A Chemainus woman who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in her 20s says she’s saddened and tired of being mistaken for being inebriated.
Barbara E. (Red) Allen, now 59, was just 27 years old when she was a passenger in a fatal car accident caused by a drunk driver in Peticodiac, New Brunswick.
The drunk driver walked away. Allen’s driver, Tom, died at the scene. Allen had to be cut from the car with the Jaws of Life. Her brain injury resulting from the accident was compounded by a punctured lung and facial injuries that required plastic surgery.
A long and arduous process “where I had to learn how to walk and talk again,” gave Allen some of her life back, but she never fully recovered from the brain injury and never will.
“I was unconscious for nine days,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with this disability for 30 years now.”
The pain of those injuries is still felt, but it’s the misperceptions they sometimes create make it even harder to cope.
She’s been stopped by police in the middle of the day and asked to take a breathalyzer test because her speech and appearance is such that people often think she’s been drinking. Allen was pulled over for a mistaken interpretation of dangerous driving after a woman spotted her at a traffic light.
She doesn’t wish to vilify the RCMP who are only doing their jobs, but she’s been mistakenly thought to be inebriated three times in recent years and been questioned while trying to make liquor store purchases.
“I am simply wanting to raise awareness of invisible disabilities and asked to be respected for myself and my community efforts,” Allen said.
On top of everything else, she sports red hair and is most comfortable in a cowboy hat, boots and a dress from her background growing up on a farm and working with horses in the Ottawa Valley that brings up even more misconceptions about her and also used to walk a white puli – a high-drive dog that requires mental exercise as much as physical, not unlike herself – along the Hermit Trail in Chemainus.
The fateful day that changed her life happened on Dec. 20, 1990. She caught a ride with a fellow who lived on Prince Edward Island and was on his way to catching the last ferry home.
Allen was admitted to hospital in Moncton, New Brunswick after the accident.
“I was given a 50-50 chance to live because I had lost so much blood internally,” she recalled.
Allen remained unconscious after being induced to allow her brain to heal.
After leaving the hospital, “I remember I made a big card for the hospital people,” she said.
But her ordeals were just beginning with the brain being such a complex organ.
“I was reduced to being a three-year-old outside and in,” Allen noted.
She’s done everything to get as healthy as possible, but there’s been plenty of pitfalls along the way. However, “I refused to get addicted to pharmaceuticals,” Allen stressed.
Ever since that time, “when I get tired, I walk like a drunk,” she said.
Allen has a lot going on in her life and tries not to dwell on things, but it’s always a challenge.
She had lived in Ottawa and Peterborough, Ont. after the accident, moved to Parksville in October of 2016 and in January of 2017 to Chemainus where she’s been quite content.
Some other things that happened in the past had an impact on her to do community service.
Thirty years ago Allen had a bicycle stolen from her garage and that prompted her to get involved with Block Watch and Community Policing that continues to this day.
“I am responsible for initiating the Block Watch program in our small community and understand Chemainus town to have used our model as incentive to start the program for the town residents, as well,” she noted.
Even this long after her accident, Allen doesn’t take anything for granted.
Allen took 10 courses and spent three years working toward becoming a personal trainer. She’s not letting anything get her down despite some annoying obstacles, but would just like people who might not know someone’s circumstances to show a little more compassion.
“I’m feeling blessed to be able to walk and talk again,” she said. “I’m working out like crazy.”
Allen hopes some understanding of her life will help so that she can continue to participate within the Chemainus community and “not retreat like the beloved Chemainus hermit,” she confided.
She recently joined the Cowichan Brain Injury Society and that’s helping herself and others with like minds to cope.
“I think I’m a better person than I was before. It’s a life lesson you don’t wish on anyone. But I’m here now.”