Nfld. & Labrador

Speaking of concussions: ​one man's journey from brain trauma to injury awareness

Almost 13 years after his life changed in an instant, Nick Mercer is exploring the trauma of brain injuries and concussions through digital media.
Nick Mercer was 23, when a bicycle crash left him with a severe brain injury. (Submitted by Nick Mercer)

Everything changed for Nick Mercer on Aug. 1, 2003.

Before that fateful date, Mercer was a gifted athlete from St. John's, spending his early twenties playing varsity water polo while studying biology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. 

After graduation, Mercer and a few buddies decided to ride their bikes across Canada. — a 66-day journey, with only nine days rest, and the cyclers averaging about 133 kilometres a day.

Mercer, left, was an avid athlete before his crash, which left him unable to walk. (Submitted by Nick Mercer)

At the beginning of 2003, Mercer moved to Victoria, B.C., to begin a master's degree in public administration. There he continued to spend hours swimming and biking, and joined a triathlon training team.

In 2016, seated comfortably on his couch in his St. John's home, Mercer recalls all of this in great detail, easily remembering names, dates and times.

There is one thing he doesn't remember, though.

Aug. 1, 2003.

Two weeks in a coma

That day, while on a ride with his triathlon team, something went terribly wrong. 

"I was going down the hill. Quickly. I swerved to avoid someone, apparently, or just swerved to make a turn, flew off my bike, hit a tree," he said, piecing together the chain of events from what others have told him.

"[I] smashed my helmet and ended up in a coma for two weeks." 

Mercer on his cross-Canada bike journey. (Submitted by Nick Mercer)

An ambulance rushed Mercer to hospital as his parents flew across the country to be at his barely-responsive side. 

The original prognosis was bleak.

"It wasn't good, let's say that," Mercer said. 

"Mostly I'd be … I'll say a vegetable — that's not the right term — but that was the idea that my parents got. I wouldn't be doing much."

Diagnosed with a severe brain injury, his folks kept a visitor logbook to track everyone who stopped by, a book that helps Mercer keep track of the time he lost.

The long road to recovery

A little more than a month after the crash, Mercer returned to St. John's and spent another month recuperating in hospital, unable to walk, with poor speech and vision.

In October 2003, the hard work of rehabilitation — with the distant hope of recovery — began.

For the next five months, Mercer lived at the Miller Centre, the province's main rehabilitation centre, from Monday to Friday.

Mercer, seen here in 2016, says giving up on his rehabilitation was never an option. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

There, he pushed through a gamut of therapies: physio, occupational, speech and recreational, and worked with psychologists.

It was a gruelling, isolating experience. 

"I'm a young guy, I'm 23. Everyone else on the [hospital] floor is married with kids or 60. I couldn't relate to anyone down there. That was really tough," Mercer recalled.

But Mercer pushed through, staying with the inpatient program until March 2004.

"The therapists were just incredible. They gave me hope to do some more," he said.  

'I was upset, I was sad'

Mercer was able to move out of the hospital, but still returned daily to work on his recovery.

And he made encouraging progress: he transitioned from a wheelchair to a walker, and then finally began walking on his own. 

But it wasn't easy, as he tried to regain some of his lost independence.

Most people his age were looking for work, or their place in the world — not learning to walk again. 

It was more tiring to give up, than not.- Nick Mercer

"I was upset, I was sad … more like depressed. It was tough," Mercer said.

I asked him if he ever thought about just giving up, a move Mercer emphatically rejected.

"It sounds desperate, but I had nothing else to do. I mean, what else am I gonna do?" he said. 

"I wasn't professionally where I wanted to be. I wasn't athletically where I wanted to be. I didn't have any options, it was kind of forced on me. If I give up, I gotta change my life totally. It was more tiring to give up, than not."

Back to B.C.

In September 2005, at 25, Mercer was well enough to attempt to strike out on his own again. He moved back to British Columbia to complete his graduate degree.

He calls his year there one of the loneliest periods of his life.

"I just wanted to try it. Be out there and try it," he said.

"Be on my own again. 'Cause I was in rehab and in hospital and living with my parents, so I was never really independent." 

But Mercer once again met the challenge, graduated, and moved back home to St. John's.

There, inspired by his injury, he began a new journey.

Mercer now produces a brain injury podcast, that he produces himself on his laptop. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Speaking from experience

Back home, Mercer felt moved to document his brain injury and five years ago began blogging about his experiences and brain injuries in general on Concussion Talk.

There, he writes about his road to recovery, a road he's still on today.

"It's about how I find things, just generally. Walking around town, which can be really challenging. How my brain has changed over time," he said.

"What activities that I do to help keep me, what I find, good. What I do to stay on top of things."

In 2014, he published an e-book, Detour: Talking About Cycling, A Coma and Living With a Brain Injury.

Then in 2015, he got the idea to podcast.

"I noticed there are no brain injury, concussion-dedicated podcasts. Certain people do one episode on brain injury or concussion, but there is no dedicated thing," Mercer said. 

Podcasting as therapy

Mercer puts together the podcast on a laptop in his home, an experience that doubles as speech therapy.

Mercer's speech is still slightly slurred, and he speaks slowly. Recording his voice is a new way to improve that.

At the start of each episode, he recites a quick introduction talking about the podcast, and his guest. The process usually requires a few takes.

As he hears himself played back, he works on speaking clearly.

"Physically, I am definitely getting better. My speech, as I do more podcasts, it sounds better," he said. 

So far Mercer has made 12 episodes where he chats with medical specialists, fellow athletes with brain injuries, and even with the strength and conditioning coach with the Calgary Flames. 

During our hour-long interview, Mercer recalled the darkest hours of his life and his long, challenging road to recovery. 

All the while he not only smiles, but also makes jokes, as he recalls how his life was forever changed on Aug. 1, 2003.

And how he never quit, and never gave up, and never will.

If there's a life-lesson Nick Mercer learned from cycling, it's how to endure and triumph over a long road. (Submitted by Nick Mercer)

About the Author

Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.