Darren Berehowsky – The Different Faces of Brain Injury
Live your life, have faith in your process and live it as well as you can with what you have...
My name is Darren Berehowsky and I am 41 years old. I was at a cottage with some friends for a weekend 3 years ago. I have been told that I fell off of a deck, over a low railing, and I dropped 17 feet onto a rock cliff. I have no memory of the accident. I have learned that I beat death, but I also learned how my life was about to change forever. I learned that I will never be a firefighter again; I learned how you can dance one minute in your life and laugh and how that can change in 3 seconds. This is my journey of many faces that I would never imagine would touch me or my family.
HERE IS MY STORY…
Before my accident, life as I knew it was great. I have an older sister Danielle and a younger brother Drake. I am in the middle – like a sandwich, I am the good stuff in between. At the age of 27, I became a firefighter. I worked for the City; to protect people. I gave a lot of people second chances and this gave me confidence and meaning in my life. I began to feel like I had a mission and a purpose in my life. I moved to Ireland for a year and experienced life in a different way. I learned about different cultures, different people and grew up. I also continued to fire fight in Dublin – it was a swap – an Irish man took my job in Toronto and I took his job in Dublin. It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about me, people; culture and that I can survive on my own.
There were a lot of changes happening in my life. My parents were getting divorced after 30 odd years of marriage. My brother was the 10th overall selection in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs back in the 90’s. My sister was the smart one who was trying to figure herself out. She also helped me finish high school and college. I got my first aid, CPR, scuba-diving license, D-Z Licence and took night school to help me become a firefighter. I believe I was a good soldier. I had good guidance from my parents. My father was a school teacher until he had to stop working after a heart attack and my mother was a homemaker and managed everything in my family. I learned from both and developed traits of both my parents.
I knew that I was the kind of guy who enjoyed life, ladies, partying, hard work, and was stubborn, but I was open for discussion. My brother got married in his early 30’s and was at the beginning of starting his large family. He was also on the road to becoming a famous NHL hockey player. My sister has a brilliant mind and both have big hearts. I was enjoying my firework, renovating houses part-time, travelling and just living well. Life was great the way I knew it.
One day after work, I remember going up to my brother’s cottage. I stopped first on the way to buy some running shoes and stuff for my brother’s kids. I remember getting to his cottage and showing everyone what I purchased, then, my next memory is waking up 3 weeks later in a hospital. I was put into an induced coma for my first week. When I opened my eyes, I remember seeing my mother and my sister. I was there and not there. I apparently had conversation with my family and friends, but do not recall any of them. For me, I died during those 3 weeks. There will always be a 3 week period of my life that I don’t remember. It is like the TV is on but you have no picture. My mother watched her son being re-born for a second time.
I had a severe brain injury, which people call catastrophic. I call it my new “monkey brain” as things don’t always make sense to me. I had a lot of rehab and 3 years later, I am still getting rehab in the community. My brain still doesn’t always think right; I have trouble saying what I want to say sometimes; I can’t find my words; my views are strong now (as I see things differently) and my words don’t always come out right so I can easily offend people, but I don’t mean too. I often feel like people don’t get me or understand what I am saying. I find this frustrating. It is like yelling in the mountains and hearing your own echo, but no one responds back. The rehab journey is a hard one as your therapists will push you hard, like mine and I got angry with them. Some of my best therapists were the ones that were not afraid of me and made me work hard. I knew that I needed that push, someone to motivate me and push me to be better. I am an alpha male and I was feeling like I was fighting with my therapists to get the person back in me.
The part of my life now that brings me the most challenge after my brain injury is accepting that I will never be a firefighter again the way I knew it.
To be a firefighter, you have to have good judgement, work shifts; think fast, work with speed, see many problems at once, have a good memory, talk well, organize things in your head and have good planning. All of these areas are hard for me now with my “monkey brain.” I miss this part of my life as I miss the high of firefighting. I miss the camaraderie of the boys; I miss that my job saved lives and I could be useful; I miss that it was always exciting and no fire was the same and no job was the same. I was able to see what regular people don’t see and I felt the rush – just like a hockey player when he steps on the ice and the music comes on.
It is hard for a man not to work. Not that it is not hard for women, but men see work as part of them being a man to support their family. What does a man do when he cannot work? Who is he? How does he define himself now? How do you have a career and then suddenly life tells you that you cannot do this anymore? There are times when I am managing through this; then there are times when I feel really sad, lost and angry.
Returning to work after a brain injury is hard because I don’t have much control. My team has to have a lot of meetings with my work; write reports and we wait. I have to rely on others to keep this process moving or I will get lost. I also don’t have a lot of choices. I certainly don’t have the choice I want which is to get back on the truck.
I have tried to do modelling, but it is never a “real” job for me. To work as I was is a deep loss for me because my passion has been poisoned in some way. It is like finishing high school and going back to kindergarten and starting all over again. For a person – this can be hard to face. I am not sure where life is going to take me now in terms of my work, but I am trying so hard to work through it. I don’t want to give up because I know there is something out there for me; it is just trying to make the right match now. Here is where I think my patience is tested the most, but I continue to be a soldier.
WHAT HELPS? AND WHAT IS THE MESSAGE TO OTHERS WHO HAVE A BRAIN INJURY OR A LOVED ONE WITH A BRAIN INJURY:
- Be patient with your loved one because their brain is rebooting itself like a computer and the screening is not there all of the time. If they say something to hurt you, it is not on purpose. A lot of time, people with brain injury are angry, even if they say they are not. Their life changed 180 degrees – how can they not be angry? They see elements of their old self and fight the new person they are becoming. Sometimes they like who they are becoming and sometimes they hate who they are.
- You need to be self-driven to repair yourself because at the end of the day, no matter how much help is around you – you are the one who has to do all of the work and fight for yourself. Your family and friends will be your support, love, encouragement and your tool box. Listen to them because these are people you trust. They see your change when you cannot. I know it is really hard because sometimes we don’t know the face in the mirror anymore. Listen to your therapists and find ones that love their job because they will fight for you too! Find therapists that work hard for you; are strong, compassionate, smart and they need to know about brain injury.
- Your family can push you to do your therapy on days when you don’t feel like it anymore. Let them help you and try not to fight everyone even if it is what you want to do. Remember that when you feel angry, you may want to fight about things that don’t need fighting; you just want to let it out somehow. Work that anger out – go to the gym; play music; do yoga; do your therapy; breathe; talk to someone; say you need a time out, or just close your eyes and remember something good.
- Try to give the person with a brain injury space when they need it and don’t take it personally. Life is different for them through their eyes now. They don’t see the world the same way you do. We just need to slow down and let us go at our own pace. We will get there, but not on your terms.
- If you can’t go back to work again or do the things that you could do before your injury; then take this as an opportunity to change your life. Remember you did not die for a reason and there are reasons you are still here –make a new life, even if it means starting over again. Learn to do something different. Care for yourself now as you were given a second chance –take care of your body. Your brain is on a reserve battery now as the original one is not working as good. Exercise; learn about brain injury; get power; don’t be hard on yourself and if you expect others to be patient with you, then you must be patient with them. Use your humour on yourself when you make mistakes and mistakes are part of the change. Do something with your life that you always wanted to do, but never made the time for – now is the time if you can.
- Remember that your loved ones are hurting too. They see your changes and they remember everything about your injury and hospitalization that you don’t. Their pain is different from yours so be patient with them too. They need help too, not just you.
- Accept your differences now and that you are still okay. We should not be all the same anyway as this is what makes us so unique and diverse – Life would be boring if we were all the same. Let your insecurities go. You are alive!!. Take all of the time you need to heal as this is your time and healing is not on anyone else’s time or terms but your own.
Live your life, have faith in your process and live it as well as you can with what you have…Also, learn to be grateful that you are still here and that you are here to make a change…
Thank you for listening!
Darren Berehowsky was at St. Michael’s hospital for an extended period with major brain trauma from a balcony fall in the Muskoka area. He was represented by personal injury lawyers Leonard Kunka and Darcy Merkur, both partners with the law firm of Thomson, Rogers.