Survivor embraces his ‘Helmet Hair’

Brain injury opens cyclist’s eyes

Greg Goldberg knows the dangers of cycling without a helmet.

Brain injury opens cyclist’s eyes

Greg Goldberg loves helmet hair.

So much so, that the 45-year-old Victorian who suffered a severe brain injury 15 years ago has started touring B.C. schools and activity centres to talk about the merits of messy locks.

“As a head-injury survivor, I was appalled to learn a large number of teenagers and adults living in B.C. simply refuse to wear a helmet while riding their bikes,” says Goldberg. “I was even more appalled that the prime reason for this was — prepare yourself for shock — the dreaded Helmet Hair.”

The message would drive Goldberg to pedal a new campaign aimed at snapping people before it’s too late: helmet stickers with a message for adults and youth, “Helmet hair or long-term care? — you can’t comb out a brain injury,” and “Helmet head or hospital bed? Please wear your helmet.”

When Goldberg suffered a vehicle collision in Ontario in 1997, his left temporal lobe was damaged, jeopardizing his speech and memory functions. He doesn’t remember the accident — in fact, he lost four months of memories previous to the crash — and his right side remains numb. It took eight years of rehabilitation to recover the functions he could but, in the meantime, he lost his job as a high school teacher, his wife and the life he knew.

“I had the white picket fence and the dog, too, but a very high percentage of marriages end [after a] brain injury, because you are just not the person they married,” says Goldberg. “If I can convince people that the inconvenience of helmet hair is nothing compared to the inconvenience of a brain injury, my work will be done.”

With life rewritten, Goldberg moved to Victoria 10 years ago and began working with other people suffering brain injuries through the Cridge Centre’s Mary Cridge Manor. He also began teaching spin classes at the YMCA three times a week and, two months ago, got remarried to a doctor.

Since last spring, some bike advocates and even politicians have urged the province to relax helmet laws, arguing the strict laws prevent cycling altogether. Vancouver’s former city planner Brent Toderian asked public officials to look at the macro health benefits of more people cycling, rather than focusing on individual injuries, and some Victorians have echoed that sentiment.

“I’ve seen the after-effects of what a simple decision can make, and it can be devastating,” says Cst. Michael Russell, VicPD spokesperson.

Since 1996, B.C. law has required all cyclists to wear a helmet, yet the fine for being caught riding without one is just $29 for both youth and adults. Russell, who has been an advocate of enforcing cycling laws for 12 years, says the station sees a huge difference in accidents between those who choose to wear a helmet and those who decide not to.

In 2011, a cyclist traveling on Vancouver Street crashed when his tire clipped a pebble. He was not wearing a helmet and now remains in a permanent vegetative state.

“The most popular excuse we hear is ‘I forgot it.’ But do you forget to put your seat belt on, or wear a life jacket if you go boating?” says Russell. “The one that gets me, and that you will absolutely get a ticket for, is people who ride around with their helmet on their handlebars. That’s just being ignorant.”

Despite a study performed last month from the Canadian Medical Association that found cyclists who don’t wear a helmet are three times more likely to die as the result of a head injury, controversy remains over whether or not helmets actually prevent fatal injuries. In the association’s study, collisions with motor vehicles accounted for 77 per cent of fatalities, and ICBC reports have shown that cycling accidents on the Island involving vehicles and bikes have gone up 21 per cent (from 230 incidents in 2007 to 280 in 2011). Goldberg sees those numbers as red flags that more awareness is needed. His two campaign sponsors, the Cridge Centre for Family and the provincial B.C. Brain Injury Association, agree.

“We have to start looking at helmets to be a wonderful fashion statement,” Goldberg says. “People are afraid of the ‘inconvenience,’ but helmets save lives, and your brain is your most precious organ.”

To display this, Goldberg offers demonstrations to children and parents using peaches (or tomatoes, depending on the season), to represent quadrants of the brain, dropped first in the comfort of a helmet, then without one. The results are always the same.

“Kids see the peaches bump around, then they see them smash, and we talk about what would happen in each injury,” says Goldberg. “This peach, the parietal lobe, means your senses, touch, taste and smell would be affected, the occipital lobe means your vision would be affected, with the frontal lobe, your motor skills would be damaged and with the temporal lobe, your language would be hurt.”

Goldberg just hopes others will heed his story.

“It should not have to take a life-threatening experience to make people realize this is something we have to take seriously,” he says. “It took a lot of hard work and devotion to get to where I am today, to find myself again.” M

Contact Goldberg for a talk through

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