Out of balance - John Farrington’s story
Traumatic brain injury can often arrive at the unlikeliest of times. When it does, it creates an imbalance in one's life - just like that.
For John Farrington, it was not through his lifelong love of rugby where he acquired his TBI, but rather in the comfort of his own home, on a quiet Saturday afternoon.
For John’s whole life, rugby has been a place of purpose and comfort. After first putting his hands on the ball for his team when he was four, John was hooked. He played for the Cashmere second fifteen through high school, continuing beyond to play for Linwood, the Colts, and spent three years in senior reserve rugby. He later joined the rugby union and took on several senior roles for his local clubs over the years.
“I had a good variety of stuff to do with the club,” says John, "I thoroughly enjoyed that.”
This variety was essential to John, as he attended to his non-stop shift work during the week. It was an exhausting schedule, with hours varying throughout the week, starting with a 6am to 2pm, before transitioning into a 2pm to 10pm, and finally, a draining 10pm to 6am shift.
“It was pretty tiring and it took a bit of life out of you. That's why I enjoyed rugby, getting to the weekend. It was something that lifted me. I knew I was a lot better doing that than being stuck at work all of the time. It kept me going.”
The day John received his traumatic brain injury, there was no rugby to be seen. It was a regular Saturday, on October the 12th, 2019, when John found himself in the roof of his garage. A weary ladder held together enough to get John up, but he was unsure of its strength on the way down.
He held onto the inside of the roof as he placed his legs on either side of the ladder. The next second, the ladder split beneath him. As he fell, his head slid down the wall.
“And I knew nothing more about that.”
John’s wife, Margaret, and his brother in law took care of John as the ambulance arrived, who then took John into the ICU. For the next two weeks, John was under 24-hour surveillance in Christchurch Hospital. At times, he would wake, and begin to pull bits of equipment and bandaging off of himself that felt uncomfortable. He had no sense of his surroundings and had to be kept on close watch.
After his time in hospital, John spent the next two months with us at the Laura Fergusson Brain Injury Trust. And his journey began in facing new life challenges created by his TBI.
John says the two most difficult challenges at the time were managing his balance and independence.
“I've always been an independent person. I like my own ways of doing things and getting around, and I wasn’t allowed that as I was recovering. I had to listen to what they were asking to get back on my feet. It probably took me two to three weeks to properly restart and start listening to their instructions.
Independence was a difficult thing to achieve, as John’s balance had completely disappeared. He could not get himself out of his bed without falling over. It took a huge effort from John, with the help of our physiotherapists, to regain this balance. It was a process John found frightening.
"There was one exercise where I had to climb up a little four-step staircase and then go down that side. To start with I didn’t feel safe, I thought I was falling backwards all of the time.”
With support from the team, John worked his way towards making it over these steps, and has made brilliant progress to this day; this is possible because he was willing to work with the whole range of team members; psychologists to help with memory, occupational therapists to help return to day to day life, speech and language therapists, rehab coaches, dieticians, and nurses for everyday tasks, or even just a nice walk around the river.
“I quite liked it out there because they're all such friendly people. They are a good family; they know who you are.”
“John was a true gentleman who engaged well with the whole team and it was lovely to see him progressing,” says Val Sandston – Community Nursing Manager. “It was always good to see John on his many return visits to the rehab unit and see his progress.”
John returned a week before Christmas of 2019, after almost three months away from home. He, like many, spent a lot of time at home during 2020, which gave him time to regain knowledge of his space, and time to spend with Margaret walking around the neighbourhood.
Life is different now for John, as he has to take more time to stop and think.
“I do not have much short term memory, so I have the calendar on the wall to help keep track of what is on. And before I had my brain injury, you could tell me to go somewhere and I'd find my way there just like that. It takes me a heck of a long time now to think about where places are.”
John continues to take part in our Reconnect Programme, where he comes together with a group of people in a similar situation to him once a week to get out and about. Activities vary from week to week, and John says bowling, golf, and visits to places like Lyttelton and Springston have been recent highlights.
“It has been good to meet the guys in the same situation as me, to get to know each other. Being stuck at home really got me down, I couldn’t stay here for weeks at a time watching telly.”
Through everything, John’s love of rugby has remained. And he has found an excellent way to use rugby in his rehabilitation journey. For each game he watches, John likes to journal the details for himself. Now, two and a half years on, John has an impressive stack of journaled games, featuring tables, try scorers, and all of the important details a rugby fan would need.
“It is quite a good thing to do for my memory. I’ve always enjoyed watching rugby and I always will, rugby is for me”
It is not only on paper where John has returned to rugby, as he is back working with the Hornby club, taking care of the eight and nine-year-old kids in their new ventures into the rugby world.
“I’m getting out more, I have my driver’s licence again and it feels good to have that. I’m doing really well at the moment, I am starting to be free again.”
“John sustained a very severe brain injury and for a long time, his communication and cognitive difficulties would have prevented him from taking part in this article,” says Siobhan Palmer, clinical neuropsychologist.
“His determination to return to participation in rugby has been a massive motivator for him. This helped him work with all the therapists: nursing, rehab coaches, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech & language therapy, dietician and psychology, as well as specialist assessments outside of LFBIT too.”
“One of the most important co-therapists was John’s wife Margaret, whose kindness and patience enabled him to remember his appointments if he forgot, but more importantly, she helped him remember his progress when he forgot how far he has come, and she reminded him to be kind to himself if he had a hard day. It was a real team effort!”
Rehabilitation was not always a straightforward path for John. But, with support from Margaret, the team at LFBIT, and by using his love for rugby, he has made brilliant progress in regaining balance in life. We are incredibly proud and inspired by your effort John, and are looking forward to having many more conversations about rugby in the future!