April 07, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Lives Unravelling 

Whistler's concussion victims face a long road to recovery

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY BONNY MAKAREWICZ - DIANE ZIFF
  • Photo by Bonny Makarewicz

Whistler's reputation as a place to push your limits reaches to the injuries sustained here too. Concussions appear to be more severe and take longer to recover from.

It has been termed the "quiet epidemic" with statistics suggesting that more than 37,000 people get concussions in Canada each year. In Whistler it is a brain injury faced by too many. In this two-part series Pique will explore how the injury has unravelled the lives of some and how they are working to regain their everyday existence. Next week Pique will examine the role of helmets in concussion prevention and what can be done to make recovery better.

Nothing about that Loonie Race six years ago could have prepared Pat Johnston for the fact that it was going to change his life.

It was a Thursday night, at the bottom of Whistler Mountain, and Johnston, along with hundreds of other local mountain bikers, was climbing up the mountain in order to race back down — a familiar summertime rite of passage for Whistler mountain bikers.

"I was just going too fast and (I was) all fired up about racing," he says of that night.

On the way down, on "Crank It Up," he took a header over his bars — broken fingers, a dislocated shoulder, and, most significantly, a brain injury.

Let's not mince words, says Johnston, that's the only way to describe a concussion.

He was taken to the Whistler Health Care Centre and then sent by ambulance to Lion's Gate Hospital where he got a CAT scan. It was clear — no swelling, no brain bleed.

Johnston says after a few hours of observation, he was sent on his way with a "good luck."

Little did he know then, it would take more than a year before he would feel like his old self.

He was textbook: symptoms like nausea, headache, sensitivity to light and sound. He spent the first month lying in a dark room — the year that followed was filled with ups and downs, expectation that he was getting better, frustration at the setbacks. Depression. Irritability. No energy. It was an excruciatingly slow road to recovery for the active father of three.

He never wants to go back there.

That 2007 night changed the way he rides his bike; the way he thinks about his life.

"I feel like I've used up my bullets," Johnston says. "I can't afford another concussion."

The vast majority of concussions — 80 to 90 per cent — are resolved in seven to ten days.

In Whistler, however, Johnston's story is an all too familiar one.

"There are so many people in this valley that have had concussions, more than three a week, and are very shy about voicing their concerns about their own mental health because of the stigma," he says frankly of the dozens of phone calls he gets from people looking to him for advice.

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