Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crash injuries shatter lives

Newlyweds left to rebuild happiness

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When Marilyn blinked her eyes open, she didn't recognize the man standing in front of her.

It was just five weeks after she tied the knot with her longtime boyfriend, Jeff. The pair had dated for 13 years, and decided to get married on July 7, 2007 -- 7/7/7 -- a lucky number. Jeff had just bought Marilyn her first motorcycle, and the two had plans of riding off on the open road.

But from her hospital bed, hooked up to multiple tubes, Marilyn didn't know who Jeff was or what the word "husband" even meant.

"It's hard because I did not get to enjoy it," Marilyn said, tears welling up in her eyes. "When someone gets married, they're supposed to enjoy the first year. It's too late.... I can't get that back."

Marilyn and Jeff, who do not want their last name revealed, were on their way to work on Aug. 21, 2007, when they were T-boned by a truck that ran a stop sign at the corner of Springfield Road and Vernon Road. Marilyn was in the passenger seat when the truck rammed her side of the purple sedan, crunching the metal, cracking the windshield and sending their car flying into a nearby ditch.

They later found out in court that the driver of the other vehicle was talking on his cellphone.

When Jeff came to and saw his wife, she was slumped over in the red fabric seat. Blood was gushing out of her head, down the seat and onto the dashboard.

The jaws of life were needed to get her out of the car, and Marilyn was initially taken to hospital in critical condition.

"I thought she was dead," Jeff said.

But the nightmare didn't end there.

Marilyn sustained a brain injury and hospital staff put her into a medically induced coma for a week.

She is one of about 40 or 50 people in Manitoba who sustain serious brain injuries from motor vehicle collisions every year, Manitoba Public Insurance statistics show.

While most people think of whiplash, broken bones or death as the results of serious crashes, severe head injuries are among the most devastating and leave people with lifelong challenges.

"The most frequent kind of catastrophic injuries are brain injuries," MPI CEO Marilyn McLaren said. "We could have as many as 50 a year. People tend to think about quadriplegia and paraplegia (when it comes to accidents), and together there maybe will be 10 a year.

"But there could be four or five dozen head injuries."

MPI is contributing funds toward the new brain surgery centre at Health Sciences Centre and working with the Manitoba Brain Injury Association to learn more about treating what can be a lifelong condition, McLaren said.

The nature of the crash is a good predictor of how severe a head injury will be.

Dr. Lynne Warda, medical director of Impact, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority injury-prevention program, said the brain continues to move when a car stops. That means when a person's head hits a windshield, the brain hits the inside of the skull with the same force.

People can sustain concussion symptoms from a relatively minor collision when an injury such as whiplash occurs, Warda said. More serious crashes can cause bleeding, swelling and physical damage to the brain cells and neurons.

"Brain injury is one of the things we see every single day. It's huge, it's absolutely huge," said Warda, who sees at least one case a day in the Children's Hospital ER. "There's this huge spectrum of what can happen based on the impact."

Falls and motor vehicle collisions account for about two-thirds of all hospitalized head-injury cases, Warda said.

The severity depends on how someone falls or hits their head, and patients receive a CT scan in hospital to assess the damage.

Some people need to be on a ventilator, others need to keep their head elevated or take medications that take water out of the brain, Warda said. In severe instances, emergency surgery might be necessary.

However, there aren't good studies on the long-term impacts of serious head injuries, she said.

Children are more at risk of sustaining damage, she said, since their brains are still developing. Still, it's difficult to link a brain injury to something such as problems learning in school, Warda said, since genetics or other factors may also play a role.

In adults, changes can be a little more obvious, she said. However, she's seen patients come out of the ICU, go through rehabilitation and return to not the way they were but a "normal state," she said.

The Manitoba Brain Injury Association says some people who suffer brain injuries have vision or hearing loss, lose their sense of taste and smell, have memory problems or poor concentration and grapple with depression or mood swings. These side-effects can diminish over time or be lifelong.

When Marilyn awoke after her injury, she didn't know who Jeff was, who she was, and she spoke with a mild accent some people say makes it sound like she's from Newfoundland.

After she spent six weeks in Riverview Health Centre's brain injury clinic, Marilyn returned home to Jeff, who was also dealing with his own injuries from the crash, including four broken ribs, a lacerated liver and a shoulder and an eye injury.

The pair used to work in construction, and Marilyn spreads out photos of buildings she helped build in Calgary. These days, she spends most of her time at home, since she hasn't been able to go back to work.

Marilyn said many of her friends felt she was "different" after the collision. Jeff said a psychologist asked him if he planned to leave his wife. He's never been back to therapy.

Marilyn has since joined a local brain-injury support group and admits she now suffers from anxiety and depression and gets nervous every time she's in a vehicle. She's on anti-depressants and pain medication and still has to keep a list of "pill reminders" in case she forgets whether she's taken her medication and what she should do.

That's an improvement from when she first came home, Jeff said, when Post-it notes were plastered on every surface to remind her how to turn on the TV or cook Kraft Dinner.

More than anything, the couple is still angry.

The driver of the truck walked away unscathed, and his girlfriend suffered minor injuries.

"It's hell," Marilyn said. "I have this for the rest of my life."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2011 A4

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