30 years of serving brain injury support group led to Bill Bryden bring nominated for award

AS Bill Bryden and his wife Jean celebrated Hogmanay with neighbours back in 1980 they were completely unaware that their lives were about to change 

Just a mile away, their son Neil was making his way home after seeing in the New Year at the Tron Kirk when he was knocked over by a hit-and-run driver.

The 19-year-old was taken to the nearby Edinburgh Royal Infirmary with multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, and when police officers broke the news to the couple several hours later, Neil had already undergone surgery and was in a coma.

It would be a month before he awoke from the coma and a further six weeks before he could leave the hospital, but the damage caused by his head injuries would be with him for life.

“The effects have been long-lasting,” his father says. “He changed completely. He was a very bright, intelligent, musically gifted young man. Although he has taught himself to play the guitar again, his life has changed dramatically.”

Now, more than 30 years later, Bill has been shortlisted for a national award in recognition of his work with the charity Edinburgh Headway which provides support for people affected by brain injury.

He is one of only three people across the UK in the running for the Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway award. In 1997, Jean was made an MBE for her work as chairwoman of the charity and full-time volunteer running Headway House in the grounds of the Astley Ainslie Hospital.

Edinburgh Headway grew out of a support group which was set up after Glynis McEwan, a social worker working with head injury patients, invited their families and carers to a meeting at the hospital in 1982.

“We spoke to each other and realised there was nothing out there in the community to help relatives,” says Bill, 81, from Craiglockhart.


Hide Ad

A common side effect among head injury sufferers is they tend to undergo a complete personality reversal. Whereas someone who was very shy will become an extrovert, someone who was very sociable becomes withdrawn and depressed.

“Families of people who have had a brain injury become completely isolated which is largely down to the fact other relatives and friends find it difficult to cope with that change.”

The group started to meet once a month at the hospital and was eventually given the use of an old kitchen. Later still, after becoming a charity, they expanded into a former dining hall and coffee room.

They now have an office and gym as well as a room to carry out a wide variety of therapeutic and rehabilitative services. The centre is open from Monday to Thursday every week with a team of part-time workers and volunteers on hand to provide support for up to 40 members a day ranging in age from 20 to 80.


Hide Ad

“It is a very happy place,” says Bill, a retired lawyer. “The whole ethos of the place is to cheer people up.”

With depression another side effect of head injury, this is one of the most important roles played by the charity.

“When you try to put yourself in their shoes and think of all the things they have lost, it’s hardly surprising they get extremely depressed.”

Bill has lived through it all with Neil, who was in his third year of a chemical engineering course at Edinburgh University when the accident happened.


Hide Ad

“The lecturers reckoned he had a very good chance of getting a first class honours degree which meant at that time the world would have been his oyster.”

The recovery process was very slow and for the family there was no 
Hollywood film moment when Neil suddenly came out of his coma completely compos mentis.

The couple, together with their younger daughter Sheila, now 51, spent long hours by his bedside talking to him and trying to get him to come around.

The first sign that Neil was starting to surface came one day after Bill had dropped Sheila off at Waverley Station so she could get the train back to Aberdeen University.


Hide Ad

“I was saying to him ‘You know how much junk she takes with her’ and Neil said ‘huh huh’.”

Although he would eventually be able to return home, Neil had lost the hearing in his right ear and suffered profound double vision. His short term memory was severely affected as was his ability to process information or concentrate.

Despite trying twice to return to university, he was unable to last for more than five or six weeks.

“Knowing what we know now with our work with Headway, he went back too soon. He had all the classic effects of head injury,” says his dad. “It all conspired against him and he never managed to graduate.”


Hide Ad

Through his position as a partner in a law firm, Bill managed to get Neil a job as a court runner, carrying paperwork up and down to the court offices. At the age of 52, Neil still works there and lives at home with his parents.

It was as a lawyer that Bill was able to contribute most to Edinburgh Headway, turning the group from an unincorporated association into a limited company and registered charity.

The former Royal High School pupil and friend of Ronnie Corbett – who is patron of the charity together with Lord Emslie – has also served as chairman, president and secretary and has given his time to numerous public bodies and NHS forums which work to support and improve the lives of brain injury patients.

He was nominated for the award by Edinburgh Headway colleague Kim Taylor who said: “I nominated Bill because he’s an unsung hero and is fully deserving of national recognition.”


Hide Ad

Now, having seen the charity celebrate its 30th anniversary last month, Bill and Jean, 75, are planning to step down from their roles within the next few months.

But first, Bill will attend the award ceremony at the Dorchester Hotel in London on December 7, before celebrating his 82nd birthday just three days later.

Men more prone to brain injury

The award is named after Stephen McAleese, a Cumbrian man who defied his own brain injury to dedicate his life to helping others.


Hide Ad

Across the UK, an estimated 500,000 people of working age are living with permanent disabilities as a result of head injury.

Each year, around 1.4 million people attend hospital A&E following head injury.

Approximately half of deaths in people under 40 are due to head injury.

Men are two to three times more likely to have a brain injury than women.


Hide Ad

Young men, between the ages of 15-29, are five times more likely to suffer a brain injury.

The major causes of head injury are road traffic accidents, falls and accidents at home or at work.