‘A completely altered, unchosen reality’: Life after a road crash

Rehabilitation continues for Laura Doherty, a decade suffering a severe brain injury

Laura Doherty was in a car crash in 2009. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Laura Doherty was in a car crash in 2009. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

 

Dr Laura Doherty finished a shift in Dublin’s Temple Street Hospital on February 23rd, 2009 and set off for Sligo, where she had an interview for a place on a GP scheme.

Tired after a lengthy day at work and driving in dark, foggy conditions, the doctor attempted to pull out from behind a bus and was hit by an oncoming van. She was taken to Mullingar Hospital, where a severe brain injury was detected, and then transferred to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.

After three months in Beaumont, Doherty spent a further nine months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. She remembers nothing of her time there.

Doherty left hospital and spent six months switching between a wheelchair and walking frame, but 10 years on she is able to walk unaided and splits the week between her family home in Longford and her siblings’ homes in Dublin.

She enjoys painting, giving talks on brain injuries in schools and aims to live a fulfilling life, visiting relatives in Singapore and California and holidaying across Europe.

However, the impact of the accident lingers. Doherty struggles with memory loss, cognitive problems and mental health difficulties, and developed epilepsy a year after leaving the rehabilitation hospital.

“My accident turned my life around,” she says. “I loved sport, I loved my job, I had a nice social life and all of that was lost.

“Fatigue is the big problem, I’m constantly tired. Apparently fatigue is the most common problem after a brain injury. I’m a doctor and I didn’t know that.”

Rehabilitation

She says the rehabilitation process “is non-stop” but she has been greatly helped by her “amazing” family, which includes three sisters and two brothers.

Orla, one of Doherty’s sisters, says there are limitations when it comes to rehabilitation care in Ireland.

“There is a renewed trauma when you return home, because you go from acute rehab care to limited support from home, particularly for cognitive rehabilitation,” Orla says. “Unless you have a supportive family to help you to return to a social level, it is extremely difficult and very unfair.”

“It is a completely altered, unchosen reality, but we’d like to give [people in a similar position] the hope that you can improve.”

Prof Mark Delargy, the surgeon in charge of Doherty’s treatment at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, says “we achieved as much as we could but some challenges were insurmountable” in her case.

On the wider subject of road traffic accidents, Delargy notes a “trend of decreasing road deaths and an increasing number of accidents resulting in severe, long-term disability”.

There were 146 fatalities on the State’s roads last year, but he says for each of these eight people are seriously injured. As a result, the service at the Dún Laoghaire hospital is strained.

An average of 150 patients are awaiting treatment for brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs or other neurological conditions.