Portrait: Shan Shan

Shan Shan relates some of the challenges she experienced as a health professional recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

A little bit about Shan Shan 

I am a fully trained British Plastic Surgeon who worked in New Zealand at the start of COVID 19 to have a break from the NHS during the trialling times of the pandemic.    

Included in my role was the responsibility to deliver specialist clinical care to cancer patients in Palmerston North Hospital. Given the distance between the two sites, my late partner came with me to ensure my safety, as most days I was exhausted following long hours of working. A segment of this route is recognised by the New Zealand Transport Agency as one of the country’s most dangerous roads. It was in this zone that our accident occurred. 

On Friday, 18th of March 2022, we were rear ended by an oil tanker and then were struck by a second oncoming car. Both vehicles were travelling at high speed. My partner was killed instantly. I was trapped and had to be extricated out of the car. I was then airlifted to Wellington CCDHB. I sustained significant injuries to my brain, lung and liver and numerous fractures . I was treated in hospital for a month including a week in the intensive care unit (ICU). I am extremely fortunate and grateful to be alive despite the magnitude and severity of my injuries.  


Impact of my accident and recovery 

Being sedated on ICU, I was the last to find out about my partner’s passing. There is no way to rationalise the pain and sorrow I feel, even now. Indeed, time is not the healer. It just hides the wounds. Losing someone dear tragically at a young age has been excruciatingly painful, not to mention I experienced the same trauma.

For a long time, I was distraught with survivor’s guilt and struggled to manage my bereavement.

It took a long while for me to give myself the permission to be happy. I do not recall the conversation; however, I remember the warmth, kindness and gentleness of the nurse who delivered the bad news to me. These intimate moments and small acts of kindness from strangers meant so much to patients like me fighting for their lives. That I will cherish forever.  


I call this part of my story grieving  

Shan Shan with SameYou t-shirtI met my partner on my first weekend out of managed isolation on a weekend boat trip to the famous Milford Sound. Fate brought us together. We were both new to the country, he from South Africa, I from the UK. We were the only solo travellers on this excursion. After our coach inadvertently broke down, he gave me a lift to my hotel. We got on instantly and were living together shortly thereafter.  

He was a hopeless romantic. Every morning, he made me coffee and cooked us dinner. He wrote me love letters and poems. We regularly played squash, chess, pool and golf. When I was fatigued from work, he ran me candle lit baths. He once built a tent in our home, pretending we were outdoor camping. We shared life stories. He created a miniature golf course at home, which led to a surprise stargazing picnic on the waterfront. When I suffered anaphylaxis, he called the ambulance and looked after me through the night. When I had migraines, he rubbed my head until I fell asleep.  

We led a passionate carefree life and shared many adventures together. We often hiked for days in the wilderness and chased sunrises and sunsets. We took a helicopter ride to see the glaciers, went kayaking and glamping and watched wildlife in their natural habitats. They were my fondest memories. The best feeling in the world is knowing that you mean something to someone. 

Not only was my life threatened by my accident, so was my career. Like many health professionals, I worked diligently for 15 years to craft a career in Plastic Surgery. I trained internationally, succeeded in several post-graduate degrees and awards. I was used to managing polytrauma patients including in third world countries and treated victims of The Manchester Bombing and had the great fortune of meeting the late Queen. Never had I imagined that I would experience the same health crisis in such a personal and catastrophic way.  


Challenges during my recovery 

For the first time in my life, I found myself incapacitated and completely paralysed. I was incapable of managing the necessities of life including walking, and cleaning and dressing myself, when prior to the accident I was highly independent and was always physically active. My mother travelled urgently to New Zealand to be my carer. It was upsetting but humbling to be heavily reliant on another adult. Even after discharge, I remained in a hospital bed for 6 weeks needing input from 12 different specialists.

I was in a fragile physical and emotional state.   

Like many patients, I faced challenges in accessing essential health services and received fragmentation of care, especially at the height of the pandemic. I had to navigate through the entire process independently as a foreigner with little support networks. This exacerbated my brain injury symptoms which I lacked recovery services for. It further complicated by my work visa status which ironically restricted my access to basic healthcare despite me being a doctor. Fortunately, I had help and support from friends and colleagues in the UK, including a neurosurgeon. I was able to be referred eventually to the right specialists. I could not imagine what barriers patients encounter without the medical background I had. At times, I had up to 8 appointments a day interspersed with physical and cognitive rehabilitations. It took a toll. I felt exhausted and burnt out.   


Resuming life after brain injury 

Resuming life has been extremely difficult. I returned to work just 4 months following my accident so that I could retain my rights to continue my rehab in New Zealand. I made many necessary adaptations in life and at work, a reality that I had to accept quickly. I faced unfathomable life challenges managing accident-related affairs, including  discrimination from my employer against my traumatic brain injury (TBI). I sought help from the local Brain Injury Society and spoke out at their AGM about the vulnerabilities of TBI. Despite making excellent progress through perseverance and hard work, sometimes I battled to cope. There were days when I just wanted to quit.

Still, I propelled myself forward with unwavering spirit, recognising that struggle is part of my story. This is where my growth begins. 

On reflection, it was belief and faith that got me this far against all odds and adversities. I am determined to not be defined by my injuries and trauma nor do I victimise myself. I am incredibly thankful daily for the care and attention I received from a few key professionals. Their skills and dedication gave me a second chance in life, which can never be undervalued. My accident has been life changing, and truly transformative. I will continue to evolve and be shaped by new experiences and adjustments that I must adapt in the wake of my accident.  I am not a TBI survivor but an “endurer.” This will be a lifelong commitment.  

Though I have lost, I learnt so much on this journey. In the end, I realised that brain injury and indeed trauma does not discriminate. In a world of uncertainties, we are all equally vulnerable. Having been both a complex patient and surgeon, I am honoured to have experienced the duality of healthcare. I have gained an enriched deeper understanding of the daily struggles experienced by brain injury patients. I wished to turn my experience to purpose and be an ongoing advocate for TBI. I am currently in the process of getting support from the Ministry of Health of New Zealand.                                                                               

Let my experience draw attention to the impact our profession has on our personal lives and its burden on our wellbeing, and that of our loved ones. It is a huge personal devotion and intentional sacrifice we make daily for our patients. Collectively, we should stipulate a new healthier and safer work environment for the welfare of our staff. We can only deliver excellent care by being the best version of ourselves.  

Whilst my experience has sharply reminded me of the finality of life, I am still here, undiscouraged, with a passion to serve my patients and the wider global community as I resume my journey as a Plastic Surgeon despite my battle scars. I may not be there yet, but I am closer than I was yesterday.  

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