‘I’m very proud of my team and our brain injury survivors’

Health Hero: Joanne Farrell is a dedicated advocate for people living with brain injuries

Joanne Farrell, local services manager of Acquired Brain Injury Ireland: “Every brain injury is unique.” Photograph: Eamon Ward

Joanne Farrell, local services manager of Acquired Brain Injury Ireland: “Every brain injury is unique.” Photograph: Eamon Ward


“Brain injury is a hidden phenomenon in our society and nobody ever thinks it will happen to them,” says Joanne Farrell. “But it happens to 35 people in this country every day, often leaving them with a chronic and ongoing condition that can affect their lives and those of their family for months, years and even decades after the initial injury.”

Joanne – who lives in the coastal town of Kilrush in Co Clare – is a long-time, dedicated advocate for people living with, and recovering from, brain injuries. She works as a local services manager with Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, which provides community neuro-rehabilitation services, running both residential and community services in Clare catering for as many 40 brain injury survivors in the region.

An estimated 13,000 people acquire a brain injury every year in Ireland and these can be the result of stroke, assault, concussion, viral infections and road traffic accidents including pedal cycling accidents.

Married to Nevin Farrell – and with four grown-up children, Adrian (36), Frank (30), Aisling (28) and Emma (25) – Joanne is passionate about access to rehabilitation for young people struck by brain injury, and is our Health Hero for this week.

1. What is your proudest achievement?

“My proudest achievement is having the privilege to play a role in helping 11 brain injury survivors return to independent living since 2005. Every brain injury is unique and the deficits affecting people can vary in degree from mild to severe. My job is to help all our brain injury survivors achieve their full potential and to regain as much independence as possible. It is an incredible feeling to see those who make a return to full independent living. In Clare, I manage two residential services catering for eight people with a mix of short-term and long-term residents. Additionally, I run a team that delivers rehabilitation to a further 30 people in the community where they live.

“But it isn’t just the big wins that make me proud. With rehabilitation, the wins are often small and incremental and they are every bit as rewarding. I’m very proud of my team and our brain injury survivors when they reach their goals doing everyday things like going to the shop or rekindling a relationship. I had one young man who was non verbal and after two years of building a relationship with him, the day he said ‘hello Joanne’ was unforgettable. These small moments are wonderful. Watching our people make progress and have choice and freedom, you can’t put a price on that feeling.”

2. What motivates you in your work and life?

“I’m motivated by the fact that I live and I work according to what I believe in. I love my work and from the very first moment, I fell in love with the ethos and mission. The core values really speak to what I believe in my own life with my family – sharing everyday places, dignity and respect, choices, relationships and contribution. They are so basic and practical in everyone’s life, regardless of brain injury. Everyone deserves to have an everyday place to go to and to have a friend to talk to. Underlying everything is my family and then always knowing that our brain injury survivors need me and depend on me.

“I believe that people with brain injuries or disabilities have a vital role to play in society. As much as you or I, they deserve the opportunity to participate in normal community interactions and share in everyday places. I particularly love that our brain injury survivors are fully involved in the design and development of their individual rehabilitation plan – it isn’t decided for them, it doesn’t happen to them – they choose, they contribute. With a great culture you also get a great team and there is no doubt that the team motivates me as well.”

3. What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

“It’s very emotional work and I make sure to look after myself. I also have a very strong family network. At times I like my own space and it really helps to clear my head to go swimming, walking or to yoga and I do these activities every week. They’re my form of mindfulness and they really help to get rid of the clutter in my head. Having strong family support and spending time with them always makes me feel good.”

4. What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

“At Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, our ethos is built around a person-centred approach and in my view this is the only approach for our healthcare system, for our government, for living. Too many people are left on the margins of society for a variety of reasons and it boils down to the old adage – what gets measured, gets done. The problem is that as a society, we are looking at and measuring the wrong things. People with brain injury are often hidden in our society – too many young people are consigned to live in highly inappropriate settings such as nursing homes and community hospitals or at home where families don’t understand what’s wrong with them. Saving lives is only the beginning.”

5. What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“I believe it is important that our healthcare system is catering for people through all stages of need, not just acute stages. Such an approach will be more efficient and effective in the long term. Cost-cutting is not the answer, the country needs a quality of life focus across all health service delivery. We ran a campaign called, Don’t Save Me, Then Leave Me, to highlight the plight of young brain injury survivors, who despite their young age, were misplaced in nursing homes because there were no rehabilitation places for them.

“Rehabilitation is the Cinderella of the health service and we as a nation, need to focus on quality of life for all people. More widely in our society, I would like to see companies, organisations and communities proactively embracing diversity and creating opportunities for accessibility and employability for people with disabilities. Some improvements are visible but there is so much more to be done.”

6. What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

“The fact is that more and more people are now surviving with their injury due to incredible advances in technology and science, however, these larger survival rates place ever increasing demands on rehabilitation services right across the pathway.”

7. How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

“We need a much more co-ordinated approach to providing rehabilitation services across the pathway from hospital to home. There is a particular dearth in community rehab services and we need the minister to provide the leadership and investment necessary to develop the necessary services. There’s no doubt that a strong focus on acute hospital services is vital to save lives but without rehabilitation services to support people with brain injuries, the hospitals are clogged with people who no longer need to be there. Worse still, without rehabilitation places available, vital time is lost to capitalise on the window to rewire brain cells. In most case, the earlier people start rehabilitation, the better for their recovery.”

8. What do you do to relax or unwind?

“Spending time with my family relaxes me and we have a lot of family get togethers at the weekend. I especially adore my grandchildren and they certainly help me to unwind by just spending time with them and getting all those cuddles! I also enjoy swimming, walking, yoga and cooking.”

9. What makes you laugh?

“A good girls’ night out having a catch up and a good laugh.”

10. Where would you like to live other than lreland and why?

“I already live in the best place and that is in Kilrush my home town, I would not want to live anywhere else. Kilrush has a beautiful marina, the Vandeleur walled gardens are a treat to walk through and have a cup of coffee. I am well known in Kilrush and most of my family live there, I feel I am very fortunate.”

- Do you know a Health Hero? Every week, we will honour one of the people deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate someone, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes

Our Health Heroes
1 - Martin Nevin: Even unwashed and medicated up to my eyes, Martin makes me feel beautiful
2 - Maureen Durcan: That so many live on the poverty line in Ireland is incredibly sad
3 - John Burke: Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain
4 - Derek Devoy: The Kilkenny taxi man whose drive saves lives
5 - Sarah Fitzgibbon: Society has to stop treating the marginalised and disabled as charity cases
6 - Kathleen King: I wanted to make sure no one else would have to wait nine years for a diagnosis
7 - Caoimhe Bennett: The schoolgirl raising understanding about young carers
8 - Ann Norton: Our hospitals are a disgrace. We are letting down our doctors, nurses and whole society
9 - Una McNicholas: My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister
10 - Catherine Cox: Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role they did not ask for
11 - Prof Rose Anne Kenny: Good friendships make for a healthy life as much as regular exercise and healthy diet
12 - Dr Robert O’Connor: Within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine and screening
13 - Claire Cahill and Michelle Long: Scoliosis campaigners battling to reduce waiting times for children
14 - Prof Donal O’Shea: The shocking fact is that most ill-health now comes from our lifestyle
15 - Nuala Geraghty: Every time we place a dog, it’s like giving new life to each family
16 - Mavis Ubuntu: Cooking was a right that was taken away from us
17 - Krysia Lynch: A healthy society starts in utero
18 - Paula Robinson: The self-sacrifice that carers make on a daily basis is immense
19 - Joanne Farrell: ‘I’m very proud of my team and our brain injury survivors’

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