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After suffering a head injury last fall, Peter Martin gained a whole new perspective

Until recently, Peter Martin fit the stereotype of the stubborn guy who will go to great lengths to avoid seeking medical attention. Even when he fell on a set of concrete steps and suffered a serious head injury this past September, Martin tried to ignore the symptoms.

“Typically, I didn’t go to the doctor,” says the retired Halifax teacher, age 67. “I was starting to feel that something bad was going on, but I didn’t know what it was.”

After three days of dizziness, headaches and visual impairment, he finally visited his family physician, who promptly sent him to the emergency department.

“They told me that I had torn the brain away from the skull in a couple of places,” he says. “I had tears, and they were bleeding.”

Martin was admitted right away, and was put on notice that surgery might be necessary. Fortunately, his condition improved with drug therapy and rest, but he required weeks of inpatient treatment. To some degree, his recovery depended upon a change in attitude.

“A hospital, by its nature, is something I’m terrified of,” admits Martin. “I had never stayed overnight in a hospital in my life. There was all kinds of new stuff that was going on, and I was balking at it.”

Coming to terms with his injury

The reality check came when Martin realized his independence was at stake. Because he lives alone, his doctors could not discharge him until they felt assured he could take care of himself. He ended up spending about three months at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, latterly at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre. The Rehab Centre exists to help people regain their quality of life by overcoming physical or cognitive problems resulting from illness, injury or aging.

“One of the things I had to deal with was loss of memory,” says Martin. “It’s a big factor for head injuries. It’s very common…. I was told that my long-term memory was good…but the short-term was hit, and that’s an ongoing thing.”

He realized the extent of the problem when one of his eight grandchildren quizzed him good-naturedly, pointing at two of the others and asking their names. “I had them confused, and that’s the brain injury, that’s short-term memory…. That identification of names, that really rattled me.”

Another lingering symptom is a mild aphasia, which sometimes leaves Martin casting around for a familiar word. Coming to terms with these things has been frustrating at times, but he turned a corner when he recognized that his therapists were playing a role similar to the one he played when he taught career planning. He had done interest and aptitude assessments with his students, helping them to set suitable goals and develop strategies.

“It wasn’t long before I could see the similarities,” he says. “I had to re-examine myself.”

Regaining skills, and confidence

To meet the objective of returning to his apartment and regaining his self-reliance, Martin practised making schedules of his daily activities and lists to help keep track of household essentials. “I know where the Tide goes, but if the day comes when I don’t, I’ve got to have the list. You can’t take it for granted that you’re going to have that memory…. That gives me confidence. You know, confidence is a big thing.”

At a certain point Martin was offered the chance to go home for a visit, as long as someone could stay with him. At first the idea was unappealing. “Don’t ask me to sip a beer and then put it back on the shelf; I’m going to want to finish that beer. If you’re going to let me go home, I may get a little taste of that and want to stay, and going back is going to be very difficult.”

But one of his nurses convinced him to try it for the sake of his kids, to show them he was making progress. “Thinking that way, thinking of someone else besides myself, I said ‘Alright, I’ll give it a try.’ That was good.”

Martin had practised life skills such as cooking and cleaning in the assisted daily living (ADL) suite on the first floor of the Rehab Centre. “You’re talking about the very elemental things,” he says.

The ADL facility—comprising a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen—is used for occupational therapy during the week. Staying there alone overnight on a weekend was another important milestone on the road to recovery. Again, gaining real-life experience made sense to Martin, because during his teaching career he was an early advocate for co-op education, which gives high school students a chance to practice their skills in the workplace.

“I’m a believer that if I’m going to teach somebody to play shortstop, then I’ve got to take him to the Commons and I’ve got to hit balls to him,” says Martin, who is an avid sports fan. “The catch is only the first thing. He’s got to make the throw to first base. If that’s no good, he may as well miss the ball.”

A shift in attitude

Since returning home just before Christmas, Martin has a keen appreciation for how lucky he was. “This could have been a hell of a lot worse,” he says. “When I got out, my doctor had a bit of advice for me and the advice was very simple: ‘Don’t fall again.’ And by this time I was listening to the suggestions. I became a different person in the hospital.”

These days he makes an effort to eat well and exercise regularly, in addition to using great quantities of sticky notes as a cognitive aid.

“You don’t know how much your life is going to change until you have a head injury,” he says.

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