Famous People and Brain Injuries
A little about me and this lens
Welcome to my lens! I'm hoping to recount the various stories of brain injuries which have unfortunately happened to some of our better-known celebrities, sportsmen, actors and writers.
Please feel free to read through all the items below and leave your feedback in the comment book.
Surviving Head Injury
Of course, "car accident head injury survivor" probably doesn't fully describe the type and severity of the incident Richard Hammond suffered on 20 September 2006. Most car accident victims aren't in jet-powered Vampire dragsters travelling at 288 mph, so to say that the TV presenter ‘survived' is something of a miracle in itself.
For those who don't know who Richard Hammond is, he is variously described as a journalist, writer and broadcaster, but is best known to TV viewers as the diminutive co-host of BBC's stalwart motoring programme Top Gear, alongside Jeremy Clarkson and James May. Known as "the Hamster" by his Top Gear colleagues, he is a self-confessed ‘petrol head' who has owned a number of Porsches, American muscle cars and various high-end vehicles. He is also a keen motorcyclist and a fan of monster trucks.
His job as co-presenter on Top Gear has seen Hammond undertake a vast number of motoring challenges - many involving the use of high-powered, high-speed cars - but when Hammond turned up for work that day in 2006, little did he know that it could have been his last.
The premise of the segment was to test the speed capabilities of a Vampire dragster powered by a single Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus afterburning turbojet engine, capable of producing 10,000 bhp. Hammond had told producers he wanted "to go really, really fast" and so the Vampire dragster idea came to fruition. The exercise was not, as has been suggested in some reports on the crash, an attempt to break the land-speed record; however, the car used was the same one piloted by Colin Fallows in July 2006 to set a new record of 301mph.
After six runs at the former RAF base in Elvington near York, the crew's allotted time at the site was up, but the BBC team negotiated an extension to allow them to do one more run.
The sixth run had been a full length run with afterburner. GPS telemetry had tracked and recorded a top speed of 314mph. The production team did not tell the presenter the speed. In footage shown on Top Gear in January 2007 Hammond is heard to say after the sixth run, "Every part of my body is full of adrenaline. Oh yes, I'm so alive, I'm so alive."
At 5.25pm Hammond set off for his final run of the day. According to analysis by the North Yorkshire Police Collision Investigator, and as reported in the Health and Safety Executive's full report into the incident, the final run appeared to be proceeding satisfactorily. At approximately 14.25 seconds into the run and travelling at 288mph, Vampire's front right tyre suffered a blowout.
The vehicle veered to the right and the rear of the car span out until Vampire was travelling sideways down the track. After having covered 220m in this manner, the car left the track and sped onto the grassy outfield to the right. As the left side of the vehicle dug into the turf it turned onto its roof. Hammond has said that at this point Vampire was still travelling at 230mph. The car then flipped and finally came to a halt as the roll bars, which protect the driver's head and upper body, dug into the ground.
Paramedics were on the scene within seconds and an air ambulance arrived within 15 minutes. Richard Hammond was then airlifted to Leeds General Infirmary.
The official HSE report said that Hammond's superficial injuries were remarkably unapparent. He had suffered some facial bruising and a minor eye injury as a result of soil being forced into his crash helmet when the roll cage made contact with the grass. The five point harness had held him securely in the cab of the dragster so he had not suffered any broken bones or crush injuries as a result of being thrown out.
However, he had suffered a head injury in the form of concussion and "shock loading of the brain" which caused swelling inside his skull. He was transferred to the Neurological Intensive Care Unit at Leeds General Infirmary and was classed as being in a critical condition for some time.
Fortunately, after two weeks the brain swelling had reduced sufficiently enough for doctors to allow Hammond to go to Bristol for a period of convalescence. Initially Hammond's head injury symptoms included short-term memory loss, although he did retain a good recollection of events surrounding the crash, and difficulty in concentrating.
In an interview with the Sunday Times given by Hammond in February 2008 he said that his head injury caused him to suffer various long-term effects such as memory loss, depression and emotional difficulties for which he sought the help of a psychiatrist. However, his recovery has been deemed by many as "remarkable".
Whilst the crash investigation gave the sole cause of the crash as being the tyre blow out and that there was no evidence of driver braking immediately prior to the tyre burst, the HSE report states that Richard Hammond's speedy reaction when the tyre blew out was that of a competent high performance car driver, and his attempts to brake and steer into the skid were as per his training. It also states that he showed "considerable presence of mind" in attempting to deploy the main parachute after the tyre failure, effectively shutting down the jet engine, although it was too late to have been effective in stopping the car from veering off the track and flipping.
After the accident, and as part of the investigation, spokespersons for PTLE (Primetime Land Speed Engineering), the main organisers of the high speed runs, spoke of their surprise that Hammond suffered any head injury at all. They told investigators about a number of other high-speed crashes where drivers had remained unhurt, even when rolling in the car. Their suggestion was that a camera mounting clip, present on the roll cage, must have struck Hammond's helmet, causing enough impact to inflict the damage to his brain.
Following the crash, a charity appeal in aid of the Yorkshire Air Ambulance was set up. Initially, any funds raised were to be used to fund day-to-day running costs of the service. However, on 24 September 2006, the chief executive of the air ambulance trust announced that the appeal had been so successful that the organisation would be able to buy a second helicopter.
Richard Hammond is a Vice-President of The Children's Trust, a UK children's brain injury charity based in Tadworth and also supports various charities including Sport Relief, Children in Need and Sophie's gift.
Richard Hammond was back presenting Top Gear within four months of the near catastrophic accident. He continues to undertake feats of speed and motoring challenges. In 2010 he gained his helicopter pilot's licence, but it seems his taste in high powered cars is changing. In series 18 of Top Gear it was revealed that Hammond owned a Fiat 500 TwinAir – one of the smallest cars on the market.
Boxing brain injury survivor
For most people the prospect of being repeatedly punched in the head and body is the stuff of nightmares. For boxers, however, it is a way of life and they train hard to be as fit as possible so they can deploy everything at their disposal to fend off the blows.
Yet, argue as some may that it is the "sport of kings", boxing is ultimately about two men, or women, standing toe-to-toe, literally bashing each other's brains out and this is probably what disturbs some less hardened sports viewers.
Safety is officially paramount in modern boxing, but there was a time, not so long ago, when boxers regularly suffered brain injury as a result of their time in the ring. Michael Watson was among those unfortunate contenders. He lost his fight for supremacy one night in a ring set up on Tottenham Hotspurs' football pitch, in what has since been described as a brutal night where his care and safety was not maintained.
Watson was 26 when he stepped into the ring to fight Chris Eubank on 21 September 1991. In 1989 Watson had beaten Nigel Benn to become the British Commonwealth middleweight champion and was fighting Eubank for his third attempt at a world title. He had previously been beaten by Mike McCallum, the Jamaican, in an 11th round knockout for the WBA title, but his previous WBA title fight against Eubank had been an altogether closer affair, with Eubank taking the belt in a close run judges' decision.
The 1991 rematch was to contest the WBO super middleweight title. By the 11th round Watson had been convincingly ahead on points and presumably on his way to victory. Yet, having knocked his opponent to the canvas with a right hook, he watched as Eubank regained himself, took the final counts on one knee and then got back to his feet. When the referee restarted the fight for the last few seconds of the round, Eubank almost immediately caught Watson with an uppercut to the sweet-spot of the chin which sent him crashing backwards, stiff-legged. The stricken fighter's head bounced off the second rope and the bell sounded to end the round.
Watson's corner reacted and got their boxer back to his feet for the final round. After 29 seconds the fight was over, ended by the referee, and at that moment Watson's boxing career ended too. At 10.54pm Michael Watson collapsed in the ring.
There was no ambulance at the event and no paramedic. There were no ringside resuscitation facilities and it took eight minutes for dinner jacket-wearing doctors to reach the boxer. There was pandemonium in the ring and Watson lay there without oxygen. He was suffering a massive bleed on his brain - he was, effectively, dying.
By 11.08pm a doctor had inserted a tube into Watson's mouth to help him breath and the boxer was then stretchered off to a wholly unsuitable ambulance which took him to a North Middlesex Hospital. He arrived at the unit at 11.22pm, but it was not equipped to deal with the boxer's catastrophic brain injuries. Resuscitation equipment was not suitable and there were no head trauma specialists in attendance. His pupils were fixed and dilated (a very serious sign of brain injury and, in many cases, impending death) but he was resuscitated enough to facilitate the unfixing of one pupil.
Watson left the first medical centre at 11.55pm; just over the magic 'Golden Hour' which doctors and neurosurgeons prescribe as the essential time for treatment. He was taken to Barts (St. Bartholomew's Hospital, West Smithfield, London) and a specialist surgeon was called.
Michael Watson's first of several surgical procedures on his brain started at around 1am the morning after the fight. It lasted for more than three hours. He remained in a coma for 40 days and spent a further year in intensive care and undergoing rehabilitation. He had suffered severe brain damage as a result of the blow to his head, and the failure of ringside carers to administer oxygen and get him to the most appropriate facilities as quickly as possible.
In September 1999, Watson won his hard-fought battle for brain injury compensation from the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), but he was compensated a woefully small amount for his loss of career and life-altering disabilities because the board was uninsured.
Personal injury lawyers for the east London boxer claimed that the BBBC had failed in their duty of care towards Watson by failing to provide adequate facilities and trained staff to look after a person suffering from severe brain injury. The board had argued that it did not owe the boxer that duty and even if the correct treatment had been available Watson would still have incurred major disabilities as a result of brain damage caused by a boxing match.
The Court of Appeal finally settled the claim in October 2001 when it ruled in favour of Watson and denied the BBBC any further right to appeal.
The case made history because it was the first time a regulatory body had been held liable for failing to regulate and, subsequently, being ordered to pay compensation for that failure. The failings have also had a huge impact on the way boxing matches are run today and the safety of boxers is now of far greater significance in the planning and undertaking of both professional and amateur boxing matches and the sport in general.
Michael Watson's road to recovery was a hard one, but in April 2003, the former boxer hit the headlines again as he completed the London Marathon raising funds and awareness for the Brain and Spine Foundation.
As he finished the race, after six days of walking the course, Watson crossed the finish line accompanied by Chris Eubank and Dr Peter Hamlyn, the neurosurgeon who had treated him and with whom he became personal friends.
In 2004, Watson was awarded an MBE by the Queen to add to his previous recognitions, such as the Helen Rollason Award, from the BBC, for courage and achievement in the face of adversity, and an honour from the variety Club of Great Britain for "outstanding courage".
Michael Watson remains a figure for good in sport - his loss has led to gain for so many young sports men and women who take up boxing and his pain and suffering of a terrible brain injury has meant that those who followed him into the ring were never to be subjected to such failings of care again.
Quad bike accident brain injury survivor
Rik Mayall is an English writer, comedian and actor; he was a pioneer of alternative British comedy in the 1980s, becoming a household name for his appearances in the comedy series The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents, Bottom, and The New Statesman.
However, his career might have been prematurely ended on 9 April 1998 when he was involved in a quad bike accident at his Devon home.
For a Christmas gift, Mayall's wife had bought him a quad bike to use on the farmland surrounding their home in East Allington and on that particular Thursday, the day before Good Friday, Mayall was out riding the quad bike when it began to rain. He had his two-year-old daughter Bonnie and her cousin with him at the time and they were riding up front on the petrol tank of the quad bike, but as Mayall felt rain on his arms he sent the children back to the house.
A little while later, Mayall's wife Barbara, looking out through a window, saw her husband lying motionless next to the machine. At first, she thought he may have been joking, but quickly found that he had, in fact, suffered a serious quad bike accident and life-threatening personal injuries.
The actor was taken by a police helicopter to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth. He was suffering from two haematomas and a fractured skull. Mayall was kept sedated during the following 96 hours and his family were warned that he may die.
In interview, Mayall has said that he was technically dead for five days. When he was brought around doctors told him that two fifths of his brain were clogged with blood and he initially suffered a condition known as synaesthesia where he experienced being able to smell colour and see sound.
After six weeks of attempting to let the blood drain of its own accord, Mayall's doctors told him they would need to perform an operation to remove it. The procedure was considered very dangerous and the brain injury patient was told he had a 50% chance of survival. He went home to visit his family and then underwent the surgery which, fortunately, was successful
Although Mayall recovered enough to go home and live independently he has suffered a number of epileptic seizures in the past and now needs to take medication to prevent future occurrences. He must take the medication on a regular basis, which means he is no longer allowed to drink alcohol, and has on occasion struggled to remember to administer the drugs.
The actor talks openly about the quad bike accident and the resultant brain injuries he suffered; he even alludes to the events in some of his comic stage performances. His recovery was slow, but he has now regained much of his former abilities and is able to carry on acting and writing. He does have concentration difficulties and likes to spend time alone since the accident – he has taken up drawing, although he admits to feeling that this does not sit well with his otherwise "rock and roll" persona.
When asked whether the quad bike accident has affected him, Mayall says that he does appreciate life more since suffering the brain injuries as he feels he has been to the edge and looked over; and was lucky enough to be allowed back.
Surviving Brain Injury
James Cracknell's Story
In July 2010, double Olympic rowing gold medallist, James Cracknell was undertaking a gruelling self-propelled trip across the US (swimming, rowing, running and cycling) in an endurance journey being filmed for the Discovery Channel.
During his cycle ride across Arizona, Cracknell was hit by a petrol tanker's wing mirror as he cycled close to the small town of Winslow. He was knocked unconscious and taken to a specialist intensive care unit in Phoenix.
He had been wearing a cycle helmet, which was reported as having been "shorn in two" by the force of the impact, and while it undoubtedly saved his life, he suffered serious brain injuries.
Doctors told him he had suffered a fractured skull at the base and the rear force impact of the truck had caused him to suffer a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a subdural haematoma and contusions to the frontal lobe. In short, he had suffered a contre-coup brain injury (bleeding all over the brain) particularly affecting the frontal lobes.
Cracknell says he has no memory of the accident and very little recollection of the days and weeks immediately after. He says he has "islands" of memory which drift in and out of his consciousness about that time, and snatches of recollections of seeing his family and being told what had happened to him.
Of course, many people, including his doctors, thought he would not survive the cycling accident, and when you read about the treatment he needed – 25 staples just to repair his skull – it's clear to see why. Yet, his recovery astonished the medics and within six months he was again on the endurance feat trail by undertaking a 430-mile cycle ride through the Yukon territory in Canada, in the freezing grip of winter, experiencing temperatures as low as -50 degrees centigrade with up to 50 mph icy winds.
He says his inspiration for recovery was seeing other brain injury victims in the Phoenix unit and knowing that many of them would never regain their pre-injury abilities. Of-course, Cracknell is an Olympian, a successful one at that, and you don't get onto the top of the medal rostrum without extreme self-belief and hard work. Recovery for James Cracknell was not an option – it was an imperative.
However, suffering major injury to the front part of the brain was never going to be without its repercussions. Frontal lobes control facial recognition, organisation, motivation and personality and the former Kingston Grammar School boy has been candid in his descriptions of how his personality changed and what it meant to his family.
He describes with sadness his change of life mantra and how his inability to control certain aspects of his life angered him post-accident. Whereas before the injury he would let the uncontrollable go unworried about, the change of clarity on this issue would upset him greatly in the early days and months of recovery.
Rehabilitation meant months of relearning and rebuilding his abilities – simple tasks like buying the ingredients for a meal and then following the recipe made for what he describes as several meals of "dodgy lasagne" and "something that passed for a Victoria sponge", but eventually he was allowed to go home, though his recovery was by no means complete.
He was initially prescribed anti-depressants and medication to reduce the risk of seizures, but life became difficult when he came off the drugs. He would suffer anxiety, becoming angry very quickly, and for a while was not allowed to be with alone with his children in case he may put them at risk of harm due to a lack of judgment. This was a well-documented and particularly painful time for the father-of-three but, eventually, he managed to prove he was capable.
There are some things, however, that brain injury sufferers can do little or nothing about and following a seizure in October 2011, Cracknell had his driving licence taken away. After the accident he had been tested and considered able to drive safely, which was a great relief for the family man. The seizure meant the DVLA had no choice but to rescind his licence and, ironically some might say, cycling became his only option for independent transport.
News reports in December 2011 showed Cracknell riding "the beast" – an ungainly-looking three wheeled cycle with a large box structure at the front, capable of carrying child seats, and children of course, plus shopping and other loads. He says it is a bid to reclaim his independence, but not one to ever take easy option he eschewed the addition of "electric assist" mumbling to the sales assistant that he wanted to get fit. The assistant said, "Fill the box with kids. That'll do the job."
Despite the horrific nature of his brain injuries, Cracknell goes from strength to strength – undertaking challenge after challenge as a rower, runner and cyclist. He is a vociferous advocate of cycle-helmets and undertakes all sorts of exploits for charities including Sparks (for children's medical research), SSAFA Forces Help, and Headway (the brain injury association), amongst others.
Having just turned forty in May, he is set to join BBC 5 Live's Olympic commentary team in the summer and is still undertaking some of the world's toughest expeditions and challenges known to man. Yet, he still considers his biggest challenge to be the change-down from sportsman to becoming an ordinary husband and father.
Somehow, I don't believe James Cracknell could ever be ordinary. Not only is he an Olympic champion and brain injury survivor, James Cracknell is, in fact, a superhero.
Car accident head injury survivor
Gordon Kaye (AKA Gorden Kaye) is famous among comedy fans for his portrayal of René in the English sitcom Allo Allo!. However, Kaye is also well-known for surviving a traumatic head injury and attempting to change the conduct of the British press.
In January 1990, Kaye had been travelling home when he was caught in one of England's worst storms. Hurricane force winds battered the country, causing widespread disruption and property damage. Sadly, at least 39 people were killed in the harsh conditions while hundreds suffered personal injury – and Kaye was one of them.
In a freak accident, a gust of wind broke off a wooden plank from an advertising board and threw it through Kaye's windscreen, stabbing him in the head.
Miraculously, Kaye survived the impact and paramedics managed to get to his vehicle in time to rush him to hospital. After a six-hour-long brain operation, doctors managed to stabilise his condition and Kaye began his long road to recovery.
In an interview with the BBC in 1998, Kaye said he was very fortunate to have been taken so quickly to a neurosurgeon who helped to "put me back together again properly". When the presenter asked how he was feeling, Kaye responded, "Vertical and sober."
As a result of the head injury, Kaye does not remember anything about the incident. However, he still has a scar on his forehead from where the plank pierced his skull.
Although Kaye ultimately made a full recovery, his time in hospital was not altogether unproblematic.
During Kaye's treatment, a photographer and a reporter from the Sunday Sport disguised themselves as medical staff and gained unauthorised access to his room. Once inside, the journalists took photographs of Kaye on his hospital bed and conducted an ‘interview'. Although the journalists managed to complete their piece, the interview was banned from publication on the grounds of malicious falsehood. The reporters claimed Kaye gave consent to the interview yet, due to his head injury, Kaye was in no position to do anything of the sort.
Eventually, Kaye sued the Sunday Sport in a legal case known as Kaye V Robertson . However, the trial was thrown out after the court ruled Kaye had no actual legal protection. Mr Justice Eady, who was a recorder at the time, was deeply offended at the outcome saying there was "a serious gap in the jurisprudence of any civilised society, if such a gross intrusion could happen without redress".
Since the trial, Mr Justice Eady has been an avid supporter of privacy and previously sat on the Calcutt Committee to propose a new law against intrusion by the press. Although no new legislation was ever introduced, Article 8 of the Human Rights Act came into force in the year 2000 to guarantee a person's right to privacy. Some say Kaye's mistreatment was the catalyst which spurred its implementation.
Due to Kaye's recovery process there were some question as to whether Allo Allo! could ever continue. Although Kaye did consider retiring, his family and colleagues convinced him to return. In 1991 Kaye stepped back into the shoes of René to star in all ten episodes of series seven. He stayed with the sitcom until the show ultimately finished in 1992.
As of 2006, Kaye lived in London and even returned to star in a one-off, live stage production of Allo Allo! in 2007. However, could he return to the world of television? In the words of the man himself: "You are probably wondering what I am about to do in the years to come. Well I will tell you, but listen very carefully, I shall say this only once ... oh dear, we appear to have run out of time. Thank you for your questions. Bye."
More Information on Brain Injury
Have a look through these links if you would like more information on brain injuries whether you are interested in medicine, a sufferer or a family member.
- Brain Injury Legal Advice
Based in Central London, these solicitors can help you recoup any losses that occur after a serious head injury.
The UK brain injury association
- NHS - Head injury treatments
Treating a severe head injury
- Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust
The Disabilities Trust is a leading national charity, providing innovative care, rehabilitation and support solutions for people with profound physical impairments, acquired brain injury and learning disabilities as well as children and adults with a
- Brain Injury Help in Scotland
The Brain Injury Group.B.I.G. is a support group for people who have loved ones with devastating brain injuries. They may be severely disabled, in a persistent vegetative state, minimally aware/conscious or locked in.
Skiing accident leads to fatal brain injury
Actress Natasha Richardson succumbed to a fatal brain injury on 18 March 2009. Two days earlier, she had suffered a fall in a skiing accident at a Canadian ski resort. She had not been wearing a safety helmet.
Ms Richardson was 45 when she died. She had been a member of a great stage and screen dynasty which included her mother, actress Vanessa Redgrave CBE, her father director / producer Tony Richardson and grandparents Michael Redgrave CBE and Rachel Kempson. Her sister, Joely Redgrave, is also a successful actress.
The accident occurred while Ms Richardson was taking a skiing lesson on a beginners' slope at the Mont Tremblant resort. She had apparently "tumbled" down a hill, but initially seemed to be unhurt.
A spokesperson at the resort said that ski patrol first aiders attended Ms Richardson after the fall and offered to call a doctor. However, Ms Richardson refused. She was apparently in good spirits, but her ski instructor took her back to her hotel room and stayed with her for more than an hour.
Eventually, the mother-of-two began to suffer from headaches and decided to seek help. She was taken to a local hospital, but fell into a critical condition and was transferred to the Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Montreal about 80 miles away where she was put on a life-support system.
Her husband, actor Liam Neeson, immediately flew out to be at his wife's side, but she did not regain consciousness and was flown back to her hometown of New York so that friends and family could say goodbye.
The cause of death was stated to have been an epidural haematoma which had been caused by a "blunt impact to the head". Her death was ruled to have been accidental.
The fact that Ms Richardson had not been wearing a safety helmet at the time of her fall sparked debate about whether the wearing of helmets should become mandatory. However, at the time, most ski resorts left the choice up to the individual and many commentators said that there was not enough evidence to determine whether a safety helmet could actively prevent head injuries from occurring.
Yet, Peter McCabe, Chief Executive of Headway UK, the brain injury association, went on record shortly after the incident to advocate the wearing of helmets for all skiers and snow boarders. He told the Daily Mail that even a relatively minor fall could cause serious head injury.
He said, "When your head collides with an object, the brain can be damaged on impact, but it can also bounce against the side and develop bleeding, bruising and swelling over the next few hours. The swelling has nowhere to escape to and presses down on the brain causing further, and potentially fatal, damage.
He added that anyone who has a fall and hits their head should go to an A&E department as soon as possible to be checked out, even if they feel okay.
Since the actress's fatal brain injury accident, sports scientists at the University of Innsbruck, Austria have produced research which states that ski helmets reduce head injuries by 35% in adults and 59% in children and a BBC news report in 2010 stated that Ms Richardson's death triggered a "dramatic rise" in the number of ski safety helmets sold in the UK.
Winter outfitters Ellis Brigham told the BBC sales of safety helmets had increased by 58% in the skiing season following Ms Richardson's death, while snow sport specialist retailer Snow and Rock saw sales triple.
Following Ms Richardson's death, and several highly reported skiing accident deaths caused by brain injuries, many ski resorts made it compulsory for children to wear safety helmets during lessons and on the slopes.
Some skiing enthusiasts argued that while children should wear helmets, adults must be able to retain the right to choose, as some felt that helmets actually caused accidents because skiers either could not hear what was going on around them or skied above their abilities because they felt they were protected by the helmet. Plus, some medical experts argued about how effective helmets could be in the event of a serious, high-speed crash which caused extensive brain injury.
Of course, no one will ever know whether a helmet would have saved Natasha Richardson from sustaining fatal brain injury, but, one thing is for sure, when a celebrity suffers an injury it makes people sit up and take notice. If one person who donned a helmet when they went to the slopes after Ms Richardson's death was saved from suffering a head injury, then that has got to be a good thing.