BEFORE the road accident which so dramatically changed his life, 17-year-old James Stewart “just lived to play football”.
His dad, James senior, said: “James played for several amateur league teams and was in the process of signing for an Irish league club. That was his life. He was very outgoing and very, very active.”
In June 2007, the Saintfield teenager was the front seat passenger in a horrific car crash close to Crossgar in Co Down. The car hit a tree.
His dad explained: “He sustained severe brain injury. He died three times at the scene of the accident and had to be resuscitated. He had severed an artery in his cheek and almost bled to death at the scene as well. They gave him absolutely no hope of surviving the impact.
“It was later on that morning that the police arrived at our door. We were asked if we had a son called James and we just knew that something terrible had happened. After they explained that he had been in an accident they told us to get straight over to Royal Victoria Hospital.
“At that point we did firmly believe that James had been killed. They couldn't confirm whether he was alive or dead at that time. They just confirmed that paramedics had been working with him.”
When the Stewarts eventually saw James, he was not recognisable as their son.
James said: “The injuries were absolutely horrendous. His pillow was completely covered in blood. He had a head injury at the back of his head that wasn't life threatening but was quite substantial. The side of his face had almost been severed off and was held together with a contraption that I could only describe as similar to a bicycle chain.
“He had broken his neck and broken his back in two places. He had broken his nose, broken his palate, had damaged his oesophageus which caused problems in relation to trying to put tubes in. His lungs had collapsed and he had a lot of cuts and bruises and swelling all over his body.
“Two days later I had to return home and get a photograph of him just to remind me what he actually did look like prior to the accident, because he was unrecognisable.”
James survived 24 hours. Then 48. Then 72. At that point his parents were told that his brain pressure was stable but if it increased it could become critical.
“We were called by the neurosurgeon on the third day and told that James had two hours to live. His brain pressure had gone off the scale and there was absolutely nothing they could do. We were asked could we go and get the family together to say their final farewells, and during that time we got everybody together and they went then one by one to say their farewells.
“It was horrendous to see my wife trying to say goodbye to her first born son. It was horrendous watching my younger daughter and son lie over James' bed and cry out to God not to let him die, to save his life. And then all other family members going in. It was just a terrible, terrible time.
“My wife and I maintained a vigil at his bedside and we just could do nothing else other than pray that he would survive.
“Miraculously the next morning his brain pressure did go down. And the next couple of days were critical, but he seemed to stabilise and things started to look up after a five day period. But he was in a coma so it was just a waiting game.”
Eventually James was taken off life support and went to a neurology ward and later to the rehabilitation centre at Musgrave Park Hospital where he was treated for around 11 months.
James senior continued: “Whenever we got James home for the first time, he was in a wheelchair. He had difficulty sitting up straight. He had no mobility whatsoever. He had very, very poor concentration. His eyesight had been affected severely. His short term memory was not good. He couldn't communicate any of his memories or his thoughts because he couldn't speak. He couldn't write because of his mobility, and again we just had to wait and see how things were going to pan out.
“We knew that this was a life changing situation, not only for James but for our entire family, and we obviously had had to make the adjustments that we needed to make to try and cope with the situation.”
James then began to take severe epileptic seizures and these continued.
Today, James can speak and walk short distances with the aid of a stick. He is more confident and can interact with other people. However, his balance and concentration are poor and he struggles with mood swings.
His father said: “Eight years after the accident, we believe that this is as good as it gets. We can't see any further progress being made, and if any progress is made it would be minimal and certainly not noticeable on a daily basis.
“We just take things day by day. James is in a better place now than he was, but he's far from being the same person that he used to be.”
James receives support from Brain Injury Matters, a charity dedicated to supporting people affected by acquired brain injury to rebuild their lives and reach their full potential – including people involved in road traffic accidents.
Its services include a younger persons’ network, a well being programme, physiotherapy and a counselling service for people affected by brain injury and their families. Rebound Physio, a private physiotherapy practice, also raises funds to support its work.
Dr Katy Pedlow works as a neuro-physiotherapist at Brain Injury Matters.
She said: “Every service user is different and has been affected by their brain injury in different ways. We have both males and females affected by road traffic accidents and of various age groups. Our oldest current member is 74.
“They have different needs, whether it’s cognitive functioning that's been impaired, social functioning, physical or emotional. So they all have different needs depending on how their brain has been affected by the RTA.
“It's such a life changing thing for both the person with the acquired brain injury and their family members and friends and the wider community that they live in.”
Dr Pedlow said: “Our overarching aim is to rebuild lives and integrate people back into the community and we have many success stories.
“These may look like minor things on the outside but actually have a massive impact on how that person reintegrates into the community or gets involved again in some activities that they were involved in before their brain injury.
“We have people going on to finish their university degrees or return to work, they would perhaps return to driving or being a key family member and looking after their children again.
“So each service user has their own set goals within the service and we are always working with them to try and achieve those goals.”
Katy has been working with James for just over a year.
“He is doing really well. He's one of those patients that really thrives on getting some exercise done and loves to tell you when he comes back the next week that he's been doing his homework and doing his exercises at home.
“With James a lot of our focus is on things that he can work on himself at home, but also that will promote independence at home. With him being quite young, we want him to ensure that he reaches his full physical potential so that at home he can be walking about himself, that he can manage, everyday tasks himself, like cooking or helping about in the house as well.”
• To find out more about Brain Injury Matters, go to http://braininjurymatters.org.uk/