Curtis Anderson wants people to know that recovery from traumatic brain injury is possible.

But prevention is far, far better.

Anderson suffered a brain injury 18 years ago, and his life ever since has been an ongoing process of recovery and incremental improvement. Now he speaks to kids, parents, industry, sports groups—anyone who will listen—about the lessons he has learned.

Anderson, who is from Minburn, Alberta, was a bull rider. He was in the chute on a bull named Real Handy at the Ponoka Stampede in July of 2002, ready to ride. 

“They opened the gate. I lost my balance, and boom! boom! My head smashed the bull’s head twice,” he said.

He suffered a severe concussion. He was kept in an induced coma at University of Alberta for three weeks before transferring to Glenrose to start rehab. He couldn’t walk or talk, and couldn’t use his left arm. The road to recovery has been long and difficult.

At first he was fed through a tube. He gradually worked his way to pureed food, then diced food. “Now,” he said, “I am able to cut my own steak.”

His first step of independence was managing to transfer himself from his bed to his wheelchair, to take himself to therapy sessions and for meals. He eventually started going outside on his own.

“I put my bare feet in the grass. It gave a sensation that lit up my whole body. I would even lay down in the grass and exercise,” he said.

“One night I went swimming without telling anyone. Well, the security guards found me and escorted me out of the pool and back to my room. And I was wondering what everyone was just so wound up about—I had everything under control.”

Meanwhile he was participating in an oral-motor group, working to regain
his speech. He and the other survivors would take turns pronouncing vowel sounds before progressing to words.

“The first words that I had to get off my chest and tell the world was, ‘my ass is sore!’” he said.

Every little victory along the way was like climbing a mountain.

“Patience is a choice,” he said, “until it’s the only choice you have.

“I talk to parents of survivors, some tell me it seems like their child’s recovery is going slow. And I remind them to walk back to where their child started till now, and there will be mountains of difference. Sometimes you need to take a step back and remind yourself of that.”

As much as he offers motivation, inspiration, and hope to survivors, Anderson is a powerful advocate for safety. One of his key messages seems obvious, but it’s a lesson that has to be repeated constantly: wear a helmet.

“I do helmet safety demonstrations where I talk to the crowd about severity of repeated concussions, because just two weeks before my accident I had a severe concussion at Innisfail. So my brain was already injured to a certain degree,” he said. “I am living proof of what can happen if you go out too soon without letting your brain heal from the first concussion. The second hit is the absolute most damage.”

Anderson draws inspiration from the feedback he gets. Some listeners relate
to his process of recovery, others thank him for
spreading the word about prevention. There was a boy in Vermilion who rode his bike to school and back every day. One day at school, he inspected his helmet and saw it was damaged and potentially unsafe. He walked his bike home that day.

And there was a seven-year-old in Puerto Rico this spring who approached Anderson and thanked him for not giving up.

“Those words went straight to my heart,” Anderson said.

The results speak for themselves. At the time of his injury, Anderson remembers there were maybe two rodeo cowboys in Western Canada wearing protective headgear. Now it’s about 95 per cent of them.

In 2004, Anderson started Courage Canada, a trail ride to support brain injury awareness. The ride raises funds, but the main thrust is educating people about traumatic brain injury.

“We’ve raised a fair chunk of money,” he said. “But I mean, you can’t put a number on how much awareness has been raised over the years.”

He remains philosophical about the challenges he has had to face in his own life. “A big part of recovery is acceptance, and realizing that life is not a matter of holding good cards, but making the most of the hand you have been dealt,” he said. 

“I have played my hand for 17 years and 10 months, and I know the bottom line: there is no such thing as ‘I can’t.’”

And what about Real Handy, the bull that beat him that day? 

“He won the fight that day fair and square,” Anderson said. “But Real Handy, he is lo-o-ong gone hamburger and I am still here. So I end up being a champion.

“You will never, ever know how strong you are until your back is against the wall. It doesn’t matter how many chips are down. Don’t you ever, ever give up.”

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