A different sort of happy ending

The news that former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher is out of his coma and has left hospital in Grenoble after six months is to be welcomed. But anyone who thinks that’s the end of the story is sadly mistaken. For Michael, and thousands others like him who suffer traumatic brain injuries every year, this is very much just the beginning.

When I wrote my novel And Then It Happened I knew I wanted the main male character Adam to fall in to a coma after an accident at work. What I didn’t realise until I began the lengthy research involved, was that when people do emerge from a long-term coma or persistent vegetative state, there is an incredibly tough rehabilitation period in front of them and they are unlikely ever to return to their former selves.

When I interviewed Andrew James, Consultant in Neuropsychology and Rehabilitation at Daniel Yorath House in Leeds, he explained that there are likely to be significant changes in personality and one of the most difficult things for relatives to come to terms with is that the person who suffered the traumatic brain injury won’t be coming back to them.

Which is why when my editor at the time, having read my first draft, asked if Adam could not simply go back to how he was before and proved the requisite happy ending, I had to say no. Unlike Hollywood films which show people snapping out of a coma and instantly returning to normal, I wanted my novel to be a realistic portrayal of traumatic brain injury. And sometimes real life doesn’t have happy endings.

Each year in the UK almost 12,000 people will suffer a head injury so severe that they will remain unconscious for six hours or more. After five years, only fifteen per cent of those will have returned to work.

From working with organisations like the Brain Injuries Rehabilitation Trust www.birt.co.uk and Headway, the brain injury association, www.headway.org.uk I discovered the amazing work that goes on behind the scenes to help people rebuild their lives following traumatic brain injury.

And I also learnt something about the heartache which their loved ones go through when they realise that emerging from a coma or persistent vegetative state does not mean getting back to normal.

I tried to get that over in the emotional scenes which Adam’s wife Mel went through in And Then It Happened. And I am reminded of it every time I see photos of Michael Schumacher’s wife. The road ahead is a long and unfamiliar one. And learning to accept the new person who has emerged from the coma and love them is an incredibly important part of that.