‘You never know what strength you’ve got’: Anna Swan’s long road back from brain trauma.

Anna Swan, photo by Nic Walker, SMH, Dec 5, 2020

Source: Eliza Harvey, Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend, Dec 5, 2020

She certainly doesn’t seem burdened by the accident. Anna has abandoned her career in advertising to focus on something she’s always wanted to do: studying to be a childcare worker. The accident made her re-evaluate what she wanted, she says.

The pain is always there. “It feels like someone is constantly squeezing my head,” she explains. Finally, she learnt to deal with the worst of it. The breakthrough came in January last year, after she attended a three-week program at the Royal North Shore Hospital run by Professor Michael Nicholas, a clinical psychologist and pain specialist with a desire to give suffering patients commonsense solutions.

“Chronic pain doesn’t mean new damage, it’s not a warning sign. It’s a sign you have damage to your nervous system,” explains Nicholas. As muscles waste away, or become particularly tense, the smallest stimulus – like sitting up at the table – can trigger problems.

Patients are directed to stop seeing pain as a threat. By desensitising from the pain, it becomes less bothersome; slowly, it becomes possible to do more physically, and grow stronger. In Anna’s case, she closes her eyes and places herself at the beach – her calm place. She imagines her pain as a wave. The wave builds up as she breathes in and as she breathes out, the wave crashes down over her and the pain dissipates.

During the outpatient clinic she practised this technique multiple times a day, with varying success. But now it works every time and she doesn’t even need to close her eyes. She’s thrown out the prescription painkillers and only takes Panadol when the pain is unbearable. There is still medical help: she receives quarterly nerve-block injections into the neck from her neurologist.