‘I can’t walk and talk at the same time’

Claire Cooper was a pianist, but a horrific car accident changed her life forever. Now she can’t let her mind wander even while swimming because she starts to inhale water.

Prior to her accident, Claire Cooper was like any busy multitasking woman. But nowadays she can’t even walk and talk at the same time.

Mrs Cooper, 58, was a classical pianist before a life-changing accident nine years ago that happened while she was cycling to work at the University of Melbourne. While on a separated bike path, she was hit by a car whose driver – who was texting at the time – ran a red light.

The Victorian does not remember what happened on that day, or in the two months prior to the accident, or the three months after.

She was in a coma for about three weeks and in the hospital for a total of about four months. Her earliest memories of that time are that she was in the hospital complaining about her feeding tube, and that she was given a day pass to go home.

“I’ve lost memory for about five months. I can’t remember waking up,” Ms Cooper told news.com.au.

The accident left her with six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a torn tendon in her shoulder and a shattered pelvis that had to be reconstructed using three pins and a metal plate.

A brain injury also developed spasticity all over her right side, affecting her tongue and “that’s why I sound angry all the time.”

After waking, Mrs. Cooper initially had double vision and had to relearn how to walk and talk. She fell over a lot in the beginning because she had both balance problems and spasticity in her leg. She also can no longer do two things at once because if her mind wanders, she will not be able to complete what she is doing.

“Even now with the basics, I really need to focus,” she said.

“I had to relearn myself to swim and breathe underwater. When I’m swimming and thinking about something else, I breathe water.”

Nine years after her accident, it still takes Mrs. Cooper five times longer than before to complete basic tasks. Even pouring water into a kettle can go awry if she starts thinking about something else.

“I need to focus — I used to be a fast multitasker, but not anymore,” she said.

“The brain injury also fatigues me, so I spend half the day on the couch recovering from doing basic things. It’s affected my life in every way.”

Her emotional control has also been affected and Mrs. Cooper now tends to laugh at times when she is nervous or uncomfortable. At her father’s funeral, Mrs. Cooper sat in the back of the church rather than with her family in the front, as she wasn’t sure if this would be a problem.

“In the end it was fine, but you never know,” she said.

Interestingly, Mrs. Cooper’s ability to see music was unaffected by her accident, which she describes as “extraordinary”, although she can no longer work as a classical pianist.

Her playing sounds like “sh*t” now, but Mrs. Cooper still likes to practice and get better gradually.

“I think in another 30 years I will be playing at the level of a 10-year-old,” she said.

Her accident also made her realize the “inherent snobbery” musicians were treated with.

“When you’re a musician, people assume things about you, about your intelligence, your abilities or something,” she said.

But after her brain injury, Ms. Cooper said she thought people often thought she was a little stupid, especially when they heard her slurred words.

“There’s an inherent snobbery about how people treat musicians, which I didn’t realize,” she said.

However, being so close to death has changed her outlook.

“You worry less about the little things, I don’t care what people think of me — although that could also be because I’m 58 years old now too,” she said.

Importantly, Ms. Cooper believes her piano training has helped her appreciate the small incremental improvements she’s made through repetition and practice.

“I’m still finding improvements even after nine years, but you have to practice just like you do with piano — and I’m still practicing piano, which is fantastic brainwork.”

Ms. Cooper will address the National Brain Injury Conference in Sydney this month via Zoom and says her message is that people can get better.

“Improvement is possible and I think this sense of hope is very important,” she said.

It is estimated that more than one in three people will suffer a brain injury in their lifetime, while one in ten will suffer a life-altering injury.

After sustaining a brain injury herself, Ms. Cooper realized how many others around her are also dealing with the condition.

She also believes that finding the right treatment helps, as every brain injury can be different and therefore should not be treated with a one-size-fits-all plan.

“I understand why they do it, but it doesn’t always work and it’s taken me a long time to figure out what works for me,” she said.

“It’s kind of weird having to relearn all these things at 49, but the point of improvement is you have to keep working at it,” she said.

“It won’t come by itself, but if you work on it, it will keep improving and I think that’s a really important message.”

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