Wales

Joanna Brown's recovery after brain injury while jogging

Joanna Brown was on her first outing with a new running club when she suddenly suffered a brain injury she was "lucky to survive". Two years later she is training for the London Marathon and about to get married.

Here the 36-year-old from Neath describes her journey to recovery, both physically and mentally, and accepting "the new version of me".

I had this overwhelming sense something was bad, something was really wrong.

It was quite a hilly run, so I thought perhaps I was just too tired for it.

It was only two miles in and it was meant to be six or seven miles that we were going to do, so I was thinking 'oh no, I should have stayed at home'.

I'd only been living with my partner Alun for three weeks. We'd moved to Seven Sisters in Neath Port Talbot and I decided I was going to go running with a local club to meet some new people while he went out to watch the football.

Image caption Joanna woke up in intensive care, having undergone emergency brain surgery

We were about two miles into the run when I started to feel strange. I didn't actually have any symptoms as such, I just had a gut feeling that something was really wrong.

I alerted the person I was with that I wasn't feeling quite right and we agreed to have a little breather for a minute. I just assumed I was too hot and that I was dehydrated.

I didn't want to say too much at that point because I was quite embarrassed. I thought 'what are these people going to think of me?'

Eventually, I thought 'I'm just going to have to be upfront now and say I can't carry on'. I gave my mobile phone to the lady I was with and a list of people to contact just to say I wasn't well and we thought I would probably need an ambulance to be checked over.

So the ambulance arrived and took me to Morriston Hospital, in Swansea. Then, when my partner arrived a little while later, I passed out.

I don't know how long it had been when I actually came around again, but I'd been blue-lighted to the University Hospital of Wales (UHW) in Cardiff, had scans, and there was evidence of a massive swelling on my brain.

I can recall waking up and feeling like something was in my mouth. I realised later on it was the breathing apparatus, but I just tried to rip it out of my mouth because I felt scared, uncomfortable and quite confused really. Then I passed out again.

I woke up the following morning with a nurse hovering over me in the intensive care ward explaining that I'd survived brain surgery and that I was really lucky to be alive. I was completely in shock.

More doctors and nurses came in and explained I'd had emergency surgery, I'd had a craniotomy. I just didn't believe anything they said until I started to become aware of all the tubes and things that were sticking out of my head and realising half of my hair had gone.

Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image caption Joanna said she felt self-conscious about the large scar on her head after the surgery

The doctors couldn't give an explanation about the cause but they were able to tell me what it was.

It was a subdural haematoma - a brain haemorrhage - and I had an acute brain injury.

It didn't sink in for quite a few days really, until I was discharged from the hospital and got home and my partner had gone back to work.

We were living quite a distance away from both sides of our family so it was just me and my poor head, which was in a lot of pain.

I started to feel quite overwhelmed and traumatised by the whole thing. To think that I had had such a close shave - the doctors and nurses said I was very lucky to survive the surgery let alone the injury - so I had this real sense of what could have happened, and I was quite frightened it could happen again.

They were quite intrusive thoughts really: 'Why do you deserve to still be alive? You should have died'.

I was still in a lot of physical pain, I couldn't drive, so I was just stuck in the house thinking about what had happened and after a while your visitors trail off.

Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image caption Joanna said she began wearing wigs and hats to hide the scar on her head
Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image copyright Joanna Brown

You don't want to keep telling people about it all the time, because you worry about being a bore. I tried to put on a brave face, but inwardly I was really depressed.

I had zero energy, my concentration was really poor, I kept repeating myself. If I tried to send a text message, I'd be making up words.

Image copyright Joanna Brown

I just felt incredibly lonely.

I sought advice from my GP and was referred to Headway, the brain injury association, which had a branch in Neath, and I started to attend their meetings.

I figured out the bus routes, I was used to driving all the time and - it sounds daft now - but at the time just getting on a bus was a big deal, and travelling and being seen by people the way that I looked.

I used to have some really funny looks off people because I had this massive scar all the way around my head, so I started wearing wigs. I was even donated a wig by a complete stranger!

Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image caption Joanna went back to the running club where she first became unwell three months after her brain surgery

As soon as I had the green light off the doctor to exercise again, I went back to the running club I ran with on that fateful evening and everyone welcomed me with open arms.

I was nervous, but I was super excited.

I felt like I'd been robbed of something while I was in that immediate recovery, but once I got my trainers back on again I just felt free again.

The running for me was a massive part of my recovery, but having regular sessions at Morriston Hospital with the neuropsychology team complemented that.

This built me back up and I was able to return to work then the following year. I was working for Gwent Police as a constable, working on emergency response, for eight years prior to my injury.

Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image caption Joanna and Alun's daughter was born in October 2016

I became pregnant about eight months into my recovery - a bit of a surprise but a very welcome one.

Even though I'd returned to work, I was adjusting to being pregnant as well as recovering from the brain surgery. There's all sorts of issues with that process, thinking 'can I still do this job? Are people going to understand? Are people going to stare at my head?'

Luckily for me, I had great support and I still do.

The decision was made that perhaps it wasn't the safest idea for me to be involved in anything confrontational. I did have a piece of my skull removed and I've got plates in there now holding everything together so I don't really want to get involved in a skirmish.

I'm now a restricted officer with amended duties.

Image copyright Joanna Brown
Image copyright Joanna Brown

I never expected to recover physically, outwardly, so quickly. It was quite remarkable really, considering the state I was in in the beginning, but I push myself a lot now.

It's easy to say, but I'd urge other people who have had had a similar experience not to give up hope and to keep talking to people about how you feel. It's an awful thing to go through but there is help out there.

Just keep communicating because over time you accept that you are a new version of yourself and that you've got to get on with it.

I have no idea why it happened to me, but I'm trying to use positive psychology techniques and things like mindfulness, to learn to relax and think 'yes, this awful thing has happened but look at all the other things you've got'.

Image copyright Joanna Brown

I've had time to get my head around things, see the scans and come to terms with the fact it is just one of those things, which may sound like a flippant comment, but unless I accept that I'll just dwell on it.

That's why I've got all these goals and things I'm determined to do.

I'm in training for the London Marathon now, I never expected to get a place but it's something I've always wanted to do so I applied to the charity who have supported me, Headway, to run for them.

It's such a great opportunity to raise awareness, first of all, because it's quite a misunderstood injury. You look well and people assume that you are well.

Brain injury doesn't discriminate, it affects all kinds of people in emotional, physical and cognitive ways. 'Accepting the new version of me'

It's also a big personal challenge for me. I've never run a marathon before, I've only ever done half marathons, so I've got my work cut out for me but I'm determined to do it.

I've also got the Cardiff Half Marathon coming up, three weeks after my honeymoon actually, as we're getting married on 9 September.

Life has given me a second chance and I don't plan on wasting it.

Image copyright Joanna Brown

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