Gerry Della Guerra’s Story
Before his brain injury, Gerry Della Guerra loved to play music. He was a drummer for different bands and would accompany them in performance onstage. In his daily life, he worked in construction, ensuring that the equipment onsite was in good condition and acting as the first aid agent.
“Before the accident, my life was great. I had everything going the way I wanted in my life. I worked during the day and [did] the things that I enjoyed after work, “ Gerry said.
Then in August 2009, Gerry’s life changed dramatically. At work, Gerry was climbing a ladder set up on top of scaffolding and had reached about 10 to 15 feet higher when the scaffolding supporting the ladder slipped. This is the last thing that Gerry remembered when he woke up at the Lionsgate Hospital with multiple injuries. He suffered a head injury with a fractured skull, bleeding in his brain, spinal cord damage, permanent loss of vision in his left eye from damage to his optic nerve muscle and severe damage to his motor skills. The light bothers his eyes and changes in weather or temperature cause numbness and pain in his body. The left side of his body is slower than his right side and his teeth on the left side have all been shattered. After the accident, Gerry could no longer do the things he previously loved to do.
When Gerry approached WorkSafe BC for support, he did not receive the help he expected. While WSBC expected to get Gerry back to work as soon as possible, Gerry’s multiple injuries would make this goal impossible. For the first two years, he was provided with some income, but it wasn’t enough. Gerry was told that WorkSafe BC could no longer support him so he was sent to rehabilitation to be trained for other jobs such as a doorman.
Gerry felt that he should fight the decision made by WorkSafe BC, but he had difficulty with understanding the language used by WorkSafe BC representatives due to his brain injury. He knew he would need legal help so he hired a lawyer with expertise in WorkSafe BC cases. When the lawyer asked for money upfront, Gerry could not afford the legal fees. Despite selling all of his personal belongings, including sentimental items like his musical instruments, Gerry had no remaining source of income and was left struggling financially.
“I was at a park, camping, and getting ready to practice a homeless lifestyle,” Gerry remembered. “A friend I was with told me not to quit looking for resources. I took her advice and kept searching. I found brain injury support groups and attended the meetings. That is when I met Richard.”
Gerry said he had lost everything at that point and with Richard’s help, everything started to get better when Vancouver BIA assisted with reopening Gerry’s case.
Gerry’s initial determination was only a 10% cognitive loss from his brain injury. With a 35% loss benefit for his physical injuries, he had barely received enough money to survive. Vancouver BIA helped Gerry to win an award of 70% for his brain injury, which coupled with the 35% physical injury award, equaled the maximum possible for his injury – a 100% wage loss award. In addition to helping with WorkSafe BC wage replacement, Vancouver BIA helped Gerry to be awarded $330 per month in Home Assistance Allowance. All of this compensation was backdated to the date of his original injury, drawing his retroactive compensation to over $80,000.00.
“In addition to this amazing financial win, attending the Vancouver BIA group meetings helped me to realize that I am not the only person with a damaged brain in the world and there are others like me. This helped me to accept my condition more. I reached out for help and I’m so glad I did that.”
Interview with Dr. Sara Sadeghi
This is Saturday, October 1st2016, and this is an interview with Dr. Sara Sadeghi on behalf of Vancouver Brain Injury Association.
Interviewer: Hi Sara, thank you for agreeing to take some time for this interview. Why don’t we start with you telling us a little about yourself?
Sara: Hello, my name is Sara. I am 33 years old and currently working at BC Cancer Agency as a Computational Biologist and also on the side, I work with many teenagers mainly because I enjoy spending time with them.
Interviewer: Sara, when did you acquire your brain injury?
Sara: It was almost 10 years ago when I was 22 years old.
Interviewer: And how did you acquire your brain injury?
Sara: At the time I was on a medication. It was a birth control pill and I was taking them to prevent hair loss. [My brain stroke] was a side effect of the medication.
Interviewer: Sara, you said your brain injury happened about 10 years ago. What were you doing at that time?
Sara: I was at the end of my master’s degree. It was just two years after I moved to Canada. When the injury happened and I got hospitalized, I was travelling from Iran to Canada. On my way to Canada I stopped at Switzerland to meet a few friends. [The stroke happened in Switzerland].
Interviewer: What is the biggest lesson you learned since acquiring the brain injury?
Sara: The main thing I learned is that nothing happens for no reason, on the other hand, there is always a reason behind everything [that happens, be it] a bad situation or a good one. There is always a positive thing that you can take out [and learn] from the incident. Also, I learned that people have really big capabilities that they might not be aware of.
Interviewer: What has helped you most in your recovery?
Sara: [Depending on who my audience is I might respond differently to this question.] If I’m talking to my friends I would probably say the fact that I’m a stubborn [and perseverant] person in general, helped me a lot in my recovery. The doctors told me that I cannot move, or walk ever again and my eyes will not be able to see normally (single-vision), because I had double vision for 3 months. [After hearing these from doctors,] even though I was very scared at the beginning [because some part of me was convinced by doctors and believed them] and it was very hard not to believe doctors given the condition I was at, but I stubbornly kept on trying. If the nurses told me that I had to [do particular exercises such as] moving my hands 10 times a day, I would do it 300 times a day.
Interviewer: So you kept on believing in your abilities and kept on moving forward?
Sara: I can say I was trying to believe [in myself]. I knew it’s not impossible, but [initially] I was doing it with hesitation.
Interviewer: What accomplishments since your brain injury are you proud of?
Sara: There are things that people around me [who were observing my life and my brain injury incident] tell me that are proud of me for but then there are things that I am really happy about [myself]. People around me tell me that you are very successful, because you defended your master’s program successfully and got you PhD [in Physics] after that, you are living independently, you are financially stable and having your own business. But honestly, none of them is as important as being happy and not letting be held back by the disease, which I’m still sometimes affected by. For example, if I want to do any physical activity, I have to first see my doctor and seek his advice to make sure I’m allowed to do it. But [I must say I’m proud of myself] for having the courage to do that [and for wanting to try new physical challemges].
Interviewer: You mentioned you have your own business. May I ask what it is?
Sara: I do tutoring [and having my tutoring company]. I started teaching students when I was 16 years old. [As I mentioned before] I enjoy spending time with teenagers mainly because when I see the world through their eyes, the world is very different. In their world, everything is possible. For example it’s possible to travel to Mars, or conquer Mount Everest and to be successful without any hesitation. They are not scared in life, and [this spirit] helps me a lot.
Interviewer: Is this your side job?
Sara: People consider this as my side job [because I have a fulltime job at BC Cancer Agency] but to me, it’s my main job. The research work that I do at BC Cancer Agency satisfies half of me and tutoring and interacting with kids satisfies other part of me.
Interviewer: How has your life changed since the incident?
Sara: Before the incident I was more goal-oriented and my goals were defined by the society. I was coming from the best University [nationwide] in Iran and was a very good student. My life was all about accomplishing things that were valued by the society. After the incident, however; even though I still cannot say I don’t care [about my image in the eye of other] people, but I certainly care about feeing happy a lot more. Whenever I decide to do something I ask myself two [and only these two] questions. Does it make me happy? Do I hurt anyone? If the answer to the first question is yes and no to the second one, I will definitely go ahead and do it.
Interviewer: How did this transition happen?
Sara: It certainly did not happen overnight. I remember after my stroke which was a Thrombosis, I went through a lot of ups and downs. I ended up having a severe depression and it took me almost 7 years to come out of it. In those 7 years I never thought I will be happy again but like I said I kept trying and believing that a miracle will happen to me.
Interviewer: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself early in your recovery, what would you say?
Sara: That’s a very difficult question [to answer]. When you are very sick you think to yourself that you can always rely on people that are close to you. However; in my case there were people who barely knew me and yet played a significant role in my recovery without expecting anything in return. I have a friend now who wasn’t really a friend at the time of my brain injury; she had just seen me once at a dinner gathering as part of a large social event. But when she heard about my incident she visited me and spent 3 days by my bedside. Even though I knew quite a few friends in that city, this girl was the only one who showed up to assist me. So my message to myself would be trust people, even if you don’t know them.
Interviewer: What do you want people to know about brain injuries?
Sara: There are two classes of people when it comes to brain injuries. People who experience the injury, and people who are around them. I would like to invite those who are surrounding a patient with brain injury, and particularly healthcare staff, to trust the feedback they receive from the patient. I had many experiences with not being believed by doctors when I explained my situation to them. About two years ago I was at VGH because I had severe and resisting headaches. The doctors finally sent me for a CT after 2 or 3 nights of me insisting on it and telling them about my history. After I had the CT done the doctor came to me and said that he thinks I am having another stroke. My feedback to the doctor was that I don’t agree because I feel very differently from last time, but the doctor insisted that this is another stroke and I have to start taking a medication and be on it for the rest of my life. I was very anxious for about an hour after which the doctor came to me and apologized for his mistake because he figured out that he was not very careful with evaluating my test results. [The doctor could have saved me a lot of trouble and stress if he had listened carefully to my feedback in first place]. And my message to patients is to know and believe that it’s not the end of the world. It’s not that you will not be able to do anything anymore. And that you will get better gradually, and not just by doing the exercises recommended by doctors and nurses but by [changing the way you look at things and by] changing your mind.
Interviewer: So you want the healthcare associates to understand and connect with patients more?
Sara: Exactly. And in fact I know a professor at UBC whose focus of research is on this topic and I am assigned to be part of that study.
Interviewer: What was the hardest obstacle you had to go through since acquiring your brain injury?
Sara: At the time of injury half of my body was numb. I wasn’t able to talk, walk or move and I had double vision. However; since my recovery was relatively fast and after a few months I seemed to be having recovered 100% miraculously, in case of problems that were happening to me afterwards and were related to my stroke it was very difficult to convince doctors of existing problems, in particular the depression that I had. For people who were seeing my life, I had a perfectly normal life, I got my PhD [from Simon Fraser University, Physics Department] and right away found a job. But I was still suffering [from PTSD in the inside and what was making it even more difficult was that no one believed me]. It took me a long time to start believing in myself and overcoming my depression.
Interviewer: You said your recovery was fast. Does this mean you got recovered 100% right after you got dismissed from the hospital? If not, what are some of the examples of challenges and obstacles?
Sara: What I meant by fast was in compared with other brain injured patients. Like I mentioned before, I still had numbness in my arm and leg after months and consequently could not get out of bed. I remember that one of those days that I was struggling to start walking again, I tried to walk for a few meters without any assistant, just because I really needed to know and feel that I can again do what I used to do very easily before. Another example is that I still have migraine which is a reminder of my stroke. And in addition to these I also had CSF leak 3, 4 years after my Thrombosis and I had to do surgery on my base skull because there were 3 holes on it. So I have a long history of going to the hospital and coming out.
Interviewer: Did you have any change in emotions such as happiness, euphoria, depression, anger and anxiety after your brain injury? If so, how did you deal with them?
Sara: Yes, all of these emotions have changed. For example, sometimes I feel really happy when I think about the fact that I can move my fingers, when I remember that 10 years ago [this was a dream for me]. I remember very well the happiness I felt the first time I could finally move my fingers and [that happiness stayed with me, I still appreciate that I can actually move my fingers]. Or when I was trying hard to manage my eye muscles to focus and give me one picture of things, and not two. Moreover; I went through many stages of anger after the stroke, mainly because I was questioning again and again why I should be the one person that this happened to. I was also angry at the drug company that provided the birth control pill I used and had such a big side effect on me. And I was mad at the doctors who couldn’t diagnose my disease at first. There were a lot of anger but I learned to leave them behind and move on because I realized I cannot keep reminding myself about mistakes that other people made. But the one thing that stroke gave to me that is still with me is anxiety. I know many people have anxiety these days but mine is directly related to my incident.
Interviewer: So can we say that after your stroke you appreciate your health more and you don’t take it for granted?
Sara: Yes, for sure.
Interviewer: In what ways does your brain injury still affect you today? How do you deal with it?
Sara: I still get Migraine and get scared and anxious. If I get a severe headache [I panic because I think I might be experiencing another stroke]. I need to evaluate many aspects of any new activity that I’d like to try, to make sure it is suitable for my condition. For example, I like adventures and I really wanted to experience skydiving. But before that I had to meet 3 to 4 different doctors to test me and to make sure skydiving is safe for me.
Interviewer: What are you looking forward to?
Sara: The main thing is to be happy and to stay happy. In this experience one thing I learned for sure is that I should live the way that if my life ends a second later I have no regrets. During the past 10 years I was trying to live like this. [Even though] I was a happy girl to begin with, but I used to spend a lot of time and energy on studying hard [to make sure I build a bright future for myself] but now I don’t let my happiness and the happiness of people around me to wait for later. This is a general picture of what I look forward to. But specifically I am looking forward to my trip to Argentina [in December this year] for summiting one of the 7 summits of the world. I am really looking forward to standing on top of one of the highest mountains of the world, [proud and strong,] on the 10thanniversary of my brain stroke.
Interviewer: I congratulate you on your success of overcoming the obstacles and becoming a person that the society is proud of.
Sara: Thank you.
Interviewer: And thank you.