events of the previous day or writing a phone number or even spelling, all proved to be more difficult then they ever had been.

And through it all, there was denial.

“Having to accept brain injury – no – just no, it’s a stubborn bullheaded thing but no, there’s nothing wrong with me.” Even when confronted with the photographic evidence of the physical damage, it took Hamilton a long time to accept that something had fundamentally changed in her mental processes, the way she thought and behaved.

“There are so many days that go by and you’re just so frustrated by the thought that ‘it will get better,’” her voice is softer than before and she has a face like thunder. It’s clear that she is finding this more and more difficult to talk about, but she ploughs on regardless. 

“That’s when you, sadly, get to thoughts of suicide, and everybody goes through that part, even me.”

The frustrations begin to pile up. Conversations with her children went in circles, her points never made and her kids not understanding the words, or even sounds, coming out of her mouth. Her obsession with tidiness grew, while her temper just grew shorter. People she had counted as friends began to distance themselves and shut their doors because they did not understand her injuries and the changes that come with them.

“The doctors should tattoo it across the forehead, seriously.” She draws a finger across her forehead and says "brain injured."

Recently, it’s become Hamilton’s own personal crusade to get more information out to anyone who has ever sustained such an injury and to reach out to the public, to create awareness and to better prepare the families and friends of those who are affected.

It has been a long and difficult journey to this point, and Hamilton is well aware that there is still much work to be done. But her family has been steadfast and unwavering in their support and she attends regular sessions with a councillor at The Brain Injury Association of Quinte District, which has proven invaluable to the rehabilitation of her mental and emotional wellbeing.

“If I wasn’t for my husband and kids, my occupational and speech therapist, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” says Hamilton.

And while she still has difficulty accepting the affects of her injuries, she squashes the discomfort and reaches out to whoever it willing to listen and share her story and is beginning to see the positives that may come out of her most negative experience.

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