Headway Essex: Motorbike crash robbed me of my childhood memories says Colchester Zoo worker

A MOTORBIKE crash robbed Oliver Game of key memories, a sense of smell, a number of friends and the way he walked and talked – but it couldn’t quash his fighting spirit. The 23-year-old pulls up his shirt. A prominent scar runs from sternum to navel – legacy of the smash that also inflicted a serious brain injury. The nature of head injuries means some people understandably find it hard to identify anything to smile about, but Oliver’s managed it. High on his chest is a tattoo of an opening zip, which leads down to the scar and incorporates it into the design.

“There are many times here when I get goose bumps and think something I see or hear is amazing, but for Oliver to come in and say ‘Actually, I’ve embraced what’s happened to me – not fully, but, hey, I’ve got this scar; let’s make a feature of it!’ had me filling up a little bit!” admits Andy Plowright, day centre manager for the charity Headway Essex.

The zip is not all Oliver has in the way of bodily adornment. On one arm is a tattoo of an angel and the slogan “Miracles Do Happen” – recognition that the accident could have been very much worse.

He smiles and reveals he’s also toying with the idea of having a bullet-hole tattoo on his throat, incorporating the scar where he had a tracheotomy!

Oliver has been coming to Headway Essex for about 18 months, one day a week.

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The organisation cares for people with “acquired brain injury” – caused by sporting or work incidents, road accidents, assault, illness or disease. It has a day centre in Colchester that helps people rebuild their lives. There’s also a community support service helping families around the county.

While it’s affiliated to Headway UK, the Essex operation is an independent charity responsible for its own finances and fundraising – something occupying a lot more thought in these straitened times.

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It’s grateful to everyone who keeps the wheels turning – including money from Sport Relief, one of the two big fund-raising campaigns under the Comic Relief banner. The other is Red Nose Day – taking place this year on Friday, March 18.

Headway Essex has received funding for the past three years, Andy Plowright thinks, with �6,200 this year. He says it pays for ten-pin bowling and trampolining sessions, and visits to a special neuro-gym in Colchester (which also comes to the day centre during the week). “Without the funding, we couldn’t do it.”

These activities play a valuable part in rehabilitation, he argues – physically and mentally.

“We can measure the outcomes so easily, and they’re brilliant,” he says of The Body Challenge Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre. “It’s great for mobility, with knock-on benefits for confidence. The equipment can be used by people in wheelchairs and it’s not full of big bodybuilders with muscles!”

Headway Essex also “gets people together, talking about their injuries, and they gain insight. I can talk to people about brain injuries, and read things out of a book and explain about memory problems, but I don’t know exactly what it’s like.

“We give them, hopefully, tools and strategies to cope with some of their deficits: adapting to a difficulty.

“Oliver’s a keen bowler and now bowls mainly with the left hand. It’s about adapting – not always ‘accepting’, because it’s very difficult for people to accept what’s happened to them, but we’re about helping people make the best of what they’ve got.

“It’s about giving something a try, rather than sitting back and saying ‘I can’t do it. I’m never going to bowl like I used to.’ Well, the peer support kicks in and someone else with a head injury might say ‘Look at me! I bet you can’t beat my score . . .’ And that’s how it starts to develop.”

The day centre is in the grounds of the old Severalls Hospital, a stone’s throw from Colchester United’s new football stadium.

Open five days a week, it’s currently helping more than 60 people a week through peer support, respite care, education, communication and interpersonal skills. Aspects tackled include memory deficit, anger issues, relationship problems and work-related challenges.

Kept afloat by the backing of individuals, companies and other donors, Headway Essex is “about helping people to move on, rather than holding on to them”.

It celebrated its 25th birthday last summer and is still in the same building: what used to be a bungalow thought to be home to the hospital fire officer. It’s had a couple of extensions built over the years.

Oliver, making great progress, is about to shift to a different day of attendance, for more educational-based therapy with a work-oriented focus.

“Headway has been amazing. It really has. Meeting people that can talk to you, and you can listen to their experiences and how they’ve moved on,” he reflects. “They might tell you to do something differently to the way you’re doing it. That really does help. The staff are amazing, too. They talk to you like you’re a normal human being!”

He was 19, and on his way to work early one morning at Colchester Zoo, when he was in collision with a car at Frating crossroads.

Oliver doesn’t remember it. Neither does he recall his early schooldays at St Clare’s in Clacton-on-Sea or later at Tendring Technology College. Time with the West Cliff Theatre Youth Group in Clacton is a blank, too.

He knows relatives, but struggles to recall other people he knew in the past. “The only thing I remember from before the accident was burying my dog . . .”

Apart from his jaw, he suffered no broken bones. Most of his injuries were internal. “I was lucky in some ways, but not in others.”

That’s an understatement. “Apparently my brain injury isn’t just one part of my brain; it’s a bit like shaken-baby syndrome.”

Andy explains: “It’s a defuse injury. Basically, your brain sits on a stem and it’s very loose inside your skull, protected by the cerebral spinal fluid. As your head gets shaken around, there comes a point where that motion stops but the brain inside the skull continues to travel. Of course, the skull is hard and the brain is very soft, and that’s where a lot of the bruising happens.

“The part of Oliver’s brain that was damaged on the left side controls the right side of the body. It’s the neurons that get damaged – they tear – and it reduces mobility.”

The young man’s right side is weak – arm, leg – and he can’t see sideways out of his right eye. His sense of taste has been dented and he can’t smell at all. “If I have chicken for dinner, it tastes like cardboard,” he grins.

Oliver, who “celebrated” his 20th birthday in hospital, also has no memory of the half-year or more following the crash. He was treated at Queen’s Hospital in Romford and was in Colchester for about six months, but doesn’t recall anything until he found himself in the live-in regional neurological rehabilitation unit at Homerton Hospital in East London.

He was still in a wheelchair and had to work hard to regain mobility. “With my accident, it was like I was a baby again. It was like being brand new. I learned to talk again, how to walk and move my arms.”

Fortunately, Oliver has a very supportive family – he lives with his mum and dad between Colchester and Clacton – and has also been treated well by the zoo. (Andy points out that such loyalty by employers is not always common.)

Oliver works there three days a week, four hours a day. He used to build and maintain enclosures and other parts of the site, but is now a painter. He recognises that attempting to do full hours is impractical and would knock him for six, but admits finding the limitations of his injury frustrating.

“I can see I’m getting better, because I’m out of my wheelchair and off all my medication – no more injections! – but my life isn’t back to normal.”

A number of friends drifted away after the accident. He thinks they found it all too scary and imagined themselves in the same position.

On the positive side, Oliver is becoming a volunteer for Headway Essex, to deliver school talks.

Passionate about the need for motorcyclists to have the right protection, whether they’re astride a moped or something more powerful, Oliver wants to spread that message to young people.

“I know it might cost you money, but not forking out might lose you your leg or your arm, or your life. At the end of the day, if even one person out of a whole school wears the right equipment, it’s better than no-one.”

Andy says: “Talking in front of 100 or 150 pupils, that takes a lot of courage. A lot of people here have low self-esteem and confidence, because of their difficulties, but Oliver’s embraced that challenge and said ‘I am nervous about it, but I’m doing it.’ That’s an incredible thing.”

Oliver admits getting very wound up by the sight of riders in jeans and T-shirts. It’s crazy.

He himself was protected by a one-piece leather suit during his last fateful ride. The only visible damage was a little hole in a boot and a broken visor.

“At the end of the day it saved my life,” he says. And then turns to Andy. “I’m still here and you’ve still got to put up with me!”

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