Long journey back from brain injury
Mark Thomas' life came crashing to a halt in 2006 after he "smashed his head" into a microwave-sized rock while mountainbiking downhill.
He suffered a serious head injury and had to learn to walk and talk again.
"That was the start of a huge journey," he said. "I basically had to re-learn everything."
After a long, slow recovery, Mr Thomas, 45, returned to work two months ago, seven years after his accident.
He now works 30 hours a week as a caregiver working with others who have suffered life-changing injuries. He wants them to know there is hope after suffering serious trauma.
"Some people can't get back from brain injuries or mental illness or what happens to them," he said. "I wanted to get better. I wanted to change things in my life. If you make that choice in life and really work hard it will happen to you."
He shared his story with the Nelson Mail to raise awareness of brain injuries - which are often called the hidden injury.
"It's very hard to understand something you can't see."
Mr Thomas was a top mountainbiker in his age group. He also raced speedway bikes and played rugby league.
He was training for the next round in the NZ Cup when he fell on the Broken Axe track on Nelson's Kaka Hill. His bike clipped a small stump, washing out his handle bars. He hit the rock, which moved in the impact, and was knocked out.
Mr Thomas went to work that night but half an hour into his night shift at the MDF plant he suffered a dizzy spell and started vomiting.
"The next thing I knew I was in Nelson Hospital."
After a stay in hospital he was able to return home when a friend left his job to offer him 24-hour support. Then the hard work of re-learning everyday tasks began.
"I couldn't walk for eight months and I had to use a walking frame. I started only getting 20 metres up the road and was exhausted."
His recovery hit a major block when he became deeply depressed and angry. His weight ballooned and he abused alcohol to cope.
Unable to walk, he was forced to face his demons without the help of fast-paced hobbies that had once helped him deal with stress.
After a few years of struggling he made contact with the Brain Injury Association Nelson, which helped him understand about brain injuries and gave him coping strategies.
Other people, including workers at mental health provider Nikau House and neuro-psychologist Elena Moran, helped him immensely. "I couldn't do it myself. [Thinking I could] was the biggest mistake in my life," he said.
"I thought I could manage things when I couldn't. I say that's one big thing to people - that you need to use the resources in the right way to help."
He credits his determination and the slow, steady pace of his recovery to getting through. Staying active and the help he had to do that was also critical.
Fatigue is something brain injury sufferers have to manage and Mr Thomas has learnt to conserve his energy to avoid burnout.
He worked for two years voluntarily to build up his stamina so he could return to work fulltime.
He believed others who did not take the time to prepare their body probably had a greater chance of failing.
Working 30 hours a week is a bittersweet milestone as ACC now views him as independent and has stopped compensation payments. He now has to survive and support his children on a smaller wage.
"For someone who's been out of work for a long time and worked hard to get back to work that's quite a harsh reality to face."
Mr Thomas says despite his injury he is now a better person. Before the accident he could be abrupt and sharp. He now cares about people and wants to help others. "My son said, ‘I love you Dad, you are not a grumpy dad any more', that really made me open my eyes.
"I'm a completely different man to what I was before I had the injury, from the steps I chose to take," he said. "Even though I've a brain injury I'm a smarter and more intelligent man."
From being looked after by the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board he now is looking after others in the care of the health board.
"All the hard things I went through have made me realise I can be quite helpful in working for the DHB and that's why I worked really hard to get this job.
"I get a great satisfaction going home at the end of the day thinking I'm helping them on their path to independence and I'm on my independence path. I'm a happy man now and my life is moving forward every day."
DID YOU KNOW?
Every day 90 people in New Zealand suffer a brain injury. A brain injury occurs when brain cells or pathways connecting them are damaged. There are numerous causes including car crashes, accidents, sports injuries, assaults, brain tumours and neurotoxic disorders. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe. Even a mild brain injury can leave someone with memory and concentration difficulties, fatigue, depression and reduced awareness.
- © Fairfax NZ News