Lovely. That's the word that best describes how it is catching up with Lorraine these days. This is my first time speaking to her since her accident, and, if anything, her English is better than before. It has become a terminally endearing blend of Swiss-Yorkshire English that is as unique as Lorraine. With the five hours in the car to get home from where she lives near Verbier, Switzerland, there is plenty of time to reflect and try and wrap my head around the right words. The cliché would be to say it's hard to talk to her, but that's bullshit. Mainly because it's not hard to chat with her. She's still fun, intelligent and full of life. She is still the pocket rocket. When we are finished with the photos she is eager to show off how she can skid her electric wheelchair. After an hour she is too tired to carry on speaking, she needs sleep. I climb into my car, put some good music on and hit the road homewards. Lorraine may never be able to do those things again. My side of things looks pretty easy when you look at it like that.
Imagine being young.
Those years in your early twenties are some of the best in this life. The awkward teenage years are starting to slip behind you and your future rolls out ahead of you like a thundercloud.
Imagine you're talented.
Not just in one direction, but two. Not only are you one of the best up and coming racers in the world, excitedly planning your races at the EWS and the World Cup DH, but you just landed your dream job as an engineer for BMC.
Now imagine crashing.
Not a big one, you can walk away from it, but you hit your head. Nothing seems broken so you keep going. The EWS is just days away and you can barely contain your excitement. You know, if you're honest with yourself, that something is not quite right. But you're too excited to slow down, you can still ride, still race. So you do. It feels so good.
Imagine crashing again.
You're at the EWS this time and again you hit your head and, again, it doesn't seem too bad. You even finish your run. Then the symptoms start...
This is when the nightmare begins.
"It was really hard to accept what was happening," Lorraine recalls. "I'm not saying that if you get paralyzed in a crash you accept it, but you know straight away. If you listen to the TED Talk by Martyn Ashton
, he said he was in the MRI and knew it. I thought I would be back on my bike for the next race. It could have been I recovered very fast. My doctor said, 'Okay, not the next race, but maybe the one after.' He went on like that for a couple of months when we were really hoping I would recover really fast. It didn't happen." That is one of the harshest realities of living with a brain injury, it is a field of medicine where uncertainty is the norm. There is no x-ray, MRI or ultrasound to check how damaged your brain is. Everyone responds differently, so what may have worked for one patient may be completely useless for another. You are thrust into a world where the prognosis is unclear and the future unpromised.
"Because I look ‘normal,’ I feel ashamed of how much I struggle. I never say anything and simply try to deal with it." When Lorraine tells you that, it's hard for your heart not to break for her. Then she goes on to explain the full depth of her symptoms and it is impossible to know what to say. "First there are the physical symptoms. Those are easier to explain, as these are things people can imagine. I have headaches all the time. I have kind of got used to it and with the medication and rest management, it is mostly at a level that I can tolerate. When it gets too much a silent dark room is still the solution. I also am nauseous most of the time. Here, too, it has become ok to just live with it. It just gets hard when I vomit or when the nausea is really strong in the night. Both of those symptoms are very sensitive to outside stimulation and cognitive effort."
"I also have a right side paresis, which is like a ‘soft’ version of a paralysis. It means that the function of my brain that controls my right side is not automatic anymore, so moving can get really difficult. I also don’t feel this side very well. It's as if a chunk of me was missing, or more precisely was not solid anymore. It can be quite tough because I can see that I have a right side, but my brain doesn't know it is there. For example, if I look down I often feel like my right leg is a prosthetic."
"Then there are all the symptoms that are much harder to explain in a way that people without a brain injury can understand. I call them 'scrambled eggs brain'. It's as if it all is mixed in my head. I know it is there, but I don't know how to access it and it can take a tremendous amount of energy to do so. It means that most of the time I feel lost, I am easily distracted and absent. I feel like I am in a fog and things that were natural can become a challenge. For me, this is really hard because it is constant. There is no way out.
"Finally my brain has a really hard time processing stimulation. A noise, a touch, a fast motion of my head or some little thing can be exhausting. It means that even if I still want to do a thousand things it is just not possible because it is always too much and even in a really protected environment my brain's fuel tank empties at an unimaginable rate. All of this is even harder to live with because it is ‘invisible’. If you have a broken shoulder, people will know not to tap on it but no one can see that I cannot stand the lightest of touches on my right side."
A life that was not long ago full of plans to travel the world, chase dreams and live every single second is now caged. Every night she needs 12-14 hours sleep just to recover from the day before. Reduced to a small radius around her home, constrained by the constant need to rest, rehab and medicate. It has also taken her bikes away from her. "If you injure your leg or something, you find a way to work around it and still follow your dream, you can still do something. With my brain injury, it isn't possible, working around anything isn't possible. Biking is not possible for me just now, because moving on a bike is so difficult. I'm doing a bit on a balance bike, like a kid. We've taken away the pedalling part, but even with that, after a minute or two, I'm just like, 'oof, that's pretty hard.' But just that feeling of the handlebars, just your hand on the grip, that's really good. I can skid a bit, which is quite nice. It's still the dream."
Lorraine doesn't like to dwell on the negatives. She acknowledges that there have been some "really, really, really tough moments," but doesn't linger on the topic. Aside from the physical symptoms of her injury, there is a huge emotional side – it is well-documented that brain trauma can lead to difficulties regulating emotions and depression. Add to that mix the obvious chance of situational depression – the kind of depression triggered by a life event, like a life-changing injury – then it is hard to imagine how she hasn't had to deal with life when it is as dark as it can get.
Asking her if she has any advice for young racers, her reply is the perfect reminder that although she's struggling, the same, smart Lorraine is still there underneath the symptoms. "To a young rider, I think I would say that if you hit your head, even though you can keep riding, you're actually not riding well. Because if you tell a young rider 'you might have problems in the future,' I don't know, I think the will to go riding is bigger than anything that might happen in the future. I think telling them, 'you would ride much better if you stop for a week or two than if you keep trying and pushing through the symptoms.' I think that hopefully is a message that will get through to them.
"I think to any rider who's really serious about competing, I would say, 'before anything happens, find a sports doctor. Just go, present yourself, so you know you've got one if something happens, like a concussion. In the ER they're just going to check that you're not going to die... The ER doctors are just going to send you away. Having a doctor who knows about concussion and brain injuries and that you can feel okay to go to and tell what's happening, I think that's something we should have."
Leaving, it is hard not lapse back into bullshit clichés. What you really want to tell her is "it's going to be ok, it's going to get better." But you cannot because no matter how much you may wish things were going to get better for her, the truth is that Lorraine doesn't know what the future holds. Medical science has little to offer. Miracles only happen on TV. The only certainty is hard work and, if she's lucky, a little progress. I admit this to Lorraine. Her reply will stay with me for the rest of my life.
"That's actually a really nice thing to say because for me it's much more touching to have someone saying this to me than someone telling me, 'Oh, you'll be all right,' and then walking away. For them, that's it. They walked away and it's finished. They start their life again. While I'm just stuck like this..."