After the crash: one man's recovery from a bike accident

Steve Pape knows what lies ahead for Richard Hammond - he's been there himself
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The morning of 14 July 2000 was like any other. After two great days of biking, I was looking forward to the ride home to Leeds. As it turned out, I wouldn't leave Scotland for another six weeks.

That morning, all I can remember is sitting down for breakfast and passing some time talking with a couple of other bikers. After pulling out of the hotel's car park, I have no recollection of what happened next. From what the police crash investigators have deduced from the scene of the accident, I was apparently going around a left-hand bend at speed. I must have lost control of my motorbike and collided with the walls on either side of the road seven miles out from the hotel. The scene, I was told, was like the aftermath of a bomb blast.

Like Richard Hammond, the Top Gear presenter who suffered head injuries in an accident last week, I was taken to the nearest hospital specialising in neurological injuries, Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, and immediately placed on a ventilator. My lungs had also collapsed so I had two chest drains inserted to keep them inflated. Once I was safe to move, I was taken for a CT scan of my brain to assess the damage. Although there was no bleeding, my brain had been damaged due to the acceleration/de-acceleration forces of the accident. It was all very touch and go as to whether I would live. I knew nothing of all this, but by this time, my wife Carol had been notified and was already on board a plane to Scotland with her parents.

For several weeks, my condition was very unstable and nobody could tell Carol if I would survive. How she coped with it all, I don't know. She says that being a nurse helped, because it meant she could take over a lot of my day-to-day care, leaving the Intensive Care Unit doctors and nurses to concentrate on keeping me alive.

All the time I was at Ninewells Hospital, Carol and her mum lived in a little relatives' room on the unit. Of course, I was oblivious to the worry I was causing and I can remember very little of my time in hospital. While I was in my coma, however, I remember the feeling of standing in an open space, pitch black but with a faint glow of light over the horizon. I felt very calm and there was a sense of happiness. I felt no regrets and there were no thoughts that I hadn't said goodbye or needed to make amends with anyone. I was at peace with the thought that I had lived well and been true to myself.

As the weeks passed, I slowly started to come out of the coma. I had quite a few visitors from Leeds. I can't remember them, but I could feel that some of them were in the room. I was in no fit state to respond in any way and I completely lost any sense of time in the weeks that followed.

After six weeks, I was well enough to transfer to the neurological ward at Leeds General Infirmary. I became a little more aware of my surroundings and the reality of having a head injury began to sink in. I became frustrated that I could no longer feed myself, walk or even talk properly and my tolerance of other people was not good. This began the most difficult time for me and I feel for Richard Hammond as he faces the long climb back to health.

One of the first things I remember seeing was a big poster on the wall at the bottom of the bed that Carol had placed there. It read: "Don't worry Steve, I'll be in at 8am." The poster really helped as, in my dreams, I was waking up in the strangest of places and what's worst is that they all seemed so real. I've since found out that vivid dreams are common after a stay in an ICU, although it's not known if it's the drugs that cause them or the trauma of just being there.

Slowly, I learnt to walk again, though my vision was blurred and I got nauseous every time I attempted to sit up and my muscles had wasted away with the enforced inactivity of the previous weeks.

A full recovery was always my main goal so, when I was transferred to the rehabilitation unit at Chapel Allerton hospital two weeks later, Carol and I worked hard at the exercises given to us by the physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. The coma had taken me back to zero so I had to relearn pretty much everything. Luckily, I had a strong sense of the person I was before the crash, so I made it my mission to be that person again.

After only a month in rehab, I was able to walk on my own and do simple tasks such as make a sandwich - you'd be amazed at how much organisational skill is needed just to do that. My speech was also improving, although my tone of voice still didn't sound like me. I was desperate to go home, so I was discharged, and we continued to attend the various therapy sessions on an outpatient basis.

In the months that followed, my walking and talking improved a great deal. I seemed to recover from the physical aspects of the head injury relatively quickly and returned to work about six months after the accident. But as with a lot of people with brain injuries, my personality was affected and I had to work hard to become the person I had been before. All these years later, I'm still a bit more rigid in my thinking than I used to be and I like a routine. But I'm also, apparently, more loving, so I guess there's an upside to everything.

Richard Hammond and his family are probably feeling high about his fast recovery. But the hardest bit may be yet to come. For me, the first year after the accident, trying to regain my former self, was really difficult, although we received a lot of support from the therapists at the rehab unit and from Headway, the organisation for brain injury sufferers and their families. I also wrote Stepped Off - a book about my journey back to health, with the aim of helping others going through the experience, although no two accidents and no two brain injuries are the same.

I'm glad that Richard is still with us and that he is making such a good recovery. I wish him luck in the months ahead.

For information about brain injuries, contact www.headway.org.uk (08088 002 244); Stepped Off by Steve Pape is available via www.steppedoff.co.uk

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