As I have listened to the occasional pop-science podcast about the science of the brain, and once read Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I consider myself to be an expert in neurology, and so I approached the BBC3 documentary Me and My New Brain expecting to know it all. What a treat it was to be surprised. This one-off film launched the channel’s Defying the Label season, which aims to “explore what it’s like to live with a disability in the UK today”, and it did so with a kind of delicate ease that slipped new truths in unnoticed.
Head injuries are the biggest cause of disability for young people in the UK, andMe & My New Brain (BBC3) followed four such people at various stages of their recoveries from their traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Our main guide was Charlie Elmore, who, at 26, was working as a snowboarding instructor in Switzerland, when a routine jump went wrong and she fell awkwardly, snapping her head back on to the hard ground. The impact rattled her brain in her skull, caused bruising and bleeding, left her in a coma, and almost killed her. She has no memory of the accident, but four years on, is still dealing with the aftershock, and, in particular, the emotional trauma, which is far more difficult to measure, and treat.
This is largely a straightforward documentary, following a traditional path. Charlie went back to the hospital that treated her, and talked to her doctors and carers about what it took to bring her back to consciousness, and then back to speech, and walking. Her parents are still raw with the scars of suspecting their daughter might die. But it was a wry, funny look at recovery, too – when Charlie was in a coma, they kept a diary so she could read about it afterwards, with details such as the time they had to pop her lolling tongue back into her mouth, or when her sister discovered her secret tattoo. When she came round, and walked for the first time, her mother was so excited that she treated herself to a cheap vodka and orange juice, to celebrate this landmark. For all the inspirational music swelling in the background, there is something very real and honest about what it really means to get over a serious illness, for Charlie and for her family and friends.
Charlie visited other young people who have had similar injuries. In the kind of random, awful accident that makes programmes like 24 Hours in A&E so difficult to watch sometimes, Hannah Wick was out shopping when she fell over and hit her head on the pavement. We meet her nine months into her recovery, and her progress is slower and more painful than her interviewer’s. Heartbreakingly, she said, “I want to speak how I’m thinking, but I can’t.” What came out of her mouth was peppered with what can only be called tics of politeness: she says, “Sorry, thank you, you’re so kind” as an accompaniment to almost every sentence.
Charlie also met Callum, who crashed his car when he was 19, breaking multiple bones, and his brain. “Yeah, I smashed that up,” he said, cheerfully. For a period of time, his TBI led him to believe that what he saw on the television was real. He thought he had been a soldier in Afghanistan, when he saw the news. After watching Bee Movie, he assumed bees could talk. His memory was so affected that he had to ask his friends whether he had lost his virginity or not, much to their amusement. Here is where the documentary became more subtle: Callum’s friends are aware that the injury has in some way altered his personality for good, but they emphatically resist considering it a disability. One even admitted to preferring him after the accident.
Often, we are told, brain injuries cause “invisible” disabilities, that do not manifest in obvious ways. As with Charlie, the physical recovery may be rapid and complete. It can be measured and ticked off. Within months, Charlie was not only walking, but driving, and snowboarding, and able to do much of what she could do before. But all of the people featured discuss the less graspable consequences of the damage to their brains – from a sense of not being understood, to depression and anxiety, and the need for ongoing support that is not so readily provided. Charlie, for example, struggles to differentiate between some emotions, reading anger as confusion, and finding a “neutral” expression hard to register. She explained, sadly, that in the aftermath of the accident, she had hundreds of supportive messages from her friends on Facebook, but now has perhaps 10 people she feels she can turn to. Me & My New Brain gently pointed out the complexities of the non-physical aspects of recovery from any injury, and particularly TBIs, and it left an impressive mark. When BBC3 moves online, as it now inevitably will, I hope it continues to produce documentaries as informative and human as this, and that people will continue to watch them.