On the 5th of November last year, I hit my head while feeding my very demanding cat/demon. She, of course, has offered no apology. And though I fell backwards and saw stars, I didn’t think much of it either.
The cat’s bowl is in the bottom of the pantry, underneath a (fairly solid, as I discovered) shelf. She appears to believe that if she can see the bottom of her biscuit bowl – no matter how many actually may be left – it is empty and must be refilled immediately. I was crouching down to appease the beast, and not paying a lot of attention. I stood up. Fast. Needless to say, the shelf didn’t move at all.
I hit it on an angle at my hairline. The impact went through my head, into my neck, and down my spine. It hurt. A lot. I lost my bearings and fell backwards, hitting the kitchen floor. I sat there for a few minutes, feeling dazed, and then called out to Nik, my fiance.
We applied ice packs and panadol and rest, and I was like “I’m a bloody idiot” – but at that point I was also a really naive idiot. I’ve always been accident-prone, but I’ve only hit my head once before, when I was about 13. I knew next to nothing about head injuries.
The 5th was a Tuesday. My fiance commutes (well, pre-COVID) to Auckland once a week. He leaves early on a Wednesday morning and arrives home Thursday night. So when I woke up the next day, there was no one there to remind me I’d injured myself – and I had no memory of it. I knew I didn’t feel great, but that’s pretty much my usual state, so I shrugged and went to work.
I had a morning outside the office with a client, and arrived after lunch. My colleague asked if I was ok, that I looked very pale. I said, ‘Oh, I’m just tired.’
Then I sat at my desk and looked at the screen. Not only did my eyes feel like they were on fire, I could not make sense of anything I was seeing. I knew I was looking at my emails. but they were just strings of letters with no meaning. I tried to read the To Do list on my notepad. That was nonsense too. My head started to swim and I felt like I was going to pass out.
Eventually I piped up and was like “Yo, does anyone know what I’m supposed to be doing right now, because words aren’t making sense.” My colleagues, rightfully, were worried and sent me home.
It wasn’t until I was laying on the couch, brain throbbing while I tried to message a friend, that I remembered.
“Oh yeah” says me. “I hit my head last night. Maybe that’s why I feel like this.” <eye roll emoji>
I rang Heathline and then spoke to the nurse at my GP’s practice, and the verdict was clear: go to the hospital, you’ve got concussion.
I was like, ‘Really?? Nah. I didn’t even knock myself out or anything. This is fine.’ But I sighed and followed instructions.
The doctor at the hospital asked a few questions, looked at the lump on my head, shone a hideous light in my eyes and gave me a fun little info sheet and a medical certificate for four days off work for – yup – concussion.
That was the beginning. I naively believed four days of recovery would be enough. Until the pain really started. It was like explosions behind my eyes. I needed an ice pack on my head almost constantly. I was completely intolerant to light (photophobia), and wore my sunglasses everywhere, even inside. Using a screen of any kind caused agony – no phone, no computer, no TV. I was also completely intolerant to noise. People’s voices were too loud. The cat was too loud (not unusual, though). I tried to go for walks to beat the boredom and help my mental health, but even with noise-cancelling headphones on, I cringed every time a car went past, and then my neck would seize and my brain would beg for relief. I’d never experienced anything like it.
It took several weeks for support to kick in, in the form of the Southern Rehab team under ACC’s Concussion Service. Suddenly, I had two occupational therapists, a physiotherapist, a neuropsychologist, and someone to help manage the house. I also managed to get an appointment with a specialist head and neck physiotherapist. He’s my golden star to be honest. I’ve never had a medical professional like him.
I kept expecting to be able to go back to work, and it just didn’t happen. The day before Christmas, I had an appointment with an optometrist to assess my vision, because my physio asked me to do basic balance tasks like standing with both feet together – and I would have fallen over were they not prepared for exactly that.
The optometrist was and has continued to be exceptional. He investigated thoroughly. The conclusion was that the impact had not only created a disconnect between my eyes and ears, thus affecting my balance, but also that my vision had basically been knocked sideways. I needed a new, very specific prescription. I also needed colour.
Of course, then Christmas happened and no one could help me with anything for at least two weeks. Fortunately, I was at least a little distracted by getting engaged on Christmas Eve. I don’t think the head injury was part of the plan, but my fiance pulled it off none the less.
After the accident, my doctor prescribed me Norflex, a muscle relaxant intended to help ease the seizing in my neck. I took it for a few days, and it worked exceptionally well. Unfortunately, my stomach didn’t like it, so I stopped taking it.
A birthday gift
Following the removal of the Norflex, the neck pain and headaches got steadily worse. After four days, I was in agony. I did everything – took all my prescribed meds (bar the Norflex), begged for massages, used ice then heat, did yoga. Nothing worked. At midnight, I decided to just try and sleep it off.
By 1am, Nik was bringing me a bucket and I was copiously sick. The pain in my head was like a chainsaw conference and a fireworks display in the same building. I could barely see, I struggled to communicate, and I couldn’t stop being sick. I ended up shuddering on the floor next to the bucket. I fought against calling an ambulance but Nik asked me what my pain level was and I said “10”.
I never say 10.
The first thing the paramedics did was get an IV in my arm and give me Fentanyl and antiemetics, and I couldn’t see their faces but I’m pretty sure I promised to elope with them.
It took a while to get me to a state where they could transport me to the hospital. Their care was excellent, as was everyone in the emergency department. Because of the head injury, they took me very seriously.
At some point, I vaguely realised it was now January 6th – my 33rd birthday. I got the gift of several shots of Fentanyl and, when that provided only short-lived relief, morphine. What a party!
According to poor Nik, who had to suffer through the fear of all of this without the drugs, I was remarkably lucid. I answered all of the doctors’ questions about what medication I was on, what I’d changed, what could be contributing here. I told them I’d stopped taking Norflex. Nik was standing behind me with his hands under my shoulders, trying to gently ease my neck muscles which may as well have been made of granite.
I’m not exactly sure of the time by then, the only thing that I was acutely aware of was the constant beeping that marks the emergency room, and how each beep felt like a drill bit through my skull. Eventually, that faded into the blessed morphine fog.
The doctor gave me a script for more Norflex, and, according to Nik, I requested very politely to be given some morphine tablets to take home in case this happened again. I won.
So, y’know. At least I got drugs for my birthday.
In all seriousness though: I know I’m super sensitive to medication, but no one should ever underestimate what reaction their body may have – to taking it, or to stopping it. After all of my experience, I never expected to have such a violent reaction to removing the Norflex after such a short period of time. It wouldn’t be long til I was sent for a brain scan because the professionals didn’t understand it either.
After this setback, I worked extremely hard with my rehab team through January, February, and into March. My progress was incremental and I was increasingly frustrated. I still couldn’t use screens for anything longer than half an hour – though I now had my pretty pink glasses which made a big difference. My neck and head pain was constant, and it was different from the pain I’m used to with my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I had to devise new means of combat, new routines, and interact constantly with the rehab team. who were, for the most part, incredibly supportive.
At the end of February, I began spending time in the office. I was elated. I wasn’t really doing much, the point was to get me accustomed to the environment again. My team were very supportive. Slowly, I built up my time there. I tested being outside without my sunglasses. I practiced getting used to driving again with my OT. My brain still felt sluggish, my memory struggled, I lost words constantly – but I got the all clear from the neuropsych and the brain scan. Everyone expected me to make a full recovery.
The week of March 15th, I managed to drive to work, do a couple of hours of actually useful things, and drive home again. I was elated. Bearing in mind that I’d been at home for four months now – and that very first medical certificate said four days.
I think you know where this is going.
…And my second accident – which will be something like Part Two: The Door in the Darkness.
I hope this hasn’t been as boring to read as it has been to live through, and you’ll tune in for my ongoing misadventures.