SensUs Interview: Niels de Laat

‘It was a head-on collision. My head smashed into the dashboard of my scooter and - sorry, I have to be a bit graphic here - I broke basically every bone of my face.’ 

This is the story of Niels de Laat. At a young age he was involved in a serious scooter accident. Now, 26 years later, he still experiences the effects of his TBI. It changed his life entirely.

Welcome Niels! A long time ago, you had an accident with your scooter. What happened?

It was 1997, I was in the third year of my studies. I was working as an intern for a local newspaper. Early in the morning I had to report on a police raid, because they found a weed plantation. The newspaper lent me a scooter. I drove to a gas station nearby. Then I was hit by another scooter that was coming the other way, driving on the wrong side of the road. This brought me into a coma for thirteen days.


After waking up out of coma, what was the first thing that you experienced?

I do remember that and it is a bit of a traumatic memory. The first thing that I saw when I woke up were my arms. And they were a lot skinnier than I remembered them. And all these wires and tubes were coming out of it. I looked at the end of my bed and I saw my parents, they were watching me. From their expressions, I could immediately tell that something was very wrong. During their stay on the ICU, they were told everyday that I probably would not make it... It was a bit miraculous how I survived.

How did you experience the diagnosis? 

Because my head was struck with great force, it was already expected that I had suffered from a cerebri contusio, a brain contusion. After surgery, my head was swollen and they had to keep me asleep because the pain would be too much. A CT scan showed damage at the front and back lobe of the brain. I have seen many doctors in the first years, such as neurosurgeons, researchers, dental care professionals and psychologists. 


How did the recovery go?

After the accident, I have had a lot of help. I had to learn again how to make coffee and how to take a shower. I knew the word ‘shower’, but I did not know I had to take my clothes off, get a piece of soap and turn the tap on. Furthermore, I had psychological help, because I was starting to have questions about my recovery and future.
The first year was all about recuperating and regaining strength, because I lost a lot of weight during my stay at the ICU. They had to transplant bone for my jaws, which was taken from my hip. My jaws were held in place with iron work, so I had to learn again how to eat.

How are you doing at the moment?

Luckily, I was able to finish my studies in journalism. I have had a few jobs, as a journalist as well. However, it was never a job that fitted my limitations. That is why I started for as a freelance textwriter and communication advisor. Next to that, I work as a tour guide in a war museum in the Netherlands and I am a simulated patient for psychology students at Radboud University. Recently, I have become an ambassador at Hersenletsel.nl, a patient foundation for people with non-inherited brain injury.

Do you have symptoms that are still persisting?

The biggest symptom is fatigue. All activities cost much more energy than before, even the fun ones. Another problem is that the processing of information is slower. In my work as a journalist for example, it takes a lot of time to listen to recordings of an interview, make notes, process the information and write the story. Furthermore, I have frequent headaches when I have worked for too long. The only remedy is sleep. My life is about making choices. I have a double agenda and keep a calendar with important dates. My phone is full of memo recordings that I listen back to, to support my memory. Otherwise, too much is lost.


You said you help psychology students as a simulated patient at Radboud University, how did this come about?

Actually, a neuropsychologist pointed me to this job. When my therapy was finished, we kept in touch and after a couple of months - he knew I had a journalism background - he asked me for role playing at Radboud University. The students will later be working for example at schools or companies, where they will see groups of people with very diverse problems and symptoms. They will listen to my story and learn how to ask the right questions to find the proper diagnosis. At first I was a bit hesitant, because it would mean that I would have to relive the accident and the whole period after that again. However, I also thought it might work a bit therapeutically for me. The cliche about this is true: ‘time heals all wounds’. Over the years it got easier to tell my story. And the students value it very much. Actually this is one of the nicest things that I do.

Is there something that you would like to say to others that are suffering from a TBI like yours?

To the people that have experienced a TBI a short time ago, I would like to say, take your time to go out and explore your new limits. Especially for those that have to learn how their new life is going to look like, what their new ‘self’ is capable of. It is a hard process, because you could run into walls (figurally speaking) a lot. Do not worry about failing. Next to that, do not be afraid to make hard choices. Acceptance is a big part of it, where you will accept that there has been a life changing event and that there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. If you try, you can find something new that is fulfilling in life! 


Is there something that you want to say to the teams that participate in the SensUs competition?

I really hope that the teams will create a working design. There are so many patients with TBI that go under the radar and are never properly diagnosed. Because I had the right ‘label’, I got very good care. Doctors could tell me what to expect and refer me to the right people. If this does not happen, you will be told to go home, to get some rest and that you will feel better after some time. For me the consequences of the accident are life long, so a proper diagnosis was needed. If the teams manage to build a working biosensor, that would be awesome. It would mean a lot to healthcare! So, I hope they will work hard. But mostly, I wish them to have a lot of fun!