MP John Hayes speaks about his brush with death and the road to recovery

Cricket team captains John Hayes (right) and Rodger Grant at the start of the fixture raising money for Headway. SG280816-126TW

Cricket team captains John Hayes (right) and Rodger Grant at the start of the fixture raising money for Headway. SG280816-126TW

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When John Hayes became South Holland and the Deepings MP in 1997 he embraced a non-political cause close to his heart.

It was the charity Headway, which offers support and services to brain injury survivors and their families.

It’s very easy to say ‘why did this have to happen to me?’ That question leaps into your mind and you have to escape that because, if you can’t escape that, you can’t recover – you can’t rebuild.

John Hayes

John, now (58), was in the words of his GP “very lucky to have survived” a serious head injury sustained in an horrific car crash around 35 years ago.

It left John with disabilities that he lives with to this day, but it also saw him digging deep – and devising his own road map for recovery as well as achieving the ambition he’d had since he was a boy of seven, becoming an MP.

John is patron of Headway Cambridgeshire and supports the charity annually with a cricket match that pits fellow parliamentarians against Moulton Irregulars.

John’s talks at Headway meetings focus on being positive because he says that attitude of mind can “completely change the character of your recovery”.

He said: “It’s very easy to say ‘why did this have to happen to me?’ That question leaps into your mind and you have to escape that because, if you can’t escape that, you can’t recover – you can’t rebuild.”

John recovered, helped by his family and medical professionals, and helped by his own strong personality, a “can do” frame of mind and deeply held Christian convictions.

Little is known about the crash. John can’t recall it and his parents, Maggie and Harry, didn’t fill in the details for John as they focused on his recovery.

John knows the crash was on a motorway, but doesn’t know the place or the year.

He said: “I was in my early 20s, I can’t remember exactly when. You don’t remember much about it. You remember driving down the road and then you can remember being in hospital. You can’t remember anything between the two.

“The brain has a way of cutting out the events of the accident. I am told that’s quite normal – it’s a protective mechanism.

“I had a classic brain injury, a fracture of the skull which leads to internal bleeding in your brain.

“The main thing is to identify internal bleeding early and draw the blood off so it can be stopped, as the more pressure it puts on the brain the more damage is done.”

John was taken first to a local hospital where a doctor in A&E carried out basic reflex tests and had the presence of mind to send him to Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge.

John said: “At the time brain scanners were very rare and Addenbrooke’s had one. They must have put me in the brain scanner at Addenbrooke’s and discovered blood on my brain and, obviously, operated immediately. I think they just drilled a hole in my head and relieved the pressure.

“My GP many years later, obviously having read my medical notes, said I was very lucky to have survived the accident and the injury.”

He was in Addenbrooke’s for many weeks, unconscious at first, and had a long convalescence at home before going back to work part-time.

John said: “I can remember waking up in hospital and seeing the lights above me and gradually becoming aware of people. My father said ‘you had an accident but you are okay now’.”

Among the after effects for John were:

• Total loss of hearing in his left ear and partial loss of hearing in his right ear

• Damage to nerves in his face

• Scars on his head that he describes as a “less angular Underground map of London”

• Constant tinnitus varying in intensity from the “rushing” sound or white noise, like TVs used to make after the national anthem was played at the close of programmes, to “high pitched electrical noises”

A common consequence of acquired brain injury is personality change but John’s parents were certain that wouldn’t happen.

“I remember my father being very insistent to the doctor and saying ‘his personality won’t change because he has such a strong personality’,” said John. “My father’s diagnosis was probably more accurate than the medical one.”

John’s “strong personality” and Christian convictions enabled him to focus on the right place.

He explained: “You tend to focus first on what you can’t do and then you quickly re-focus on what you can do and that’s a liberating journey, I think. I didn’t lose my sight or smell, I didn’t have a severe change of personality.

“People with brain injuries often develop epilepsy and I don’t have that. I had preventative treatment for that for a year or two.

“To be honest my Christian faith is a bit like my Conservatism, very deep rooted.

“I think when you have any great misfortune, you tend to pray with more vehemence and regularity. When life is going well and everything seems straightforward, sometimes it’s easy to assume it’s always going to be like that.”

He says people are more able to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of human existence when they “believe in something that’s eternal, pre-eminent and all-powerful”.

“I think my deeply held views were a very secure anchor in a deep and stormy sea,” he said.

These days, when John becomes poetic or elated by the sight of a beautiful sunset or countryside view, his sons will rib him for being “so idealistic”.

But John knows all human life hangs on a slender thread and says: “Suddenly these things become all the more glorious for the fact that you know you came close to losing them all.”

Becoming an MP meant John was better placed to draw public attention to Headway’s work for brain injured people.

He said: “Although this is quite a common occurrence, there are 500,000 people in the UK living with disabilities as a result of head injury, it is not a particularly glamorous cause and it is not a particularly well-known cause.”

His links with Headway have widened to Parkinson’s and a local group that supports people with brain tumours.

Headway is a UK-wide charity

Life can change in an instant.

That’s something John Hayes knows all too well following his brush with death.

In John’s case it was a car accident, but seemingly less dramatic incidents can have far greater consequences.

When John was recovering in Addenbrooke’s, there was a postman in the ward who had slipped on ice and fell full-length.

John remembers the postman’s family surrounding the bed, teaching the man to feed himself and to speak again.

“I was in the next bed debating politics with the doctors and nurses,” said John. “Although I was quite ill, I was still completely compos mentis.”

The postman’s obvious plight made John realise, in his words, “how lucky I was”.

John’s drive to recover also saw him determined to help others with brain injuries.

John’s work with Headway won him the Disability Champion Award at the national Charity Champion Awards in 2008.

According to Headway, more than a million people attend hospital A&E in the UK each year following a head injury and, as survival rates improve, it is estimated more than half-a-million people are living with physical, cognitive or behavioural disabilities as a result of a head injury.

As well as providing support to sufferers and their families, Headway campaigns for the introduction of measures that will reduce the incidence of brain injury and for improvements in care for those affected by brain injury.

This also means helping brain injured people to live as independently as possible in their communities.

The major causes of head injuries are road accidents, falls and accidents at home or work.

Headway says people aged between 15 and 29 years and over the age of 65 are most at risk of sustaining a brain injury.

Those aged between 15 and 29 years are three times more likely to sustain a brain injury than any other group.

Males are two to three times more likely to suffer a brain injury than females, but this rises to five times more likely in the 15-29 age range.

To find out more you can visit www.headway.org.uk or the group where John is a patron at www.headway-cambs.org.uk