Looking at Cameron Stephen today, there are no visible signs that seven years ago he nearly died.
“The doctors did an MRI on me and it was like a snowstorm,” said Stephen.
“They said I’d be lucky to move my head left or right, I was probably going to be blind, paralyzed and not be able to feed myself.”
Stephen was 39 years old when he suffered a heart attack, three strokes, five seizures and a deflated lung. He spent a week in a coma.
“Then they found that I had a 3.8-centimetre tumour attached to my heart that was causing all the problems,” he said.
After doctors removed the tumour, Stephen spent months in hospital, relearning physical tasks, such as walking, talking and swallowing. Once his body healed, he learned the effects of his injuries went much deeper.
“I had prosopagnosia, which is face blindness. I can’t see parts of people’s faces. I had anomic aphasia, which is (difficulty) processing, understanding of speech, reading and writing. My filters were damaged, my hearing was damaged, I had cognitive dysfunction,” said Stephen.
Navigating his brain injuries since then has been a work in progress for the now-45-year-old, but he’s found healing through yoga. Specifically, the LoveYourBrain yoga series, which is specifically for people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries.
The LoveYourBrain foundation was created by U.S. snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who sustained a brain injury in 2009. Its mission is to foster resilience and community among those who have experienced a life-altering brain injury.
“It’s just amazing. You really can improve, but you have to be strict with yourself and get a routine and be consistent,” he said.
‘They don’t have to explain themselves anymore’
That’s what Chloe Luckett learned four years ago, following her own brain injury.
She was hit by a car while cycling in Halifax’s north end, and, like Stephen, she faced a lot of unknowns.
“If I would be able to walk, if I would be able to talk, or if I would just be functioning after,” she said. “I had broken my neck and a lot of other things, so it was just a, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen,’ basically.”
But fast forward to today: Luckett is now a yoga instructor, and she is a LoveYourBrain yoga instructor.
“It can oftentimes be a very isolating injury. It kind of ostracizes you from all of your previous relationships,” said Luckett. “What feels so special to everyone who’s been coming to the series is that suddenly they don’t have to explain themselves anymore — it’s just understood.”
Nearly 80,000 Nova Scotians affected by brain injuries
In April 2018, the Brain Injury Association of Nova Scotia partnered with Lululemon to bring LoveYourBrain to Halifax.
“It’s evidence-based, it’s inclusive and it’s something that we thought the brain injury community would really jump on,” said the association’s executive director Leona Burkey.
It has. There have been four series so far, and each one has been full and wait-listed. That speaks to how many people are suffering, said Burkey.
“In Nova Scotia, conservative estimates would put us between 70 and 80,000 Nova Scotians affected by brain injuries, which makes it the largest disability group in the province,” said Burkey.
In LoveYourBrain classes, movement is slow, instruction is clear and simple and students are reminded to limit head movement to prevent dizziness and headaches. After each class, participants gather to talk and swap stories.
Jeanne Ju said that was an “eye-opening” experience.
“It was a huge wake-up call that a lot of people look like they don’t have any disability or any issues, and then you realize that you do share a common bond,” said Ju.
Ju was in a car accident while working in New Brunswick in 2013. She walked away but suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. An extremely active person, Ju said the hardest part was coming to terms with the fact that things weren’t going to be the same as before her injury.
“My ideas was I was just going to be late for work the next day and it was just a headache and it was going to resolve, but then I realized it was much more complicated,” she said.
Ju said her brain stem was damaged, affecting her autonomic nervous system. She’s been dealing with a wide range of symptoms ever since.
“One day you may be quite functional, and then there’s others where symptoms may be overriding your day,” she said.
But like many others, Ju has found hope in movement. She’s even considering training to become a LoveYourBrain yoga instructor one day, citing Luckett as her inspiration.
“There’s a lot of different social media people who do very active things, and Chloe is one of them,” said Ju. “She does yoga and CrossFit and things that I would never consider being able to do before.”
Luckett said LoveYourBrain participants have been as young as 16 and as old as 69.
“They’re really thankful that doing that practice made them realize they’re capable of so much more than they thought,” said Luckett. “It feels pretty cool to hope that I’m even a fraction or even play into that role at all in people’s lives,” she said.
The next LoveYourBrain yoga series runs April 19 through to May 24, and March also marks Brain Injury Awareness month.