After months of rehabilitation Ellen learned to speak and walk again and ran in a marathon relay in aid of the brain injury charity that helped her
The weather had been kind, the roads were surprisingly good and the cycle from home in Edinburgh out to North Berwick was exhilarating.
Ellen Verth and her partner Brian Bould were on the final stretch, carefully rolling down a hill leading into the seaside town, him in front, her just behind. It was, remembers Brian, an ordinary Sunday in September. There was nothing at all to suggest that in one horrifying moment both their lives would be dramatically changed forever.
It’s just as well, perhaps, that Ellen, a successful independent businesswoman, can’t remember what happened next.
It would be many weeks later, having fought back from the brink of death, before the 52-year-old would be able to think straight, talk, eat and walk.
Brian fills in the blanks. At some point she braked, he explains, so hard that her bike twisted beneath her, propelling her forwards over the handlebars with such brute force that when she slammed onto the road, she then just kept on rolling.
He adds: “I heard the crash. I stopped, went back and knew right away that she had broken her arm and gashed her eye.
“She had her helmet on, so I thought she’d hit her eye on the road. But it turned out it was her chin she’d hit and the helmet had made no difference at all.”
Ellen’s chin had taken the full force of her fall. She’d fractured her jaw, her cheek bones were smashed and her eye socket damaged.
She was left with nerve damage that would affect her vision and paralyse her arm for months. Her skull was fractured too and pressure was building on her brain.
There has never been any clear explanation for what happened. For want of a better explanation, it was a freak accident, one which may send a gentle reminder to the increasing numbers of cyclists taking to Lothian’s roads of just how vulnerable they are on two wheels – even with a helmet on.
Today, the only obvious sign of her six torturous months in hospital is the deep scar which runs just under Ellen’s chin.
Her recovery has been astonishing. Having spent weeks hovering between life and death in intensive care as pressure on her brain left her in a coma, she recently defied all the odds and embarked on a fundraising run as a “thank you” to Headway, the brain injury support charity that has helped her and Brian through their darkest moments.
While physically she seems fine, an invisible trauma to her brain has left her struggling to do tasks which she once used to speed through, grounding her high-flying career – perhaps for good, no-one yet knows – and forced Ellen and Brian to rethink their whole future lives.
Back in September, however, as surgeons at the Western General Hospital prepared to operate to release pressure on Ellen’s brain, the future looked particularly bleak and Brian was being gently warned by staff to prepare himself for the worst.
The procedure had to be repeated hours later as Ellen’s brain continued to swell so much that a portion of her skull had to be opened to help release the pressure.
Five days’ later and still in a coma, she underwent surgery to repair facial damage.
Medics warned it was essential to help save her life as pain from Ellen’s injuries was affecting her brain, putting it under further stress.
Brian spent hour after exhausting hour by Ellen’s side, talking to her about holidays and family and willing her to pull through.
Three weeks after the accident and still in a deep coma Ellen was returned to the operating theatre for more surgery – this time a shunt to help relieve the build up of pressure affecting her brain.
“We were talking to her and trying to get some reaction the whole time,” recalls Brian, 52, an account manager at Xerox.
“We put pictures around the walls of her hospital room of family and friends and talked to her constantly about holidays and cycling and skiing, but there was nothing. It was 24-7 of just worry.”
Eventually, there was a breakthrough and Ellen slowly began to come around.
Her right arm seemed paralysed and her right eye was damaged – giving her double vision which only caused her further confusion. Finally she began to try to speak.
It was the beginning of months of slow recuperation. And while Ellen battled to recover from her various injuries and hospital acquired infections, Brian was trying to handle the stress of spending endless hours by her bedside, watching helplessly as her petite frame shrank from 8.5 stones to under seven as she struggled to eat.
“In a lot of ways it was actually worse for him than it was for me,” says Ellen, who until the accident ran her own fund administration consultancy business, a role which meant regular trips to London to work with some of the country’s leading firms.
“I was completely out of it and didn’t know much about what was happening.
“Brian was left with all the stress and worry – he even had to step in and try to sort out things like my business accounts.”
Brian found out about the charity Headway, based in the grounds of Astley Ainslie Hospital where Ellen was finally moved.
It provides vital support to patients with brain injuries and their families. As the weeks in hospital rolled into months, the charity was able to help guide Brian through what to expect next.
In spite of medics’ original fears, Ellen made a slow but astonishing recovery.
While her brain trauma left her confused and with short-term memory problems, by December she was using a frame to support her as she tried to walk.
She left hospital in mid-February to return to the couple’s comfortable home in Mortonhall Road, in the Grange.
Since then she has used Headway’s gym facilities to build her strength. She has been coaxed by former Royal Marine Mark Waugh, who has traded 24 years working with some of the country’s toughest military men and women in physical training and outdoor adventure, to work with often vulnerable and frail brain injury survivors.
Under his guidance and driven by her determination to get well, Ellen recently put on her running shoes to take part in the Hairy Haggis Relay – part of the Edinburgh Marathon, in which teams split the 26.2-mile course into four sections – and has so far raised more than £4220 for the brain injury charity.
“I used to ski, cycle and run, and being quite fit before the accident definitely helped me recover. Now I’ve run around 8km in the Hairy Haggis relay, I’m going to try to run 10k.
“It’s a bit soon to think about cycling,” adds Ellen, whose mangled bike is stored in the shed. “But I do miss cycling and our outings to North Berwick or Musselburgh. I love skiing but I think that might be too scary for me now too.” That she can’t actually remember if she ever ran an entire marathon in the past, is just one small sign of the everyday battle she endures to remember chunks of her life before the accident
“Right now I still feel I’m a fraction of myself,” she adds, sadly.
There is, nods Brian, a long way still to go. Whether Ellen can return to work remains to be seen, bringing obvious implications for the couple’s income, and while her arm is no longer frozen – incredibly, a dose of Botox helped solve that – and her vision has dramatically improved, her brain injuries mean she is still very much in ‘recovery mode’.
The main thing, he shrugs, is that things could have been worse. “Going through this had changed our lives so much,” he adds.
“But whenever I’m struggling to deal with all this, I think of what Ellen has been through.”
Headway Edinburgh, based in the grounds of the Astley Ainslie hospital, offers rehab, advice and companionship to people with brain injuries. There is also support available for carers and relatives.
It has a gym and offers relaxation therapies such as tai chi, fun activities like bingo and runs regular outings.
The charity’s befriending programme puts volunteers in touch with people affected by brain trauma, providing vital respite for carers and relatives.
Michelle Kennan, chief executive of Headway Edinburgh, says Ellen has made a remarkable recovery.
“She has done brilliantly – her recovery has blown us all way. She is such a strong person with a really positive attitude. She’s determined to keep getting better, and is an inspiration.
“Brain injury is an invisible disability,” she adds. “You can’t actually see what is going on, but sometimes people will have personality changes, anger management problems, memory loss, or difficulties doing things that most of us take granted.
“Sometimes someone will also have physical disabilities to cope with too. It can all put pressure on relatives and carers.”
l For more information about Headway Edinburgh, go to www.edinburghheadway.org.uk or call 0131-537 9116