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Picton man learned to survive brain injury one day at a time

Randy Vincent

Randy Vincent – here with his wife, Michelle – says that in dealing with the traumatic brain injury he suffered, he learned to “always keep a positive attitude – your glass half full, not half empty.” Photo courtesy of Randy and Michelle Vincent

By Angus Argyle [1]

BELLEVILLE – It was only five months after his graduation from Loyalist College that Randy Vincent’s life changed forever.

Vincent, a Prince Edward County native, was on his way to Belleville that Wednesday evening in November 1991 to meet up with a college buddy to discuss a New Year’s Eve ski trip to Mont-Tremblant, Que.

“My life was great. I was your average 19-year-old full of life,” he says. But “a 36-year old woman made the choice to drink and drive.”

The accident happened as he was going through Rossmore on Highway 62.

“Unfortunately the other driver crossed the centre line. I took evasive action and I hit the ditch. She followed me. She hit me broadside, the weakest part of my car, the driver door.

“My next memory was about three weeks later, waking up in Kingston General Hospital [2]and seeing roses in the window that my grandparents had sent to me.”

Vincent had sustained major injuries in the crash: a torn spleen, a ruptured diaphragm and internal bleeding. But what turned out to be the most lasting and serious injury was the one to his brain.

He was initially taken by ambulance to Belleville General Hospital, then transported to KGH, the closest trauma centre. “The emergency doctors told my uncle, who was with my parents that evening, not to follow the ambulance to Kingston because I would probably not make it there alive,” he says.

Vincent underwent four surgeries that night, at which point “my body … said this is enough and my lungs collapsed. At that time I flatlined and the doctors jabbed chest tubes in both sides of my chest. They brought me back. They got the air into my lungs and got my pulse back again.”

He was put on life support and into a drug-induced coma to allow his aortic arch [3] to repair. A ventilator kept him breathing for the next two weeks.

As he slowly recovered, it was discovered that he had sustained a traumatic brain injury that would require in-hospital rehabilitation.

After five weeks in hospital, and as Christmas neared, he was sent home to his parents for the holidays before starting rehab. His recollection of that time isn’t good, but he says his parents tell him that he was hard to deal with.

“I would sit in the dark and question my mom what clothes would I have been buried in. And I remarked how cold the cemetery would be.”

In rehab at the KGH brain-injury unit, “I had to learn everything. I had to learn how to count, social skills, communication, word-finding skills and how to handle money,” he says. “There was one time I wanted to take a couple of my new friends I’d met in the hospital up to the cafeteria for a sundae, and honestly at 19 years old (and a) graduate of a sales course, did not know how much money I should take to the caf to buy three sundaes. I actually phoned my mom to ask how much money I should take with me.”

Vincent spent three months in rehab, but eventually was allowed to live on his own in an apartment with regular visits by caregivers. With money from the insurance payment, he eventually bought a house near his parents in Picton. He was unable to work and remains so, but he married in 2002 and now has two sons, aged 11 and 8.

His wife and kids also face his challenges, says Vincent, now 44 years old: “My brain injury has not gone away and never will go away. I take it one day at a time and do my best to work around my disabilities.” He lacks patience and becomes easily distracted, and also suffers from short-term memory loss, he says, adding, “My day planner is my lifeline.”

Vincent’s mother, Carole, founded the Brain Injury Association Quinte District [4] in 1992, after her son’s accident. At that time there were no support groups in the area for people affected by brain injuries, she says. “I thought if I could do anything at all to help somebody else get through what we had been through, I’d do it. That’s what it’s all about.”

The association has an office at 223 Pinnacle St. in Belleville, and offers programs and a library for brain-injury survivors and their families.

In the more than two decades since the accident, Randy Vincent has done volunteer and fundraising work for groups in the Prince Edward County community. He is also a member of the Wellington Elks Lodge [5] and serves on the executive committee; his next goal is to be the provincial president of the Elks. “I did take sales (in college), so I’m a people person,” he says. “I like to promote, and I think we do great things with the Elk Lodge in our community and I think the provincial association does great things for the province.”

Asked what he would say to anyone in his or his family’s position, he replies: “First of all, take baby steps, one day at a time. Secondly, even though it can be extremely difficult at times, always keep a positive attitude – your glass half full, not half empty.”

He learned that attitude early in his recovery.

“My dad always told me, when I was in the hospital and my parents were leaving at night – ‘Just get a good night’s sleep, boy, and things will be better in the morning.’ “