'Man, that's tough work': Rescuer who survived serious head injury shares her story
Published Thursday, May 2, 2019 2:38PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 2, 2019 7:18PM PDT
Talk to Kayla Brolly for even a few moments and her warmth, energy and drive to help others is instantly apparent.
But behind her ready smile, the veteran emergency room nurse and North Shore Rescue volunteer is constantly monitoring herself for concussion symptoms and is militant about maintaining her sleep schedule – a year and a half after surviving an accident that could’ve killed her.
“I was wearing my helmet, even though I wasn’t doing anything high risk,” says Brolly, describing the December 2017 medical rescue mission on the North Shore. "We were doing a grid search on a pretty steep slope and it was the first snowfall of the year. My left leg was downhill and I remember stepping into some loose rocks, which I think kicked out the butt of it and it fell uphill onto my head.”
It knocked her down, but Brolly credits the adrenaline rush from the critical rescue mission with numbing the effect of the impact. She doesn’t like to think about what would’ve happened had she not been wearing a helmet.
The ER nurse only realized something was wrong as she started experiencing some vision problems while going home after the rescue and didn’t go to a hospital until the next morning. Brolly was diagnosed with a minor traumatic brain injury and began a long recovery with successes and setbacks that continue to frustrate her. She was ultimately diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
"You're super freaked out, you're worried – are you going to be like that forever? There's a lot of pain with headaches, terrible fatigue,” she says. “You just don't feel like yourself at all. You just are moving through the day in a fog and there's a lot of worry you're not going to be able to get back to the things you love doing and what is your life going to look like long-term."
Until that point, the 31-year-old had been an incredibly active person, having worked as a ski patrol staffer and rapattack forest firefighter before qualifying for the physically-grueling and demanding job of being a North Shore Rescue volunteer.
The only way for her brain to heal was to avoid stimulation from the lights and sounds of an emergency room, television and reading. Brolly found herself spending days in her bedroom simply looking at photos of her life before the accident.
“At the beginning it was, you get up at the start of the day and wear clean clothes. That is the goal for the day,” she said. “You think you're going crazy. You have all these feelings that take you away from yourself and it's quite scary and alarming.”
“She is a role model for my children,” said North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks. “I have all girls and Kayla shows she can do anything and she looks out for everybody before herself."
Danks is glad Brolly is speaking out about her experience, which highlights the risk rescue volunteers take every time they’re on a mission.
“It's something a lot of people take for granted,” he said. “They think we're paid and that we have to do this job, but we're volunteering our time, sacrificing our time, and when these type of injuries happen, it takes a huge amount of time to recover from and it has a profound effect on the person who gets injured."
He saw first-hand how Brolly was struggling mentally and emotionally through her recovery, while looking well.
“I think she's representing people that do have head injuries. They need to take the time and I guess the real challenge is you don't get to see that she's injured," Danks said.
HealthLink BC points out someone doesn’t have to pass out to experience a traumatic brain injury and that some people will recover within hours, while others can take weeks or even longer. The four main categories of symptoms are:
- Problems thinking and remembering
- Physical effects like nausea, blurry vision, dizziness and sensitivity to light and noise
- Emotional and mood impacts including being easily upset
- Sleep problems
“When you go out and see people and they say 'You look great and you're not trapped in bed,' and all this stuff you sometimes have to say 'No, every day is hard. Every day is a struggle,' but you have to keep moving," said Brolly.
What she thought would be a gradual work return of a few weeks took her nine months. She now works eight-hour shifts, but only during the day so she can stick to her sleep schedule. At the first hint of feeling unwell, she drinks extra water and starts managing her symptoms so they don’t escalate.
While she’s back to volunteering with North Shore Recue, she’s mostly sticking to logistical support during the day as she continues to get her strength up and let her body heal. But Brolly isn’t letting her injury derail her life plans, continuing to study for medical school entrance exams and determined to going back to the rescue work she did before.
“I'm so grateful for everything. Everything has such a different lens to it. It's really made me appreciate how hard my job is and the people around me, like how difficult it is to do that work and how hard it is to be part of the rescue team," she said.
"Before I had no perspective, I just did it. But then when you have to work for every inch you realize man, that's tough work. So I have to just look around at the people I work with and I just think you guys are special people: this is hard work.”