To think In One Split Second Your Entire Universe Can Change – Sally Cowman – Australia

To think in one split second of time that your entire universe can change is some what far fetched for most people. Gee I even use to think this too.

I thought time was on my side and deep down I really never thought that I would have an injury that would stop me from doing a sport I love so much, let alone stop my life as I knew it.

It was just like any day, I got up early to get out on my bike for training and headed out to meet the airport group ride. But that is all I can remember until my first recollection of being in hospital. My first memory of being in hospital was on the fourth day after my accident, which I found out later from talking with my mother about that time.

11th March 2007 is a date that will stay with me forever. My life was never going to be the same after this day and I like to think that everything happens for a reason or for the greater good for myself and others in some way, which is why I’m sharing my story with you.

Racing my bike was my world, it was everything I had set my sights on and I was hoping to race professionally for the years to come. On March 11th 2007 the universe had other plans for me. Well, at least I think so as I’m still here to plan:) I had a crash in a group ride which resulted in a collarbone fracture but also bleeding and swelling on my brain. My mother told me I spent four days in ICU and the rest of the weeks in another high dependency ward, I don’t remember any of that only three little moments and I only remember one of my visitor’s. But Mum assured me I had a lot of visitors and she said that my hospital room looked like a florist.

When I was out of hospital I still only remember little snippets but I do remember thinking, I need to focus on my recovery now and put the fact that this happened out of my mind and just get on with it. I had short term memory loss, double vision, slurred speech, numbness down my left side and balance issues. I had a constant migraine and I couldn’t do much but sleep (even that was painful) once I was out of hospital and sent home with my parents to have them look after me. It was a long road to recovery, taking roughly four and a half years until I felt I could live my life to my potential again. Not as an elite athlete but in general.

After all the positive mind training I did for my cycling racing for example NLP and Cognitive behavioural therapy, I had heard people use this for their recovery from all types of injuries. So I decided to do just that. It took a lot of dedication but for some reason I was so positive after this accident thinking that it would make me stronger, I think this was mostly from my sport psychology training I had done and I think that had set me up in the best way possible to recover. I also heard about neuroplasticity, which they call this a re-wiring of the brain. This is where an undamaged part of the brain takes over the function which was previously managed by the damaged area.

I was always quite upset when I came home from my rehabilitation appointments. At the first appointment that I can remember, we basically talked about writing notes and appointments down so it would be easier to remember things and I wouldn’t miss appointments like I had been doing. My doctor also told me I’d be able to ride to about 80% of my normal capacity in two years’ time, now that was very hard for me to hear. I’d never want to believe my doctor and I sure as hell tested everything he told me. I went and rode approximately 500kms the next week with great difficulty. I’d get to the coffee shop with the bunch and have to sit and compose myself while everyone got coffee. I couldn’t see clearly, would have a throbbing migraine and my left arm and leg were extremely numb. Friends would ask if I’m ok but I’d just say yes, as I got to learn that most people wouldn’t know how to respond  if I told them the truth, which is fine, I just think the awareness isn’t there about brain injury. After this week of riding I had to spend the next week in bed, I had a constant migraine, blurred vision and vomiting. So, the doctor was right.

When I was attending another rehabilitation appointment is when my doctor told me that I would loose my balance if I kept pushing hard while exercising when my left arm and leg went numb. Of course I had to test this too. I was careful about it and didn’t test it while I was out on the road but the first time I tried to push it was on the ergo (indoor trainer). I couldn’t really go too hard on the bike anyway as I’d get a migraine almost instantly but I tried to do some efforts and I got through them ok. But as the day went on things were spinning and I felt a bit off. I went to college that night and just got home, I was pegging some washing out on the line and I lost my balance and fell onto the verandas railing. A few days later I kept going in a swimming session when my arm and leg felt really numb, it felt really strange in moving my arm at this point and I got out of the pool and over I went. So I knew the doctor was right and what a clever man to know that, I thought back then.

Funnily enough the next time I saw my doctor was after I had my first fall off my bike since my big accident. He was entering into Paddy Pallin, where they were kind enough to let me work a couple of days a week during my recovery. I had a sling on from the fall as I had partially torn my rotator cuff in my shoulder and my doctor started shaking his head. I said quickly, I didn’t hit my head so it’s ok! My doctor was getting some equipment for a holiday he had coming up but oh what a coincidence that he had to come into the shop on that day!  I said to my doctor, oh and by the way, you are right! I do loose my balance when I keep pushing the exercise when my arm and leg go more numb. He said “Well, I’d like to think so after my years of research”. But he also had a bit of a smile on his face.

So after the specialist told me he didn’t know if my balance issue would resolve and if I’d be able to fully race again, this is the same attitude I took to it. I tried as I wanted to prove that wrong, like everything else even though the doctor was right before, but this time he wasn’t sure himself and there was that doubt which meant that’s a possibility to me that I can get better.

After reading about neuroplasticity and other books about the brain. I set on re-wiring mine, I raced club racing and pulled out before the last lap most weeks and of course pushed it too hard at times and had some very close calls but I was cautious as I didn’t want to put others at risk of being hurt if I fell. I also practised visualisation, where I imagined I was able to complete a race with no balance problems. Eventually I was able to complete the last lap and sprint and was back to winning the A grade women’s at the club racing, it was a hard road but I got there in the end and my neurologist gave me the clearance to race in open races, that means state and national events. That was around the end of 2009 so only 2 years and 8 months after the accident that resulted in brain injury. I was over the moon and the Cronulla Criterium was in three weeks! So I set my sights on doing that. I also was able to compete in my first State championship since the accident, which we won! But I also had a very rocky road afterwards.

I still had a long way to go in my recovery at this point but I never gave up and I tried to be as positive as I could about the experience. I received a scholarship to study a business and marketing diploma the year after my accident and from using my brain when it was very hard to, really helped in my recovery and my doctors even said how amazing the recovery I had made. I never really believed this until I started my nursing degree and then went back to read my discharge summary from hospital and then understood the medical terminology of my brain injury and the extent of the bleeds. I thought WHOA! I have made a massive recovery when you look at the statistics.

I have just completed my first year of nursing looking after other people with brain injury and from my personal experience I felt this gave me a real understanding to help and provide support in the best way possible. I want every one with brain injury and anyone for that matter to know the anything is possible and to always have hope. If I was that unwell and can recover to almost 100%, Then that is a darn miracle!, no one that sees me or talks to me can tell I’ve had a brain injury. I have learnt through this experience to never give up and that using my brain to study and do mind training/exercises was the key factor in me recovering so well, I will always do some sort of study now because I know this. When people say use it or you will lose it, certainly rings true to me. If I can get through this, I now know I can get through anything and you can too!

About the author

Growing up in Brisbane Queensland, I started cycling racing when I was eight years old. I fell in love with the sport and set my sights on being the best I could be. I won my first state championship shortly after starting in the sport, going on to win a junior national championship and placing 7th in the World under 19 championship time trial in 2002. After having a great 2006 season racing in Europe with the Australian Institute of Sport and an Italian professional team, and competing in races such as world cups and Tour de laude (France) my cycling career was cut short when I had an accident in a training race which resulted in bleeding on the brain. After nearly 5 years on I felt I was recovered enough to live life to my potential again. After knowing how terribly hard it is to have injury to the brain, I developed a compassion for anyone going through brain injury, stroke and people with similar symptoms that come from these medical conditions. With this compassion came the want to help others going through this, so I started a bachelor of Nursing in 2013 with this goal. I reached my goal and worked my graduate year as a registered nurse in a neurology unit. I am aiming to get back into cycling racing but mainly as a hobby now but I will always ride for fitness and fun.