In February 2005 Mike was left fighting for his life after colliding with a van during a cycle ride in his native New Zealand.
“During a quiet training ride, just two weeks before I was to race Ironman New Zealand 2005, I had a spot of bad luck: I was involved in what should have been a minor traffic accident. Because I was on a bike, however, it was anything but. I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and missed my race, what would have been my first Ironman, because I was still in hospital in a coma.
"I lost my health, I lost my career, I almost lost my life! Through all of it, though, I never lost my desire to race an Ironman, slowly but steadily rebuilding my strength, fitness and abilities.”
Mike suffered a ‘diffuse’ traumatic brain injury (TBI), typically caused when the head suddenly accelerates or decelerates, such as when it collides with something else. In Mike's case, a van. The brain bounces around inside the skull, causing widespread damage.
Following the accident, Mike was in the coma-like state post-traumatic amnesia for 54 days. He slowly came back to the world but his recovery was only just beginning. He had to relearn almost every muscular function – from swallowing, to sitting, standing and walking.
Amongst wide-ranging other problems, Mike's great challenge was the mental fatigue. This had a huge impact on his day-to-day life, rendering him unable to concentrate on anything for much more than an hour. At times the fatigue was so bad that he had to stay in bed for days at a time.
Mike describes how his mental fatigue was akin to being drunk: slurring words, poor balance and coordination, and impaired decision-making. He was even thrown out of a bar, accused of having had too much to drink.
He learned a technique called neuro-rest to help cope with the fatigue, closing his eyes and quieting his mind, to let his brain rest.
Over time his fatigue changed and improved. He developed coping strategies to slowly increase the amount that he could do. Whilst for a long time he could only manage part-time work, a few hours a day, he achieved his goal of returning to full-time work three years after his accident, a major milestone in his recovery.
Mike describes how his TBI felt like it closed doors to all sorts of rooms that he wanted to get in to, and he could no longer reach the goals he’d set himself prior to the accident.
Kicking down doors is how he describes the process of learning strategies to work around the constraints of a TBI. ‘I found though, by thinking carefully about my constraints, I could often work out a way to eventually reach those goals – I could still get in to those rooms, I just needed to kick down the door to do so!’
Early on he set himself a major goal: to complete the Ironman challenge. He had a lot of doors to kick down before he was even ready to think about training.
‘Once I recovered from my coma, I had two big issues preventing me from even thinking about trying that race once more – needing to learn to run again and problems breathing hard while exercising. My TBI caused the first and damage to my windpipe, caused by the life-saving tracheostomy I had while in a coma, caused the second.’
Remarkably, in March 2010, five years after he was originally set to do the Ironman, he completed his Ironman challenge, in Taupo, New Zealand. And the following year, he completed a Masters in Economics. Two incredible achievements that would have been inconceivable five years previously.
Mike now lives in the UK with his wife and their young family. His huge determination to kick down those doors has enabled him to rebuild his health and his fitness, and build a successful career as an economist.
He still feels the effects of the brain injury, in particular the fatigue, but has the strategies in place to cope. He is keen to emphasise how long recoveries from TBIs take. And how important it is to have hope.
"The brain is an incredibly complex piece of equipment that, when it works well, performs a massive number of functions seamlessly. When it stops working well, we suddenly discover the amount it normally does without us even thinking. A severe TBI is a pretty good way of stopping the brain working well.
"It felt like the accident threw me to the bottom of a very high and very steep mountain. And to get to the life I wanted, I had to scale it. It has been a very long journey. Now being a Dad to young kids, in lots of ways that journey continues."
Mike's path has had many twists and turns; there have been setbacks as well as successes. The support of his family and network of friends kept him going through the tough times, helping him come up with new ways to overcome problems, new ways to kick down doors. He also pays particular credit to the role that the physiotherapists played in his recovery.
Traumatic brain injury is a common cause of death and disability, affecting people of all ages. There are no therapies capable of directly lessening the burden of the brain injury itself, and there has been little improvement in outcomes over the past two decades.
Whilst Mike's journey has been incredibly challenging, he has made a remarkable recovery. Many other brain injured patients do not end up in such a good place. Research can help to change this, and this is why we are prioritising research into brain injury. We want to advance understanding of how to repair the brain and improve the outlook for those affected.
We recently funded a project led by Dr Virginia Newcombe at the University of Cambridge that aims to better characterise the injury to the brain, with a focus on injury to the blood vessels and changes to the way that the blood clots. This will guide the development of new treatments. Find out more about this research