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Mentoring proves perfect way to give back

OT Vanessa Knighton with the new volunteer mentors

Patients recovering from brain injuries in Swansea Bay are volunteering to help others with similar injuries by offering an empathetic ear, and advice based on their own real-life experience.

The health board’s Traumatic Brain Injury Service, based in Morriston Hospital, launched the new neuro-rehab volunteer mentor service earlier this year.

Pictured above: Occupational therapist Vanessa Knighton (left) with the mentor volunteers
The volunteers know best how it feels to recover from a brain injury, and the depth of that experience is now being passed on to others who may be at an earlier stage of their recovery, to support and encourage them.

Under the scheme the volunteers attend a range of different activity based groups, alongside current patients, to share the benefits of their individual experiences.

Katie Taylor, Volunteer Services manager for Swansea Bay, said that the scheme benefits the volunteers as well as the patients.

She said: “It’s something the service was keen to develop for those who have gone through an injury and were at the next stage of their recovery. 

“There’s a mutual benefit. What I think is really inspiring is they see themselves in the people they are supporting.

“They know how to speak to those individuals and they also recognise how far they have come, which I think is really important. It’s given them confidence and new skills for that next step. 

“They may not be ready to go back into work for example, or do something they used to do before, but volunteering is a great way of rebuilding confidence and taking on a little bit of responsibility, and structure.”

Rather than being paired up one to one the volunteers attend a number of groups - such as Men’s Shed or gardening - depending upon their interests and availability.

Katie said: “They are matched by the groups they support rather than by individuals. There are several different groups in all. Some are based in the hospital and some are out in the community.”

Volunteers were given an induction session and offered all the support they needed before starting their new roles. And although in its early stages, the scheme has been declared a success.

Katie said: “The feedback has been brilliant so far. Everyone who has gone through the process has thoroughly enjoyed.

“They are great individuals. They bring different skills and interests.”

Vanessa Knighton, an occupation therapist with the Traumatic Brain Injury Service, also praised the scheme.

She said: “The community brain injury team and I would like to thank all our volunteers for being so valuable to our service and helping to bring an added dimension to what we can provide.

“After a brain injury many people find it difficult to adjust to life where they may struggle to do the things they did before. They may have on-going difficulties affecting memory, thought processes, speech, senses and sometimes physical difficulties. Fatigue is also an issue affecting many people after a brain injury. 

“These difficulties can result in loss of roles, relationships and people not being able to do the things they want to and need to do, including work.

“A brain injury can be an invisible condition for some people – they may look the same and even family and friends can assume that people have returned to themselves when they haven’t. By getting together and talking to people who have lived experienced, they learn that they are not alone.”

Vanessa said the service provided a range of groups to help people re-gain skills and gain confidence by engaging in meaningful activities. 

She said: “This is where our mentors come in. They know what it is like to face and overcome day to day issues. 

“Each of our mentors bring different skills but they are all skilled in providing a listening ear and giving examples of how they have managed. Knowing what it is truly like is something that training cannot teach. 

“They are able to say, ‘This is how it felt for me. This is what I did. This is how I coped with that feeling. You are not alone with this. Other people have experienced this ’ 

“They bring honesty, openness and humour and can be the essential link in a person feeling confident enough to attend a group, often a difficult first step.”

“There are a multitude of things that affect people in day to day living. It’s the nitty gritty details, which when perhaps you haven’t lived it you can’t fully understand.

“Some of our mentors comment themselves, without the support of others who have lived the experienced of a brain injury they themselves would have really struggled to engage and find a way forward in their recovery.”

And it is a two way street with the mentors also benefitting from helping current patients.

Vanessa said: “Volunteering as a mentor can also be an important step in recovery, regaining a productive role and enjoying the feeling of helping others. Our mentors stay connected with each other in regular meetings.”

Pictured above: Volunteers Nathalie McCormack and Colin Mathias

Volunteer mentor Colin Mathias, aged 65 of Port Talbot, was treated by the service after falling off a ladder and suffering a brain haemorrhage.

He said: “There’s always hope. None of us know what’s going to happen day by day. Everyone in the world has problems. Take every day as it comes. If you have to go two steps forward one step back, then so be it, that’s the way life is.

“I went through a suicidal phase, felt really alone, and then I came to the Traumatic Brain Injury Service.

“Now I’m getting able to cope with the problems I’ve got. 

“What I want to do now is give back for what I’ve had.

“It makes me feel good. If I can give something back to people for all the good that I have had.”

Another volunteer, 45-year-old Nathalie McCormack, said: “Two years ago I fell down the stairs backwards and woke up a week and a half afterwards.

“It’s been a difficult time to try and go through things.

“I wasn’t able to walk properly. I couldn’t turn my head or roll my eyes or look up or down. 

“The bleeding on my brain also caused problems with my communication – I used to be a very outgoing person who would talk without hiccups. I’ve learnt to adjust.”

Now she wants to help others.

She said: “I have gone through so much myself, I really want to give other people the belief that they can do it to. I’ve come through this, I’ve been through that, this is the way you want to go. Just go for it. Don’t give up. Just keep strong.”

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