Head Case

Words by Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

It was a sunny morning in April 2019 when New Plymouth businessman Wayne Thompson’s world changed dramatically. He set off to ride his skateboard on the Coastal Walkway and made the most costly miscalculation of his life.

As Managing Director of Ice Electrical, Wayne, or ‘Tommo’ recalls his life ‘pre-accident’ was hectic. With anywhere from 20 to 30 staff and a lot of high pressure in the job, he reflects that just running the business was an emotional rollercoaster.

Outside of work was a relatively new relationship (two years old), four children (7, 8, 11 and 13), a lot of outdoor activities and drumming in a local band.

The day of the accident, Wayne recalls he wasn’t in the best of moods. 

“It was one of those days where everything was frustrating … I was probably overworked and over-tired. 

“We parked on Hine Street at the top of the hill that leads down into the old Govett Quilliam building (by Honeyfield Fountain).

“I remember getting on my skateboard there and Shelley was putting her rollerblades on so I knew she’d be a couple of minutes behind me, and I shot down that hill (down the centre of the road) pretty fast and I remember lining up the small gap in between the two fences and I thought ‘this is pretty tight’ as I looked at it, then I reminded myself that as long as I hit it hard and fast I should be fine. It was too late to pull out by then anyway so I crouched and went for it.”

The front two wheels went over the kerb but one of the back wheels caught the larger part of the kerb and the skateboard literally stopped where it was … but Wayne kept going.

“Yeah I still have memories of sort of flying through the air (for about five and a half, six metres). And it also drops off, going through that entrance, probably half a metre to a metre. My injuries told me that I must have landed on my left elbow, knee, shoulder and the left side of my head.” 

He wasn’t wearing a helmet and can’t remember everything that happened next. 

“Gradually I’ve been able to retrieve the memories of what took place. I have flashblacks, like little dreams … I remember being on my hands and knees, weird things like the stormwater drain right in front of me … trying to stand up, then I felt real sick, so I got back on my hands and knees … it sort of comes in and out … nothing’s real solid, it’s sort of like a distant memory.”

Shelley told Wayne she was going to take him to the hospital and “I felt a huge amount of rage about it. I was yelling and trying to take the seatbelt off she was trying to put on me and trying to get out of the car.”

The next thing he remembers is Shelley saying ‘I’m not going to take you to hospital, I’m going to take you home’. “She was going to take me to hospital obviously, but she said what she needed to in order to calm me down.”

During that trip Wayne grabbed her and urged “help me”. Shelley pulled the ute over and Wayne went into a seizure. He had two more seizures waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

At the hospital, Wayne was adamant the doctors should check his head, “and they told me to let them do their job, and I told them to check my head again and again. They did an x-ray on my arm and my chest and everything else and then got to my head.”

A CT scan revealed no bleed on the brain, or cracked skull. There was a bit of swelling out the side of his head which was quite tender and sore.

Once Wayne knew the CT scan was clear, his arm started to bother him more – he had a compression fracture in his left elbow.

“I left the hospital about nine o’clock that night, with no real explanation of what a head injury was, what to expect. They’d given Shelley some advice, like, if you can’t wake him in the night, or if he gets out of control or anything, give us a call. But really, it was diagnosed as a concussion and that was it.”

Wayne came home thinking his main injury was his arm. He texted the band to let them know he was going to be out for a while, and let work know on Monday morning.

“The head thing still hadn’t really occurred to me … I was tired, I was sore — my back, ribs, legs, I was finding grazes all over myself and thought ‘oh yeah, this is going to hurt for a few days’ and just felt real tired.

“I’ve broken a few bones over the years, had a few surgeries, so for me it was just another injury and it was going to be inconvenient.”

But the tiredness didn’t go away and turned into a draining fatigue.

He also lost the ability to ‘read people’ and constantly misunderstood words, looks and phrases. Common noises became like fingernails on a chalk board.

Emotions were in charge of him and he couldn’t control feelings of anger, frustration, sadness or even happiness. They would be unfiltered and caused situations to become uncomfortable for him and those around him. 

There was also grief for the loss of the person he had once been. 

“I can’t really remember much of the first month or two, it all just blurred into one. 

“My memories are dark, of conflict, tears, fights, anger, all multiplied … I had no idea what was happening to me. I got paranoid, I didn’t trust Shelley and I honestly started to believe it would have been better for all if I was no longer here.”

THE LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY

With no energy, no understanding of what was happening, and feeling that no-one was explaining anything, Wayne was desperate for answers. 

“I had to wait six weeks — if the concussion lasts longer than six weeks ACC put some support in after that.

“So I started to do my own research and found out that it was starting to look like a brain injury. I thought I could beat it so thought I’d do brain exercises for like nine hours a day … not knowing at the time it was actually making things a lot worse.

“After three months or so I really started to understand what the symptoms were and I started to piece together what it was that was making me so frustrated and agitated all the time. Things like too much light, too much noise, too much stimulation.”

He had to completely withdraw from work. 

“I remember the team asking me questions and I wouldn’t have answers. I remember going in there just to say ‘hi’ and everyone would come up with questions and I’d freak out … just leave without telling them … I couldn’t handle it. What I didn’t realise was too much stimulation causes fatigue, which makes you agitated and frustrated.”

He also started to stutter, get headaches and as a result, lost all confidence.

“I’d try and mow the lawns but of course the lawnmower wouldn’t work properly, and then the catcher would fall off and everything else turns to crap for you.

“This went on for months I guess until I started to address how I was getting fatigued and how I was going to beat it.

“But I found that you can’t beat it. You literally have to turn off.”

He discovered that if he did any sort of activity or stimulation, like helping get the kids ready for school, having visitors, going for a walk, looking at the phone, he could last half an hour or so, then needed to shut himself in the bedroom with the curtains closed and just rest his eyes for 20 or 30 minutes.

“It would recharge your batteries and you could come back and do some stuff around the house, maybe watch thirty minutes of Netflix and that would make you feel agitated again, so back into a dark room for half an hour.

“It’s a torturous place. Even though you have a support system in place, no-one actually gets it.

“Doctors and neurologists and everyone else try to tell you: you need to slow down, take it easy, this could last another six weeks or it could last another six years, we don’t know.

“So there’s no timeframe, no deadline, there’s just no answers.”

He has managed to evade depression though he concedes that sitting on the couch doing nothing might look like depression to some people, but in reality it’s chronic fatigue.

“You certainly feel depressed, worthless, like you’re not contributing, not doing enough around the house, so you definitely have elements of that, but when the battery’s recharged you realise that you feel good again. But I wouldn’t classify myself as depressed. I’d like to say I’m naturally optimistic.

“When you’re stuck in that realm it is hard to see past where you’re at, especially when professionals can’t give you answers that you want, and there is no rehabilitation programme for you to help make it better.”

Initially placed on ACC for the concussion and elbow injury, after ten months Wayne was sent to an ACC doctor for an assessment.

“He came back with I had depression, anxiety, PTSD and something else and tried to medicate me, and I refused. He also told me I had to increase my exercise to try and get over it, which I later found out was really bad advice.”

Wayne sought independent medical advice and was diagnosed as suffering from a mild TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). TBI’s are eligible for ACC, where 80% of your former salary is paid to you. Depression and anxiety would have seen Wayne not only receive the incorrect treatment, which could have been catastrophic for his recovery and long-term health, but would have him moved to social welfare as a sickness beneficiary and receive a much lower payment than what he receives from ACC.

With work, he was still in communication, but looking back he realises he probably didn’t make a lot of sense.

“After three months the board made the difficult decision to make me ‘medically redundant’. It was pretty difficult to take at the time … really hard …. especially because I couldn’t process or understand what was really happening. I had moments of ‘Yay, that pressure’s off and I can just focus on myself. Then you have these other thoughts of ‘Why is this happening?’, ‘Why are doing this to me?’

“In hindsight, I think it was the best thing that happened or I would have pressured myself to return before I was ready, and I’ve heard some horrible stories about people who returned (to work) too soon.” 

He recognises it must have been hard for the directors too — they had a business to run and the only answer Wayne could give them about when he might return, was what the doctors told him: ‘We have no idea.’

“With the head, it controls everything. And at that time, going through that process, I was still highly emotional, how to come to terms with all the symptoms and how to progress from there. I was completely lost.”

THE NEW ME

“With something like this it’s hard to look past the bad aspects and what I’ve lost,” said Wayne when LIVE first interviewed him in March 2020.

“It’s been a long journey — especially for Shelley — everything that I was, everything that she fell in love with, was gone. All the exciting parts of who I was, had been taken away — all the worst parts of me had been highlighted, especially for the first twelve months. It must have been extremely difficult … I don’t know how she did it and I am forever grateful.

“My Mum Jenny has been a standout support person from the moment the accident happened; her acceptance of the entire situation, helping with the kids, and her emotional support for Shelley and I has been undeniable.

“You truly begin to appreciate the people that you have around you at a time like this, the ones that show up and support you at the start and then every day since.

“Coming out this side I think what we’re seeing is a better version of me.

“It is a daily balance between progress and pushing too hard, but now I think I’m more in touch, I have more empathy, a better understanding of people in bad situations.”

The little things that used to bug him during the day “just don’t really matter, especially once you’ve come through a period where everything bugs you … like EVERYTHING,” he laughs. “I’ve just got to a point where I need to let it ALL go.” 

Because fatigue management is now such a big part of his life, there are so many aspects of his old life that he now recognises were the result of him being completely exhausted. 

“You know, when you’re sitting at your desk since six in the morning and it’s now three o’clock in the afternoon, and you can’t think of the words as you try to write an email, or you’ve responded to an email in an angry way, which you regret by the next day, or you’ve talked to someone on the phone and just barked at them or you literally can’t hold your eyes open … all these things were fatigue — serious cognitive fatigue.”

He looks back at the periods when he had a huge amount of work on his plate with deadlines and long hours, “and you think that just by doing more and more work is the only way to get it done. Maybe if I just stopped and did something for myself, whether that’s go for a surf, meditated, sat in a park for half an hour just listening to great music, that would have completely re-energised me more than sitting there and having a coffee and trying to push through it.

“It’s the constant cycle … when I wasn’t working, I’d be doing things like picking kids up from school, getting dinner sorted, homework done, band practice … all these things are still not just taking time for yourself. It’s all just you giving, giving, giving but never actually saying ‘hey, I need to sit on the beach and watch the sunset by myself, all alone, and just enjoy it. Shut off completely … no phones, no laptops, no dings, just relax.

“I think the value you can get from that is huge.

“And now I get to do it every day, not necessarily because I want to but because I have to.”

BEING HUMAN

Though most days Wayne sticks to the script to get better, every now and then he will make a determination to “human”. He might go snowboarding, have a few shots of tequila, bungy jump, but just do something fun, an almost ‘to hell with the consequences’ sort of day. He knows for sure he will be fatigued for a week or more, but he also realises that for him, it’s a necessary part of his recovery.

“Every head injury is different, there are so many variables. Your health, personality and thought processes prior to the injury, previous head knocks, drinking or drug taking, even how you were raised. Then how hard the impact was, the precise point of impact, and the recovery protocols you are advised to do, all contribute to why no two head injuries can ever be identical and why there is no single method approach to treatment.

“We are all tested in some way or other, and this is my test.”

It’s not only his test — Wayne is incredibly grateful to Shelley for helping get him to the point he is at now, guiding him through the darkest period of his life.

In fact, the couple are now engaged and also embarking on a new business venture together – see sidebar.

The children have been a help too.

“They’re great kids … that what’s makes things easier. They get along really well and they’re easy to talk to and have a great understanding of my situation.”

Wayne’s still having to come to terms with “the new version of me”. 

“Through this process I have to find out what my qualities and strengths are going to be and take that forward into my next role.”

“I’m really focussed on personal relationships around me now, especially those that have been there for me through all of this. Now I’ve been forced to switch off and slow down, I’ve gotta stop having expectations of myself and just live … like right now, in this moment, is the best place to be.

“It’s been one of the biggest changing points in my life … it’s a shame it took a hit on the head to make me realise it.”

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