Chris’s incredible cooking progress with OT Zoe post brain injury
Unscrambling brain injury with scrambled eggs? How a Gordon Ramsey recipe with a peppering of OT helped turn a severely brain-injured tree surgeon into a multi-tasking kitchen master.
A contented smile settles on Chris’s face as plumes of steam, rising from the bubbling pot of pasta he is busy stirring, billow about his head.
He is cooking ham and red onion fusilli, a dish that would grace any modern-day Boxing Day buffet but is a year-round personal favourite for Chris.
That he is cooking anything at all is food for thought when you factor in his 50ft fall from a tree less than 7 years ago in a works accident that left him in a coma, induced due to the traumatic brain injury (TBI) he sustained.
Yet, Chris’s thoughts about the food provided a pivotal starting point for neuro occupational therapists helping him along the arduous rehabilitation route that followed.
When Chris was injured in 2014, he was 23 and lived “the young person’s dream” having moved to Sydney, Australia, to further his professional experience as a tree surgeon.
His mother, Denise, recalled he was having “such a wonderful time” making the most of the outdoor lifestyle with a big circle of friends and a busy work and social life.
He was also “extremely fit”, she said and would visit the gym daily and go running. Food was a “massive” part of his life, and he liked to follow a healthy diet.
But then he fell. Or, rather, the tree did, and as Chris, harnessed to it, hit the ground, his safety hat came off, the tree bounced, and he hit the ground again, this time with his bare head.
The tree’s roots were rotten; it was later discovered.
The injury to Chris’s head, surprisingly, was small. However, the location – at the top of his brain stem – was of huge significance, impacting on all his fine and gross motor abilities.
Except for one.
When he began to wake from the coma six weeks later, he was able to open his left eye.
Now, walking and talking again and moving easily about his brightly-lit kitchen, Chris is cheerfully preparing a pasta lunch for 3 while chipping in to the conversation between his guests – Krysalis neuro OT, Zoe Martin and his support worker, Namita.
Zoe has been working with Chris for over 3 years, meeting for regular sessions to monitor his progress with participation in daily living activities and improving his cognitive skills, such as memory, attention and planning, and physical abilities, including strength, posture and balance.
Namita supports Chris 3 days a week, helping him practice and improve his daily living activities, including one of his favourites – cooking.
For despite his TBI, Chris’s passions in life – his motivators – remain the same as they ever were.
And once Zoe discovered them during her early neuro occupational therapy assessment of Chris’s previous life, abilities and ambitions, they became tools to fine-tune his rehabilitation.
It’s a collaborative approach, involving Chris, his family, Zoe and 2 support workers which ensures the consistency that is so vital to a successful outcome.
Repetition of tasks, after all, is how the recovering brain relearns them.
“Chris always gets the things out first that he needs to cook and then Namita steps up to support if needed,” Zoe explains in an interview via a video link.
“At the moment, he’d like to develop his knife skills. He watches the cooks on television and is aiming to get his knife skills as good as theirs.”
Chris concurs, but adds with a smile: “I want to say I’m not that good.”
But when Zoe reminds him of how difficult it must be to work with the knife speed of a professional chef, he concedes: “I’m getting better. I’m getting very quick.”
There is no doubt Chris is getting better in many of the daily living activities he needs to achieve his ultimate goal –independence.
Indeed, if his recipe collection is anything to go by, his neurorehabilitation is working as a heavy-duty food mixer at top speed – combining all the right ingredients.
Chris has turned his hand to no less than 27 recipes since he started his collection as an in-patient in a rehabilitation centre towards the end of 2014.
And among the many he’s mastered, there’s even a Gordon Ramsay gourmet version of scrambled eggs.
It was one of the first recipes Chris learned, but now, while discussing its unusual process which he’d seen Ramsay showing young chefs on tv, Chris remembered the finishing touch: “Add crème Fraiche at the end.”
Watching the recipe being demonstrated on television is “a good way of cementing the process in the brain”, Zoe said.
Chris’s growing recipe collection is in itself a goal; another neuro occupational therapy work in progress.
It began life as a few laminated sheets that grew into a book that was then transferred to a recipe app Chris now accesses via his tablet as a reminder of ingredients and process while cooking.
He’s even been creating his own recipes since Covid-19 forced the closure of his favourite eateries during a recent lockdown.
“When Subway had to shut because of lockdown, Chris began buying his own baguettes and making his own fillings. That’s where his inspiration came from,” Zoe said.
And he loves vegetables so when he makes a salad; it’s a bit like going into a Harvester and having a bit of everything!
“He loves red onion, olives, beetroot, gherkin, pickled onions, sweetcorn, avocado, parmesan and then he adds some protein. It’s always delicious!”
Other dishes Chris can now cook include barbecue chicken fajitas, American-style pancakes, bircher, chicken alfredo pasta, and Caesar salad with black bean rice.
With Namita’s encouragement, he’s also now turning his hand to making complex curries.
“Being able to cook as a group makes it more enjoyable,” Zoe said.
“We have all worked on recipes together, and sometimes all of us take on jobs. And then, in the evenings, Chris meets with his family and Mum cooks – although Chris likes to help with that too sometimes.”
The support Chris receives from his family is an upside to living in a purpose-built extension to their home.
The kitchen has been designed with Chris’s cognitive and physical needs in mind, such as fitting the work surface at a height to facilitate a good standing posture and placing items clearly and safely within reach.
And Chris has put his stamp on it by displaying items he loves, including a giant decorative Marmite jar on the windowsill.
There’s a matching 500-piece puzzle picture of a Marmite jar on the wall; a fitting reflection of cognitive challenges overcome in Chris’s applaudable ascent towards self-reliance.
You could also see it as a symbol of hope for everyone involved in the rehabilitation of his injured brain; all those people, including Chris himself, who are diligently and determinedly putting the pieces of his life back together to help make him whole again.
So, what does Chris love most about being able to cook again in his own kitchen?
Stepping back with a smile of satisfaction at the finished fusilli dish he’s successfully prepared for lunch, he rubs his stomach to signal his hunger and answers happily: “The food and eating it!”