My ‘hangover’ turned out to be a bleed to my brain

Five years ago, Gemma, 33, a nursery nurse from Alcester in Warwickshire, had a life-changing experience. A bleed on Gemma’s brain led to her being on Critical Care in University Hospital, Coventry, for a month and needing to teach herself to read and write again.

Gemma explains:
“In September 2011 I was working as a teacher, and living in Coventry. I had been seeing Mike for just over a year when we went out on a Saturday night for a friend’s birthday.

“It was a fantastic night, but all I can remember on the Sunday is that I had a horrendous headache. I hadn’t overdone it, but I put it down to a hangover. My head felt so heavy, I couldn’t even lift it off the table, chair, shoulder or whatever was near to me to rest it on.

“I don’t have any memories of the next day, or the month after that, but apparently my mum and dad found me on Monday on the bathroom floor. I’d collapsed and had been having seizures.”

Gemma was rushed by ambulance to University Hospital in Coventry, where her seizures were controlled, and she was taken for an MRI scan. The scan found a bleed to Gemma’s brain, as well as a large number of clots over her body, and she was admitted to Critical Care.

The next day brought more concerning news to Gemma’s family, as she explains:
“The next morning, a senior nurse rang my parents to say that I’d seriously deteriorated and needed to have an emergency operation.

“They didn’t know if I’d survive, or what long-term effects the brain injury might have had, but that operation saved my life. Even my consultant said it was a miracle that I’d survived.”

During the operation, Gemma needed to have part of her skull removed to relieve pressure on her brain. A piece of skull the size of a CD was stored in her abdomen to preserve it. Gemma was then put in an induced coma, which she was slowly brought out of almost a month later.

She said:
“15th October 2011 is the first day I remember. My mum and best friend Cat were in my room talking about Cat’s recent hockey match. I loved hockey and every time I heard the special ‘H’ word, apparently I opened my eyes to try to join in with the conversation!”

After being brought out of Critical Care, it was a slow process to recovery. Gemma had to undergo a further operation to put the flap of bone back into her skull, as well as a long period of rehabilitation.

Gemma explains:
“My injury was on the left side of my brain, which controls language. As a teacher, I’d been used to teaching children to read and write, and suddenly I was in the same situation myself.

“As a result of my brain injury, I had also developed epilepsy. Despite this, I was determined to go back to work.”

While her condition meant she couldn’t go back to work full time as a teacher, Gemma got a job as a teaching assistant and now works as a Nursery Nurse Practitioner.

Thanks to the support of Epilepsy Nurse, Paula Taylor, and finding the right medication, she has also been seizure free since July 2014.

The last five years have also seen major personal milestones for Gemma and Mike.

Gemma said:
“As well as my parents, Mike was my rock during everything that happened to me. Although we hadn’t been together that long, he didn’t leave my side. He was there while I was in hospital, and came with me for outpatient appointments.

“Mike proposed in June 2012 on Ynyslas, my favourite beach in Wales, near where I went to uni. I was so proud to become his wife in September 2013, and was thrilled when I found out we were expecting a baby.”

Having a baby can be dangerous for some women with epilepsy, with an increased risk of seizures, but Gemma was helped through her pregnancy by Paula and the team at University Hospital. Exactly four years after she left Critical Care, Gemma was admitted to the Labour Ward next door to give birth to baby Lewis.

Paula Taylor, Epilepsy Nurse Specialist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, said:
“I hope Gemma’s story will give hope to other patients who’ve suffered a brain injury, and their families. We’re really grateful for all the support she has shown to the Adult Epilepsy Team and Critical Care Unit.

“I feel particularly privileged to have guided Gemma through her epilepsy management during her pregnancy. Gemma is an inspiration to those women with epilepsy who might be planning a family in the future. I would urge women with epilepsy not to be fearful but to seek specialist advice before they become pregnant.”

With baby Lewis less than a year old, Gemma climbed the Three Peaks with husband Mike in September 2016, raising over £1,500 in aid of the teams who had saved her life five years earlier.

Gemma said:
“I’ve been helped by so many people at University Hospital, and Mike and I really wanted to give something back.

“I want to do everything I can to make people aware of the outstanding dedication and support that I’ve received from the NHS staff who’ve saved my life.”