If anyone knows the uphill struggle of recovery after a traumatic brain injury, it’s Brandon Shaw. This courageous individual has spent the last ten years battling to overcome the obstacles that were the result of a freak accident at the age of 28, when he was in the prime of his youth.
A successful businessman with a passion for golf (he was well on his way to becoming a pro), Brandon was standing next to his car on the highway, having just pulled off onto the yellow line, when a motorist slammed into him at high speed. He was left with horrific injuries, including a broken neck and traumatic brain injuries that left him paralysed on his left side and blind in the right eye.
“I was in a coma for 11 weeks,” he tells me when we meet and sit down to enjoy a beer at the Hermanus Golf Club. “When I woke up, I was in a different body. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, my limbs were spastic…” These are obviously painful memories, but what strikes me the most is how often he smiles and how often he emphasises how grateful and blessed he feels. Yet he admits that it has been an arduous road that brought him to where he is today.
Brandon spent 10 months in hospital and many years in rehab and therapy, some of which still continues today. He’s had multiple surgeries, the last one as recently as last year, to improve the functioning of his left arm and hand. “Look, I can lift my arm now,” he demonstrates, “and I can open my hand.” He had to learn to crawl all over again before he could learn to walk. But he was determined.
Easy it was not. Brandon admits that there was a time when he wanted to do nothing more than sit in a corner and cry. It was all just too difficult, too frustrating, too exhausting. “I felt drained and I had no energy,” he recalls. His fiancée had broken up with him (“I spent the day we had planned for our wedding strapped to a hospital bed”) and he felt guilty about the financial strain that his accident was putting on his parents. “That’s when I started taking stimulants, just to feel alive and energised again.” Unfortunately he fell in with a bad crowd and his drug use escalated. “Drugs numbed the pain and helped me to forget,” he says simply.
After a few years, he realised that he was never going to get better this way and booked himself into rehab. “I’m the worst loser in the world,” he says with a big smile. “And I wanted to get better. I didn’t want to go through life as a ‘disabled person’. That just wasn’t me.” He’s been clean ever since and has managed to turn his life around completely. Three years ago he settled in Hermanus, where he spends as much time as he can on the greens of the golf club and hopes to be opening his own business soon.
Although he is still troubled by his physical injuries, Brandon makes the most of the abilities he has worked so hard to regain. He is good with numbers, talks fluently and can articulate and communicate his feelings and experiences better than many an able-bodied person. More importantly, he is kind and compassionate, and determined to give back and help people who are living through the same struggles he’s faced and overcome.
“I have no memories of my early childhood – they are just gone and I’ll never get them back. And relationships can be difficult,” he says. “Because of the injury to my frontal lobe, I can be over-sensitive and emotional, but I’ve learned to recognise it when I overreact and to keep it in check.” I find this rather difficult to believe, as our conversation is constantly interrupted by people walking past and greeting Brandon warmly; several stop for a friendly chat and to share a quick joke. He is undoubtedly a much-loved member of the Hermanus Golf Club!
“I’m just a decent guy who believes you should treat others as you would like them to treat you,” he says modestly. “Respect – for yourself and for others – is the most important thing.” He adds that he is much more patient now than he was before the accident. “Patience is something you have to learn.”
Brandon says he remembers clearly the first time he was asked to speak to someone who was on the difficult road to recovery after a traumatic brain injury. She not only told him how wonderful it was to talk to someone who understood exactly what she was going through, but also asked him if he would please talk to her family to help them understand. “It was so gratifying to know that I had touched someone’s life – and it had cost me absolutely nothing,” says Brandon.
That encounter planted the seed for what was to become the Brain Chain Support Group, an NPO that aims to provide a safe space for support, sharing information and providing resources to people who have suffered a traumatic or acquired brain injury, and their families. “I am aware of the many ways in which I have been fortunate,” says Brandon. “I had a good medical aid and a family with the financial means to ensure that I received the best medical care and support possible. Many others are not that fortunate.”
The Brain Chain Support Group will meet on Thursday 4 March at Spescare in the Hermanus Medical Village in De Goede Street, Westcliff at 17:30. For enquiries or to RSVP, contact Brandon on 079 494 4065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.