Nicole Yeates’ survival after a shocking motorcycle accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury at the age of 16 is the tale of a series of coincidences, minor miracles and sheer determination.
Riding to play basketball on a rainy night on June 19, 1987, Nicole was struck by a car as she crossed through a roundabout in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The car didn’t see me,” she says.
“The lights went out on the bike as I approached the roundabout - my plan was to get to the other side and then stop.
“I was dragged 200m and the bike was still attached to the bumper bar.
“It broke off at 1000m. When it disentangled it took his licence plate.
“He was an unlicenced man in his 20s – he got 200 hours of community work and a $60 fine.”
Nicole recalls nothing of the accident and its aftermath – she still has partial amnesia as a result of her head injuries.
But her mum has filled in the gaps. On the night of the crash Nicole died three times, her mother was asked to sign organ donor forms and the doctors offered no hope.
“I was left in the middle of the road for dead – as luck would have it, I was found by a nurse who worked in the spinal unit in Christchurch and he had oxygen in his car.
“He thought I was just a jacket on the road when he found me.
“Because of his work, he knew I had either spinal or brain injuries or both.
“He resuscitated me while we waited for the ambulance, which got there 30 minutes later. It was a dark and rainy night, so they were busy with accidents.”
On the same night another patient was brought to the same hospital, having also been in a motorbike accident.
“Another boy came in (to hospital) on the same night. He’d had a bike accident too. We had the name surname, but different spelling.
“Tim and I mirrored each other (in their journey through the hospital), so our families went through it together.
“He died on the seventh of July. I opened my eyes on the day Tim was buried.
“It was a slow coming out. My body was so damaged it couldn’t control my own temperature – I wasn’t hungry for a year – except for mum’s lasagne.”
Nicole firmly believes she survived her accident for a reason.
“I had a near-death experience and I was told I had more to teach - attitude is everything, you have a choice.”
When Nicole woke after three weeks in a deep coma, specialists said she would never walk, finish school or find anything other than menial employment.
Determined to succeed
Instead, the Woody Point resident defied their predictions and with courage, determination and sheer hard work, she not only walked, but completed school, trained as a beauty therapist and later built a successful career as a rehabilitation counsellor.
“The doctors didn’t think I would finish school, do meaningful work. They had me relegated to a sheltered workshop.
“I wrote to the doctor when I got my degree – a Bachelor of Human Services with a major in Rehabilitation Counselling.”
This year she published a book about her experiences – Holding onto Hope: Finding the 'New You' after a Traumatic Brain Injury - which has reached number one on Amazon.
“It’s a memoir/self-help autobiographical book with an allied health professional hat on,” Nicole says.
“Before I started writing I researched comprehensively - there’s a lot of hard luck stories for hard luck’s sake. The other realm was highly religious-focused.
“There was not really anything out there that was `a terrible thing has happened and here’s some steps to help’.”
Hope for recovery
When Nicole began her healing journey, experts believed the possibility of recovery had a limited timeframe.
“They know now that neuroplasticity you can regrow at any age.
“The doctors didn’t know back then and we were told it’s two years and that’s the end of recovery.
“15 years later my brain was still improving – there’s no end of story with brain injury healing.”
Nicole attributes her remarkable recovery to a combination of factors.
“They didn’t take into account my support system and that I am stubborn,” she says.
“The medical specialists kept me alive, but it took a lot more than that.
“My mother did everything – we consulted spiritual healers, I had speech therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, hydrotherapy.”
Nicole has worked with a development team on a mobile phone app called RETIINK – a combination of the words rethink and tinker.
It is a memory management app specifically designed for people with brain injury – whether that’s dementia or traumatic brain injury.
“There are blogs, games, setting appointments, reading and a points system to reach new levels.
“The user can invite their carer into the appointments, so they can use it together,” she says.
Having spent years concealing the challenges she faces as a result of her traumatic brain injury, Nicole is determined to use her experience to give hope to others.
“I have spent 33 years hiding my brain injury, now I am telling the world.”
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