A Second in Time
“A second in time.” That’s all it took for Dr. Garnet Cummings’ life to change on August 27th, 1998. While returning home after a day shift as the Chief of Emergency at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, he was hit on the passenger side by a three quarter ton truck carrying a welding unit going 140km/hr, blowing through a red light on Anthony Henday and 100th Avenue. One second, and every aspect of his life was permanently changed. He was the Chief of Emergency, at the top of his career, and just over one year into his marriage. What should have been the best time of his life both personally and professionally was suddenly a nightmare of surgeries, doctor’s appointments, stress, depression, a litigation case against the driver, loss of identity and stability, and uncertainties about the future.
What got Garnet through everything was his ever-supportive wife, Greta. She was a nursing executive working on her PhD at the University of Alberta, who was now going to have to take her education and apply it at home. Still a newlywed, she had gone from the early, blissful honeymoon stage of marriage to the uncertain and unknown position of caregiver, usually reserved for much later in life.
It took six months of changes, forgetfulness, anger, and denial before Garnet was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. From there, everything changed again. They were now trying to navigate Garnet’s physical recovery and his brain injury, a path of permanent change and even more denial. Greta admits it took around a year or two for it to really sink in that things would never go back to the way they used to be, that her husband wouldn’t go back to being the same man she had married. They struggled with the lawsuit against the driver, which took eight years to resolve. During that time, Garnet says, “Greta always put my needs before her own, in spades.”
Unable to return to work at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Garnet looked into family medicine, which he was also unable to pursue. “In one second of time, all my careers got snuffed out.” He was the first medical director of the STARS North Program and worked in medicine for twenty-three years; now on the other side of the situation, he had to figure out who he was all over again. Both of them had to redefine their relationship and their marriage going forward. When asked how they were able to do it, Greta explains, “I think we are both highly optimistic people that always strive to make things work despite obstacles. We just kept trying to get positive outcomes for Garnet’s health and our relationship,” to which Garnet agrees wholeheartedly.
In many cases, people with acquired brain injuries lose relationships because of the changes to their identity. Greta has and will continue to stay by her husband’s side, because, “Sometimes the new identity is just as wonderful as the old identity, it’s just different. It’s worth hanging on to find out what the new identity is going to be.” In 2011 they renewed their vows on a beach in the Bahamas, writing and combining their own vows. They included, “The only words more meaningful to me than I do are I always will,” which is showcased in the way they have always stood by each other over the years, and speak about one another.
Garnet also mentions that he believes everything happens for a reason, including his accident. He’s still been able to help people in different ways, and has adjusted to his new normal. When one door closes another opens, and they spent a long time focused on what they had lost, and not what could be waiting for them going forward. Though it took the lawsuit finally being resolved to find their new normal (whilst dealing with it they were in constant limbo), they are thriving and doing well, and have been for many years. They have pursued a life well lived, traveling to the Bahamas again earlier this month, and even climbing Mount. Kilimanjaro in 2011. Garnet’s relationship with his step-daughter Kristin improved after she made a documentary video about his injury, and their bonding gave Greta hope that everything would turn out alright on their journey. This wasn’t necessarily the life path they had laid out for themselves, but as Garnet says, “We replaced our original dreams with something just as valuable.”
Now, coming up on twenty years since the accident, the brain injury, and twenty one years of marriage, Greta has this advice to those who are struggling either as someone with a traumatic brain injury, or the partner; “Many things are not the same, but not everything is different. The core foundation and love in a relationship can continue regardless of changes and it’s the center of support for both people.” They are inspiring words, and ones that have served Garnet and Greta well.