Broadcaster Sheena McDonald tells of journey back from brain injury

Sheena McDonald with partner Allan Little after she received her Honorary Degree today from the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
Sheena McDonald with partner Allan Little after she received her Honorary Degree today from the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
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Broadcasters Sheena McDonald and Allan Little talk about battle to recover after a catastrophic incident took its toll on their life

The leading Scottish broadcasters Sheena McDonald and Allan Little have told how they decided to write a book about how to deal with brain injury to mark 20 years since she was struck by a police van being driven on the wrong side of the road.

Sheena at the location in London where she was hit by a police van.

Sheena at the location in London where she was hit by a police van.

McDonald suffered serious brain injuries, completely lost her memory in the accident in London and took years to make a recovery.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she said she and her husband had decided to write the book together to provide a “resource” to help other brain injury victims and their partners cope.

The Edinburgh-based couple worked with Gail Robinson, McDonald’s neuro-psychological rehabilitation specialist, to compile the book, Rebuilding Life after Brain Injury: Dreamtalk, which recalls the impact the accident had on both of their lives.

Fife-born McDonald, a well-known broadcaster with the BBC, STV and Channel 4 in the 1980s and 1990s.

PC Glenn Whiteley was cleared of driving without due care and attention.

PC Glenn Whiteley was cleared of driving without due care and attention.

But she was left in a coma for 72 hours after the accident near the couple’s then home in Islington, London, in February 1999.

Little, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent at the time of the accident, read an excerpt from the book recalling his harrowing journey back to the UK after receiving news of the accident.

He said: “It is a journey that changes the trajectory of your life, your priorities, your values, your hopes and ambitions, your sense of who you are in the world and your relationship with those around you, but you don’t know it yet.

“Other bad things might have happened in your life, but there has always been a back to normal resolution. This, I would learn, would be different. A barrier had descended cutting Sheena and I off from our past lives. I didn’t know it yet, but there would be no going back to the way things had been before that day, no normal to go back to. You were entering a new country with an unfamiliar language and an unknown map.”

Sheena McDonald on set of Scottish Women.

Sheena McDonald on set of Scottish Women.

McDonald, who suffered post-traumatic amnesia, recalled how she and Little used games like Scrabble and Boggle to aid her recovery.

She said: “Family friends lent us a cottage to stay in in East Lothian. We used to walk around a field once a day.

“In retrospect it was a very short walk, but it was very good therapy.”

McDonald also admitted that she had “probably” returned to work too quickly, less than a year after the accident, but “got away with it”.

She added: “The book was Gail’s idea. We had never wanted to write a misery-lit book, but to do it using her clinical perspective it made sense.

“Fortunately, someone actually suggested I write a book 18 years ago. Because I had absolutely no memory of the injury whatsoever I collated hospital records and police records and managed to fashion a kind of narrative. I was able to draw on all that for this book.

“The idea of it is to provide a resource for people who find themselves catapulted into Allan’s role, when he suddenly became an international affairs correspondent-come-carer.

“People suddenly find themselves being carers, while trying to hold down jobs and run families.”

Little added: “One of the reasons I wanted to do the book with Sheena and Gail is that when we were going through this I wanted to read someone else’s account of walking this path. There was nothing.

“The idea of the book is that in future others might be able to get some guidance from it. It takes a long time to understand that you can’t go back to normal. For 18 months I thought I could somehow combine my old life with the new reality. It took a long time and a lot of experience to understand that you can’t just get on with your old life. There was no going back to the way things had been.”

McDonald said: “There was an option. You could have walked away.”

Little admitted he had felt “quite disloyal” writing some of the book.

He added: “There was no point in it unless we were going to be honest. This isn’t a fairy tale.

“Sheena went through extreme mood swings. I got the blame for everything. I would come home after a few months from work not knowing which Sheena I was going to be greeted by.

“It was very difficult. You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s the injury talking and not the person that you love. You have to find a way of not escalating tension.”

The couple were asked at the book festival event how they felt about the police officer, Glenn Whitely, who was cleared of driving without due care and attention.

McDonald said: “I don’t use the word accident to describe what happened. I refer to it as the injury. Driving on the wrong side of the road is not an accident. You know you are doing it.”