Wednesday, 11 September 2019, 5:20 pm
How trauma and recovery unlocked creativity
At 26, Amy’s career as an occupational therapist was just beginning. Brimming with enthusiasm, excitement and a new wealth of knowledge after graduating from the University of Sydney, Amy was eager to commence a life dedicated to creating opportunities for participation and engagement for people recuperating from a physical or mental illness.
Amy’s hard work paid off when she was contracted to work as an occupational therapist in a nursing home on the Central Coast. The opportunity was one-and-a-half hours from her family home in Western Sydney, but she could not wait to get started.
On the night of 14 April 2015, Amy arrived home from her daily commute. She had been in her occupational therapist role for five months. Her mum, Joyce, greeted her at the door and they bonded over her day in the living room. Joyce stood to prepare dinner for the family when she noticed Amy start to clutch at the left side of her head.
“She could not talk to me. Her eyes were shut, and she started tearing her hair out,” said Joyce.
“She was sweating profusely and she was throwing up. We had no idea what was going on.”
Joyce and her husband, Stan, rushed to phone the ambulance where paramedics thought she was just having a fit.
“The ambulance didn’t have the siren on. It was just casually driving in,” said Joyce.
Amy was taken to Westmead Hospital where CT scans showed she had suffered from severe bleeding in the left side of her brain that was caused by a ruptured tangle of abnormal and poorly formed blood vessels called an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). Doctors told Joyce and Stan that Amy had developed this since birth.
“We had no idea that it existed. She was a walking time bomb. Fortunately, it didn’t happen on the freeway during her drive home, or else she would have taken out other people, as well as herself. That is shocking in itself, just the thought of it,” said Joyce.
Amy was placed in the Intensive Care Unit at Westmead Hospital where she was declared “clinically brain dead”.
“It was a shock. Doctors were asking my husband and I if we wanted to donate her organs, and we had no idea what she wanted. It felt so final.”
I was in the car with my husband and two other daughters on the way to the hospital the next morning, all of us having slept so poorly, and I asked my husband if he wanted to cremate her or bury her,” said Joyce.
When Joyce and her family arrived at Westmead, they were relieved to hear that Amy was still fighting, and discussed the next crucial step to saving her life – removing the left side of her brain.
“What do you do?” said Joyce. “I remember thinking, can she ever have a life again?”
After two long operations doctors removed the left side of Amy’s brain completely. She was in a coma for two weeks, and two months later began her rehab journey at Royal Rehab’s Brain Injury Unit.
Amy came to Royal Rehab unable to eat or communicate. She had just started slight movements in her left side through physiotherapy at Westmead Hospital, but had little physical activity, and was still unable to acknowledge her family. Joyce wasn’t sure how she would cope.
“My fear was that Amy would not be able to keep up,” said Joyce. “I was worried the staff at Royal Rehab would expect her to be able to do more.”
Joyce’s fears were quick to disappear after watching Amy make great strides through her interaction with staff from a range of disciplines, from physiotherapists and speech pathologists to dieticians and recreation therapists.
“The staff was so gentle with her. She got lots of attention, and I was shocked to see her progress to being able to sit up in her wheelchair in just one week,” says Joyce. “You never know until you try things out.”
Although Amy has limited movement on the right side of her body, her rehabilitation through physiotherapy and nutrition has helped her regain some control of her right side. Amy suffered from Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT) after her surgery that was managed by the Royal Rehab medical team, who also aided Amy’s ability to walk by administering Botox injections to loosen her muscles. Amy is now able to drive herself in her wheelchair and walk with assistance using a walking frame around the Brain Injury Unit.
“She has increased and progressed so much. We’re just so happy that she’s here,” said Joyce.
“I am grateful to Dr King and his team for their good management of Amy’s overall health.”
Throughout her journey, Amy’s biggest challenges have been with eating and talking. Removing the left side of Amy’s brain meant she had lost the side of her brain that controlled language and logic, so she arrived at Royal Rehab unable to comprehend words, such as a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or even open her mouth to be fed. For a while Amy was being fed through a liquid diet.
Amy and her family worked closely with a team of dieticians to reintroduce her to food and has engaged with speech therapists in communication opportunity groups where clients are encouraged to share photos and participate in a question-and-answer activity in each session.
In the past 12 months Amy has made incredible progress, now making her own meal choices in her soft food diet and communicating her basic needs through words and short phrases. Amy has even discovered her new artistic talents through rehab.
“We only discovered that she was able to paint through the recreation therapist,” said Joyce. “She never had any artistic talent before, but they thought that maybe with the right side of her brain remaining, which is the creative side, she may be able to discover this ability, and when she was able to pick up the paintbrush she was able to paint. It’s so meticulous and pretty that you’d be surprised, I’m surprised!”