Of Head Injuries and Help

To avoid any concern, I am going to start this by stating that I am absolutely fine, so there is no need to worry. But last week I won the anti-lottery: a moment of spectacularly bad luck that saw me in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was on my way home from work and feeling very pleased with myself. It had been a good day at the office, I managed to catch my normal train rather than the later one I had anticipated, and my head was full of plans for activities to work on that evening. The train was just a minute or so from arriving at Chippenham station, and someone was standing next to my seat as he got his belongings from the rack above my head.  I didn’t really pay much attention to him, other than to think that as soon as he moved I would get up to queue for the exit.

BANG. There was a resounding crack as something fell on to my head from above. The first thought of my dazed brain was a bowling ball, possibly due to watching one too many cartoons as a child: it is always a bowling ball that seems to fall on characters. Either that or a bucket of paint, but that seemed an unlikely option on a train. But as my vision cleared I noticed something bottle shaped on the floor, wrapped in a bright orange Sainsbury’s bag.  A small wine bottle or a bottle of lager I would imagine.

There was silence on the train. The man who had knocked the bottle down started to apologise. “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.” I’m not really sure what one is supposed to say in moments like these, especially when one has just received a blow to the head. My only thoughts were now focused on getting off the train, getting home, and getting ice on the lump that had already formed. I muttered “Okay,” and headed for the door. I had all eyes on me but no one said a word as I disembarked.

I made it home and sat with bags of frozen food on my head for 90 minutes and googled the symptoms of concussion, hematomas, and contre coup injuries (thanks to a former TV diet of CSI, my vocabulary for types of head injuries has grown considerably). Of course, this also has the potential to inspire paranoia.  “Hmmm, nausea and vomiting are a symptom, what about lack of appetite?”

After two hours, my eyes seemed dilated, the pupils quite large despite the amount of light—yet another warning sign to look out for. Of course, I don’t usually pay attention to the size of my pupils, so it is difficult to say what is normal, what is not, in this type of situation. Perhaps mine are just abnormally large? My husband and I decided to pay a visit to the Minor Injury Unit as a precaution.

Time spent in waiting rooms is a perfect way to catch up on reading, and I admit to enjoying a journey south to Devonshire with the Dashwood sisters as I waited to be called. Around the middle of Chapter Eighteen, I was ushered in to see the nurse.  The check-up started with a bit of levity as she went through my general history:

“Do you smoke?”
“No.”
“Drink much alcohol?”
“No.”
“What is your job?”
“I am a portfolio manager for one of the research councils in Swindon.”
She paused and looked up.
“What is it that you do?”
“We facilitate the funding of research in higher education.”
Another pause.
“I’ll just put ‘education’ down.”

Once these details were collected and I explained the incident, she went through various tests: blood pressure, pulse, and the classic light in the eyes to watch for pupil dilation (it’s when the pupils remain fixed that there is a concern). I was fine.

She then went on to explain how my body would have been flooded with adrenaline after the shock of getting hit, basically putting it into fight-or-flight mode. It was the effects of this that I was now dealing with: the lack of appetite, the pupil dilation, and the tiredness that set in afterwards. She added that I shouldn’t be surprised if I was irritable or emotional for the next few days. Having already gone a major crying jag as soon as I got home, it was a relief to hear that there was a physiological reason for how I was feeling. She concluded by saying I would probably also have trouble concentrating and not to use my head for the next few days. Easier said than done!  But overall it put my mind at ease and helped give myself permission to take things slow.

However, it’s so easy to overthink things.  The couldas, wouldas, and shouldas that normally circle around our brain get magnified after something like this.  If I had just taken that later train like I originally planned.  Or chosen a different seat.  Or headed to the exit slightly earlier. But looking to the past at what can’t be changed helps no one. Instead, it’s about learning from these moments and thinking about how to move forward.

Now, with the vantage point of time, the thing that I keep coming back to is not the incident itself, but the immediate aftermath. I was the focus of attention, but no one actually said, “Are you okay? Do you need help?”  With a clearer head, the research around crowds and emergencies came back to me: it’s a well-known social phenomenon called the bystander effect.  In general, the more people who are present when something occurs, the less likely that any of them will step forward to help.

Because I was walking wounded, because I didn’t say anything one way or another, it was easier for the crowd not to say or do anything themselves. Yet it’s because of this that I wanted to share my experience, as well as partake in a bit of writing therapy to help me exorcise the event. Please be willing to break free of being just a bystander: If you think someone might need help—or just a kind word—ask. It costs nothing and could make a bad experience marginally better.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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