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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 12:33 GMT
Am I still me?
Five years ago broadcaster Sheena McDonald was hit by a police van and suffered massive head injuries. After a long painful journey to rebuild her shattered life and personality, she asks herself if she can ever be the same person she used to be.

I am not a neuro-scientist but you could say I have coal-face expertise, because I am a survivor of head-injury.

I suffered such a severe head-injury that the medical profession thought that surviving at all was as much as could be expected. Just over a year after the injury, a doctor described me as "a walking miracle" - and I was still in primary recovery.

Five years on, I'm very much better. And given that the professionals are surprised - to the best of my knowledge, "miracle" is not a clinical term - I now have a layman's obsession to understand as much as I can about how the brain works - and how mine defied convention.

I was so determined to recover fully that I found it impossible to believe that I am not myself

Of course, given the nature of my condition, my claimed expertise and authority on having been through serious trauma is tempered by the practical reality of being traumatised. In other words, I remember nothing about what happened to me. So I rely on others' memories and experience. I have been a journalist for more than 20 years. This is a classic journalistic exercise: to hunt for truth after the event.

This is why documentary-maker Roger Graef persuaded BBC Four and BBC Scotland to commission a documentary about what happened to me. I mean "me" literally. What did happen to me? What makes me me? And am I the same me I was five years ago? The documentary is called Who Am I Now? - and neurologically, that question makes perfect sense, as I discovered in the making of the programme.

I was hit by a police van while I was crossing the road on 26 February 1999. It was late at night and raining. The van was travelling on the wrong side of the road.

I was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital's Accident and Emergency Unit. Intubation was carried out to allow assisted ventilation because I couldn't breathe for myself.

Big blue pumpkin

My brother came to see me the next day, so I asked him what he saw. I'd never wanted to go back to these lost days and weeks before, but now I was interested. He said I was in a coma and my head "looked like a big, blue pumpkin with a hole in it," while my eye was "not where it was supposed to be - halfway down your face".

In the evening, my partner, BBC journalist Allan Little arrived back from Moscow where he lived and worked. He recorded what he found:

Allan Little
Allan Little: 'frightening prospect'
"Sheena lay in the Intensive Care Unit covered with a single sheet. When I saw her I was sure it wasn't her and there had been mistake. She was unrecognisable.

"Her face was enormous, swollen and discoloured - red and blue in patches - and her eyelids were a violent discoloured crimson. Her chest rose and fell to the pace of the ventilator.

"There were tubes in her mouth supplying her with oxygen. Wires were taped to her face, her hands, her arms and across her chest. Behind her, black and green screens measured her heartbeat, her blood pressure, her breathing.

"The intensive care nurse explained that Sheena was heavily sedated and completely unaware. It was the first time that I had really confronted the frightening prospect that she might emerge from this brain-damaged."

So Allan thought I didn't look like myself, and was already worried that I would never be me again. And for a long time I wasn't. I suffered five or six weeks of what's called post-traumatic amnesia.

Too long?

Conventional neurological wisdom insists that such a period of amnesia inevitably changes the sufferer. My consultant neurologist at the time spelled this out to me all too clearly in the making of the documentary. I was shocked. I was so determined to recover fully that I found it impossible to believe that I am not myself.

But that was only the start. It has taken me years to recover to the degree I have. Doctors used to think recovery stopped after a few months, but I'm living proof that this is not so.

My mother says she always knew I would recover, and would mutter "Get a grip, Sheena!" to my hospital bed - so I joke that I didn't dare not recover for fear of disobeying her.

Those bold enough to hire me to do what I used to do seem satisfied that this person called Sheena McDonald is as good as ever
Making this film has taught me a great deal. I think it is not typically Scottish to talk or ask questions about oneself, so doing it for this documentary revealed how I was and am perceived by friends, relatives and strangers - and I was often surprised.

I am convinced that I am myself, and those bold enough to hire me to do what I used to do - work as a broadcast journalist - seem satisfied that this person called Sheena McDonald is as good as ever.

But am I a cunning simulation of the person I was? Or will I achieve lasting fame as a neurological footnote for freakishness? Or even change what neuroscientists expect of the severely head-injured?

Who Am I Now? was broadcast on BBC Two Scotland on Sunday, 18 January, 2004 and on BBC Four on Tuesday, 20 January.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I too am a survivor of head injures following a mountaineering accident. I have no recollection of what actually happened, I can remember the activities immediately before and some of activity afterwards but I don't have any memory of the previous four-five days and the following three days. My main obsession is wanting to find out the detail of what happened. I find that I am now a far more laid back person and don't really let anything stress me out. After having cheated death once I want to enjoy life as much as I can now.
Clare, England

Sheena should read Lance Armstrong's book "It's not about the bike". Maybe she will see that 'not being the same person' is only a problem if you let it be one. Back to Life makes one bigger than life.
Russell, France

My mum had a massive car accident (speeding driver overtaking on a blind corner) in 1990 - so bad that the policeman who informed me, aged 15, said: "I've never seen anyone look so bad - you better get to the hospital if you want to see her alive." I have no doubt that she is the same "mum" that she was in 1990 but have seen huge changes not only physical (she can still only walk a couple of hundred yards and is unable to work) but also mental - she is now a depressed, angry and very frustrated woman. I am glad that some people can come through the other side without huge side effects but so many people don't. I just thank God that the idiot who crashed into my mum didn't orphan three children that day!
Charlotte, UK>

It was quite eerie reading the article having survived a serious head injury in December 1998. My wife kept a journal of the whole episode from the moment the police called to let her know that I had been taken to hospital to the time I came out one month later. I have the same "obsessions" regarding the workings of the brain and now have several books on the subject. Incidentally I believe the accident did me a lot of good. I now look at the world and its problems in a totally different light.
Joel Cosham, West Sussex

Message for Sheena - we are really pleased you have recovered so well. We have fond memories of you at Channel Four presenting Right to Reply at Charlotte St. Most of the studio crew are still here at C4 - if you're ever passing we are now at Horseferry Road. Looking forward to watching the doco. Get back on the telly! Good luck.
T. Moulson, England

Very interesting. I too suffered head injuries from a bike crash (New Year's day 1978), had last rites administered, spent two or three days in a coma, a fortnight medically "unconscious", and had to re-assemble myself afterwards, starting with only a short term memory of a couple of days. 25 years later, I am sure I am still "all there" and that any memory lapses are totally normal - but I can never be quite sure. Still weak and occasionally "halt" down one side - and still biking!
Larry Townsend, UK

Congratulations on your ongoing recovery and good luck with your future plans. You are obviously a fantastic example of how the human mind and spirit can overcome such traumas.
David Gilmore, England

Sheena shouldn't be worried if she still is "who she was 5 years ago". How many of us are? 5 years is a long time in a stressful & hectic career/city, and most people change during that time - it's only a matter of degree. What may be a more valid and useful question is - does she like who she is now? From what I know of her, I suspect the answer will be 'yes' - and I am sure most of her friends will agree. She's a very brave and gifted woman.
David Lownie, London / UK

The story at the time shocked me and after initial coverage of what was going on, the whole affair slipped from not only my mind, but from the general media as well. I am really keen to find out what happened after the media interest died down and and how Sheena and those around her picked up from that point onwards.
Jason Cooper, England

The programme sounds fascinating, especially for me who went through a similar experience. (I suffered a massive head injury in a car accident - the phrase "big blue pumpkin" was the exact description my family used about me.) But incredibly I was pretty much "back to normal" within about four months.
Nigel, Winchester, UK

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