Bev Basar heard a knock at her door at 5am. She opened it, expecting to find her 18-year-old daughter Rhiannon, tired after a big night out. Instead it was two police carrying devastating news.
“Rhiannon died that night,” Bev said.
Only she didn’t. But the girl Bev knew as her daughter did. On August 14, 2003 Rhiannon Yates nearly died. She was the passenger in a car that struck a tree at high speed.
When paramedics found her, the car was wrapped around a tree. Her left leg was pinned. Her brain was completely sheared from the left-hand-side of her skull. Her lungs were punctured. She ruptured her bladder and broke her pelvis in four places.
“When they tried to pull her out of the car they didn’t realise she was pinned by the bone in her leg,” Bev said.
She was flown to the Alfred Hospital in a coma – doctors said she would not survive.
“We were told there was a five per cent survival chance. She might make it, but that we wouldn’t know for at least eight weeks,” Bev said.
Rhiannon didn’t wake from the coma for four weeks. She was in the Alfred Hospital for two months. The teenager was then transferred to the Ivanhoe Rehabilitation Clinic for nearly eight months.
She couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk and only machines proved Rhiannon was still alive. Her chance of recovery was very low.
“Rhiannon was in post traumatic amnesia. She didn’t know night or day or her surroundings. She only knew my husband and myself, her brothers and sisters,” Bev said.
Rhiannon thought she was talking, but she wasn’t. No words were coming out. Then one day she typed out a text.
“That was the first time we knew she could acknowledge us,” Bev said.
“It was like the lights were on and nobody was home.
“We didn’t know if she would ever speak.”
Rhiannon didn’t speak until Christmas.
Before the accident Rhiannon had just finished training to be a vet nurse. She loved animals, dreamed of having a family and had a quick, wicked sense of humour. She was strong willed.
That crash took everything away from Rhiannon.
“I’ve never been who I was before the crash, I never will” Rhiannon said.
“The hardest thing, the thing that upsets me most, is that I can remember what I used to be like. It brings me down.
Rhiannon has to sleep every day. She can’t be home without carers.
“(It stopped me from being able to do) everything,” Rhiannon said.
Rhiannon came back to Ballarat and spent one month in Queen Elizabeth Centre. Her personality would never be the same.
For the first five years Bev thought she would have to put Rhiannon in a nursing home.
“She would bite, spit, she set my hair on fire. It was almost like she wasn’t human,” Bev said.
“We used to sit home and cry after we put her to bed and wonder how we would ever get through it.
“Brain injury is the hidden road toll. With death, you bury someone and you can grieve. But when it’s serious injury and it changes a person – you can’t do that.”
Neurologist Dr Ramesh Sahathevan says brain trauma can impact every aspect of a person’s life. Depending on the trauma, they can develop conditions like epilepsy and have memory problems.
“Imagine your body is a computer. Your brain is the CPU – if that becomes damaged the computer doesn’t work as well. Messages don’t get through and it becomes difficult to care for yourself, to dress yourself, to bathe yourself,” Dr Sahathevan said.
How well a person recovers depends on the neuroplasticity of their brain – that means the ability of other parts of the brain to take over the function that the damaged part can no longer perform. A person who has frontal lobe damage is more likely to experience personality change.
“A change of personality may not just be linked to injury to the brain itself. Imagine you are a young 25-year-old, out having a good time with friends. Two months later you wake up in coma and can't move. There are many psychological effects,” he said.
Rhiannon has really short term memory. She has no control over her left hand and has to be prompted to do anything. Sometimes she has terrible mood swings.
This is why Bev and Rhiannon speak to school students.
“I want to stop it from happening to everyone else. I’m lucky that I have close family. I’ve lost all my friends.”
While the medical community is continuing to learn more about the brain, doctors remain concerned that young people are not aware of the risks of dangerous behaviour and motor vehicle accidents.
“I don’t think young people think they are ever going to be involved in accident. They think - ‘I know how to handle my car, I know how to my handle a drink’. Accidents are the furthest from their mind,” Dr Sahathevan said.
“They need information, they’re all not indestructible. This is what could to happen.”
Bev and Rhiannon don’t sugar coat brain injury. They tell the students the nitty gritty.
“It’s good for the kids to see. Everyone is the same – you read about road trauma in the paper and once you read that paper you close it and forget about it,” Bev said.
“The kids see Rhiannon and they get it."
Rhiannon is lucky, she says. She met Matt a year after the accident and they were married six years ago.
Matt doesn’t know what Rhiannon was like before the accident, he hadn’t met her.
Sometimes dealing with her mood swings is hard. But Matt loves her.
“Rhiannon has good days and bad days. On her best day Rhiannon is a normal person, on her worst it’s hard. I didn’t know her before the accident so I can’t compare personality wise,” Matt said.
Bev has one message to kids who take risk with their lives.
“Don’t feel pressured. If you get in a car with someone they have your life in their hands. We want to get to people before they get their lives torn apart,” Bev said.
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