“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 as she starts inhaling water.

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

Ms Cooper, 58, was a classical pianist before a life-changing accident nine years ago when she was cycling to Melbourne University. While in a separate cycle lane, she was hit by a car whose driver – texting at the time – ran a red light.

The Victorian does not remember what happened that day, either in the two months before the accident, or in the three months after it.

She remained in a coma for about three weeks and in the hospital for about four months in total. Her earliest memories of this time are of being in the hospital and complaining about her feeding tube, as well as getting a day pass to go home.

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

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

A brain injury has also left her with spasticity all over her right side, which is impacting her tongue and “that’s why I look stung all the time”.

After waking up, Ms Cooper initially had double vision and had to relearn how to walk and talk. At first, she was falling a lot because she had balance problems as well as spasticity in her leg. She also can’t do two things at once because if her mind wanders, she won’t be able to finish what she’s doing.

“Even now, with the basic things, I really have to focus,” she said.

“I had to relearn how to swim and breathe underwater. If I’m swimming and thinking about something else, I suck in water.

Nine years after her accident, Mrs. Cooper has yet to 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’ve always been a quick multitasker, but not anymore,” she said.

“With the brain injury I get tired too so I spend half the day on the couch recuperating from doing basic things, it’s affected my life in every way you can imagine.”

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

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

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

Her game now looks like ‘sh*t’ but Ms Cooper still likes to practice and gradually improve.

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

His accident also made him aware of the “inherent snobbery” with which musicians were treated.

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

But after her brain injury, Ms Cooper said she thought people often thought she was a bit stupid, especially if they heard her slurring her words.

“There’s an inherent snobbery to the way people treat musicians that I didn’t realize,” she said.

However, being so close to death changed his outlook on things.

“It makes 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 now too,” she said.

Above all, Ms. Cooper believes her piano training helped her appreciate the small, incremental improvements she made through repetition and practice.

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

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

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

It is estimated that more than one in three people will suffer a brain injury in their lifetime, while one in 10 people will experience a life-changing injury.

After suffering a brain injury herself, Ms Cooper realized how many others around her are also struggling with the disease.

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 took me a long time to figure out what works for me,” she said.

“It’s kind of weird at 49 to have to relearn all those things, but the thing about getting better is you have to keep working at it,” she said.

“It’s not going to happen on its own, but if you work on it, it just keeps getting better and I think that’s a really important message.”

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