Traumatic brain injury means starting life over
Nine months ago, on Valentine’s Day, former Poolburn School principal Craig Hickford’s life changed for ever when he was knocked from his bike by a ute in Dunedin. He nearly died. Ambulance staff worked on him at the scene for over an hour before he could be transported. For the next 10 days, he was on life support in Dunedin Hospital. Doctors talked about turning it off. They didn’t.
The 44-year-old is home from Wakari Hospital’s Isis unit, which treats people with serious brain injuries. The recovery is painstakingly slow. ‘‘It’s a pretty frustrating thing to have happen to you,’’ Hickford says. ’’It’s meant I’ve started from zero again. That’s been a real mission. It’s just been a battle.’’
Wife Stacey, 39, - who’s been ‘‘an absolute rock’’ throughout - likens her husband’s recovery to that of a child. With the aid of a fulltime carer, he’s had to re-learn everything from walking, talking, brushing his teeth and using the toilet.
‘‘Things are certainly challenging,’’ she says. ’’It’s devastating to see your husband trying to function again. The first two months of him being home, we had a lot of challenges, as a couple as well.’’
Hickford’s children, Grace, 9, and Toby, 5, are also deeply affected. For a long time, they didn’t know the full extent of what happened. They visited him every day in hospital and were gradually made aware of the situation. ‘‘They understand,’’ Hickford says. ’’Grace probably is the most affected as far as, ‘dad don’t ride your bike, don’t do anything silly’. [She] is very defensive of my actions.’’
He’s able to shower, walk up and down stairs, make breakfast and help Grace and Toby with their morning routines. But ‘‘I can’t run. My eyesight is still dodgy. My left side is a lot weaker.’’
The initial bleed on the right side of Hickford’s brain, which led to post-traumatic amnesia, has left a memory blank from almost all of last year and the accident, which occurred about 10km from his St Clair home in Main Rd, Fairfield. Anything Hickford knows about the accident, he’s been told. Death, he says, was ’’realistic’’ during the first week in hospital.
Probably the toughest thing for the Hickford family was a husband and father trying to deal with the overwhelming barrage of emotions. The fact that the man who ploughed into him on that fateful February evening hasn’t once spoken to Hickford makes keeping those flailing emotions in check even tougher. ‘‘He’s never given me the time of day. I’m disgusted with the way he has treated me.’’
The driver is charged with careless driving causing injury and has pleaded not guilty. The trial starts on January 19 in the Dunedin District Court. Hickford will get the chance to speak to the man that nearly took his life through a victim impact statement if the driver is sentenced.
He’ll talk about how his life has changed dramatically, how he recently moved his family nearer to Brockville School in the hope he could one day return to his role as principal there, how it dawned on him that it was not possible and how he’s moving his family to Christchurch for support from Stacey’s family.
For now, Hickford is concentrating on his ultimate goal, to compete for a second time in the Coast to Coast. He believes he can live a near-normal life again one day, including resuming his career. ‘‘I’ve still got all those dreams. But it’s that far away.
‘‘I still have the odd dark day. It’s a tough journey but I’m the wrong person to be depressed. I don’t think [I] can ever expect to be back to full capacity. I obviously dream of the day that I will be. It’s pretty devastating ... [but] I never give up hope.’’
The Hickford family are happy to have their dad home.
Craig Hickford in Dunedin Hospital on life support.