‘If I’m having a bad day, I can look back and know how far I have come’ Norwich man finds hope in science after crash tragedy
- Credit: Archant © 2013
He was an expert at making science fun but, grief-stricken and badly injured, James Piercy needed to make sense of his own brain. Rowan Mantell met the Norwich man for whom neuroscience became personal – and then a powerful public presentation
When James Piercy's brain was slammed against his skull in a catastrophic car accident he slumped into a coma.
He remembers little of the next few weeks, but three years on he can tell you exactly what went on in his head after his skull was fractured and bruising spread through his brain.
James works as a science communicator and as he emerged from the coma and began regaining skills and memories, he wanted to know what was happening to him, and why. He has made a remarkable recovery – but all the neuroscience he has learned along the way cannot assuage the greatest tragedy of all. His wife, Kate, was dead at 36.
'I don't even remember anyone telling me Kate had died. That is really hard,' said James. 'I know they told me lots of times, but I just couldn't retain it.'
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Since then he has had to deal not only with his injuries and grief, but also support their three children, who were with them in the family car that terrible day. An ordinary outing turned to tragedy when a nail pierced a tyre and the car slewed off the Dereham bypass and into a tree.
The children, now aged 15, 13 and eight, recovered from their injuries, but James was left with permanent double vision, for which he wears a pirate-style patch, and a range of physical and speech problems caused by the damage to his brain.
Scans show a small circular area of damage on the right side of his brain, and more diffuse damage on the left. It is this which caused most of his problems.
'We have got however many billion brain cells and if we kill some we are in trouble,' explained James. 'But what's really important is the pathways between them. If we damage them, then we have to try and find new pathways.'
Because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, most of James' problems are on his right side.
'It is to the extent that at first, half of my tongue felt different,' he said.
When tired he still drags his right leg, but in the early months he had to see his foot to be able to walk, because he could not sense where it was.
He researched voraciously, trying to find out what was causing his symptoms and how he might be able to overcome them. He was already amazing doctors with his recovery from six days in a coma with multiple fractures as well as the brain injuries. He spent more than three weeks in Addenbrooke's Hospital before being transferred to hospital in Norwich for another three and a half weeks of rehabilitation.
'One of the most common effects, and something that I still suffer from, is fatigue, not from physical exertion, but from mental,' he said.
Simply thinking exhausts James, and after a couple of hours the fatigue leaves him limping, with slowed, slurred speech and unable to pronounce, or even remember, the words he wants to use.
'We don't really know why people with brain injuries get so tired. It's thought that it's because we are making new pathways. It's immensely frustrating,' said the man who once ran Norwich's Inspire hands-on science centre and then moved into a job where he not only explained science to schoolchildren but also taught eminent scientists how to communicate their research.
'Going to the supermarket is really hard work because there is the music, the people moving at varying speeds, the 50 trillion tins of beans to choose from,' said James. 'I could probably get to the supermarket and do the shopping but I wouldn't be able to drive home again.'
Six months after the accident, and still unable to work, he was invited to a conference of a scientific organisation he had been involved with. 'I thought that if I was going I should stand up and talk about stuff, as I would have before the accident,' he said. 'And I knew that if I could manage to do that for 20 minutes then maybe I could go back to work one day. I spoke for 40 minutes and got a standing ovation, which still makes me cry if I think about it.
'It was from people I really respected and afterwards I thought I have got to do this again because maybe I can help other people too, as well as helping myself.'
James put together a talk, based on his research into his own brain. Using scans, video and even a model of his skull, made by a friend with a 3D printer, he tells the story of his injury and his recovery so far.
A year ago, and almost exactly two years after the accident, he began presenting 'What's Going On In His Head' at science festivals and in hospital lecture theatres, helped by grant funding from the Wellcome Trust.
Funny, moving, entertaining, emotional and informative it won plaudits from scientists and medics – and overwhelming gratitude from other people living with the effects of brain injuries, and the families and friends caring for them.
Many are overwhelmed that finally, someone understands, and can articulate, what has happened to them.
James himself has been able to return to part-time work as a science communicator for Science Made Simple. The job takes him all over the world, as well as into schools and scientific institutions across the country – to reveal the wonders of science to schoolchildren and help scientists explain their work.
He studied chemistry at UEA and stayed in Norwich to work at the Castle Museum before joining the city's new Inspire science centre.
'I started off sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets and ended up as manager – but still sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets!' he laughed. At one point he held the official world record for enclosing the most people inside a soap bubble. 'It was 25 people, at Inspire,' he said. 'I think the world record is up to 50 now, but we had it for a time, here in Norwich!'
From Inspire, James went on to Science Made Simple, but admits that before the accident his knowledge of neuroscience was limited. Today he reads the latest academic research and knows that his own recovery has been spectacular.
'If I'm having a bad day and feeling a bit rubbish, I can look back and know how far I have come,' said James. 'My doctors call my recovery phenomenal and I'm still getting better although it's much slower now.'
Although family and friends rallied round, he was desperate to be well enough to look after his children and remembers making endless cups of tea as part of his rehabilitation, to show that he would be able to take care of himself. 'I don't even drink tea so I really didn't know whether I was doing right!' he laughed.
A keen folk dancer, he even managed to dance again.
He believes that finding out exactly what had gone wrong, and how he could put some of it right, was vital to his recovery.
Living in a country with state-of-the-art healthcare and being under 40 at the time of the accident were important factors but finding that he could stand up in front of a crowd, and talk, and help people again, was pivotal to the recovery of a man who had been both a scientist and a gifted communicator.
He shares not only the neuroscience but also his discovery that the best way of relieving symptoms as alarming as no longer being able to walk, talk or think properly is the sugar rush from a handful of sweets.