Brain-injured Skier Credits Helmet for Saving Her Life

STORY BY Patrick Thorne 10th July 2017

Experienced skier Rachel Atkinson believes that the first time she wore a ski helmet, it saved her life.

Rachel, who always felt at home on the slopes having been skiing since the age of four, was diagnosed with Post Concussion Syndrome following a simple fall at St Anton in 2014.

Fortunately, following the publicity surrounding Michael Schumacher’s tragic skiing accident, a concerned friend had bought her a helmet as a present and Rachel believes that without the helmet, the fall would have killed her.

As it is she has had to really battle to adjust to effects of her injury.

“I was skiing in St Anton in Austria when the fall happened,” recalled Rachel. “It was the last week of the ski season and the conditions were challenging; icy in the morning and slushy in the afternoon.

“Apparently I fell forwards, crossed my skis, and landed on my forehead with my arms behind me so all my weight went on my head.”

Rachel was taken to hospital where she remained overnight under observation.

However, it wasn’t until she was discharged the following day that she realised something was wrong.

She said: “I was playing cards and became aware that I was unable to follow simple instructions. I knew things weren’t right and I had to get more medical help.  When I got back to the UK six days after my accident I went to the doctors and was diagnosed as having Post Concussion Syndrome.”

Rachel, who is from Brighton, struggled to come to terms with the effects of her brain injury and the problems it was causing – which included short-term memory issues, fatigue, migraines, sensory overload and problems dealing with emotions.

She said: “At first, getting through each day was an achievement. I tried to carry on working as Employee Relations Consultant full-time but I didn’t recognise the severity of the injury and that I required rest.

“My confidence took a big knock as well. It felt with one fall, I’d lost my intelligence. Where I used to feel smart and pick things up quickly, I found myself struggling and feeling thick.”

Rachel realised she couldn’t carry on working full-time and made a number of adjustments to help her cope with her new situation.

She said “Little by little as the weeks and months passed, my brain improved and my confidence and humour slowly came back. I work part-time now which of course has a financial impact, but my health is more important than money!

“I now know my limits, and with adjustments and understanding, I am living a full and happy life. I still get tired so I have Wednesdays off to rest and I also make sure to wear glasses and a baseball cap if I’m under stripped lighting.”

“For a while, I had to avoid busy clubs and festivals, but recently I’ve been to my first festival in three years – which was great.”

Rachel received support from her local group Headway East Sussex and also found Headway’s website and its other online publications very useful.

Headway – the UK’s leading brain injury charity – provides support, services and information to brain injury survivors, their families and carers, as well as to professionals in the health and legal fields. It has more than 130 groups and branches throughout the UK.

But she says the biggest thing that has helped her stay positive was her fitness levels returning to how they were prior to her accident – so much so that she has been able to take part in an impressive number of races.

Since her accident, she has run ten 10k races including racing in the Arctic Circle in Norway – in which she raised around £700 for Headway.

She has also recovered enough to be able to return to the slopes.

“It has been amazing to be able to return to the mountains and ski again.

She said: “Keeping fit has been a really important part of my recovery, even though I wasn’t able to exercise as much as I would have liked to begin with due to the fatigue.

“I would recommend to anyone recovering from a brain injury, that if they can, they should keep on exercising.  Make sure to get outside and continue to remain healthy. Also, if you’re going skiing, do wear a helmet!

“I wouldn’t ski or cycle without a helmet now and I’d recommend anyone to wear one. You don’t realise how delicate your brain is until it’s not working as it should.

“I don’t think it’s worth the risk skiing without a helmet, and besides, it also keeps your head nice and warm on the piste.”

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