Skating fanatic Rob Glanville’s life- changing injury wasn’t the result of some perilous stunt at the outer limits of his ability.
In fact, the manoeuvre that sent him hurtling down his own neuro-rehab pathway was so simple to him, he could practically have done it blindfolded.
The accident happened in 2015 on a Hammersmith pavement. Rob, then 35, was out indulging his life’s passion that had been with him since he got his first pair of street skates at age eight.
His other great hobby – moviemaking – was also in tow that day. Rob was producing the latest of his popular skating videos to be shared on the web.
“I was doing a trick that was well within me. I’d even already done the trick and was just repeating it to get a better video of it.”
This ‘wall-ride’ – jumping with both feet on a wall while skating along it at speed – sounds daunting to a non-skater.
For a rolling veteran like Rob, however, it’s bread and butter. “After the second time of doing it, I was rolling away backwards and a brick that was poking out of a wall at head height hit me in the back of the head. It knocked me out and I smashed my head into the pavement.”
Without a helmet, his head took the full force of the brick and the concrete. He suffered a seizure on the pavement. Inside his skull, heavy bleeding and clotting were unfolding.
He was rushed to St Mary’s Intensive Care Unit in Paddington for a life-saving craniotomy. Meanwhile his parents were told he may not make it.
News of the accident was “the phone call I’d always expected,” his dad later told the BBC. Rob had been a pioneer of street skating, winning and judging prestigious competitions.
He’d even been featured in a well-known American skate magazine. He’d never worn a helmet, however.
After several weeks of intensive rehab at St Helier Hospital, Rob was admitted to the Wolfson Neurorehabilitation Centre in London’s Queen Mary’s Hospital.
This entire horrific journey would have been prevented by wearing a helmet, he believes. And so, while still dealing with the challenges of brain injury recovery, he was eventually discharged with a plan for change.
The result is Rob’s new charity and campaigning initiative, Lids Save Lives.
He says: “There is quite a negative attitude towards wearing a helmet.
“Skating is about self-expression and helmets can feel limiting so a lot of skaters will only wear them if they have to or are forced to by a skate park or in a competition. People say they feel limited by them.
“But I see the opposite. Having the protection of a helmet means you can push yourself further and, in doing so, push the sport further. Helmets should be seen as a positive, not a negative.
“I don’t want to demonise or insult anyone who skates without a helmet as I did it for
years; but I’ve learnt the hard way through having a brain injury.”
Now, of course, Rob is never lid-less when on wheels.
“I don’t even notice I’m wearing it. Actually, it’s more noticeable when I’m not wearing it.
Without it, I’d feel concerned that I could fall and hit my head and do some damage. It scares me to not to wear one, which is the opposite of how a lot of my friends feel unfortunately.”
He is hopeful of changing attitudes, however. “I’m trying to change that perspective, especially in younger generations, not just for inline skating but also for the other extreme sports like skateboarding and BMXing.
“Also, I see a lot of kids on scooters that should be wearing helmets. I’d love to have a positive influence on them and the next generation so they can make good decisions and protect themselves.”
Given the risks of extreme sports, Rob’s argument that helmets should be worn at all times in every discipline shouldn’t be too much of a hard sell – despite deep-seated attitudes about how uncool or restrictive they may be.
A 2014 study based on data spanning over a decade and involving over four million patients, found that 11.3 per cent of all extreme sports injuries are in the head or neck.
Of those, 83 per cent were head injuries.
While street skating was not included in the research, its sporting cousin, skateboarding, had the highest incidence of head and neck injuries, ahead of snowboarding and skiing.
The study, led by Western Michigan University School of Medicine, reviewed 2000-2011 National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) data for seven popular sports featured in the Winter and Summer X Games.
In evaluating what difference helmets can make, it is the cycling world, rather than extreme sports, where most research comes from.
Some argue that cycle helmets do not protect enough. Others say they encourage riders to be riskier, perhaps by riding faster or taking their BMX over bigger jumps.
Yet the evidence for wearing them far outweighs the few arguments against. A US study in 2016 found that cycle helmets cut the risk of severe TBI in half in the event of a head injury.
Researchers analysed records of 6,267 people treated in 2012 for bleeding inside the skull after a bicycle accident.
More recently, scientists at the University of New South Wales, Australia, reported that helmets reduce the risks of serious head injury by 70 per cent. The research published in 2016, was based on data from over 40 studies, collectively involving more than 64,000 cyclists.
Behind the numbers are people like Rob, who can give a first-hand account of the dangers of not wearing a helmet at all. Having lived to tell the tale, he is eager to warn others and has big plans for his charity.
The organisation will seek to promote helmet use in extreme sports through schools and youth group events.
“We want young people to be aware of the risks to mitigate them and make good decisions.”
But its activities will go further than that: “I’m hoping to work with advocates for helmet use in other dangerous sports. For example, there are people like T.J. Lavin, the American BMX rider who suffered a brain injury like mine.
“He now actively promotes helmets and won’t let anyone in his park ride without them, which is great. I would love to see advocates such as him helping to promote helmets here in the UK and being positive role models for the next generation. I’d like to make documentaries about them and change the misconception that helmets aren’t cool.”
Another dimension of Lids Save Lives, was inspired by Rob’s experiences of neuro-rehab.
“One of the goals in the longer term is to set up a sporting academy that enables people with TBI to re-engage with the sports they played before their injury to help with their rehabilitation. This helped me tremendously in my rehab and I’m sure I’m not the only person who was sporting before their TBI.”
Staff at the Wolfson recognised that putting his skates back on would be pivotal to Rob’s recovery. And the prospect of skating again was certainly a motivator, amid the daily grind of rehab. After the gruelling process of relearning to walk, talk and eat, the thought of a rolling return was like rocket fuel to Rob’s morale.
“It has always been my passion so I wanted to get back to doing it as soon as possible. The rehab unit saw how beneficial it would be for me and got me doing it again, for which I’m very grateful.”
After tentatively skating indoors, he eventually battled his way back to London’s concrete playground. This, he says, has boosted his social, spiritual and physical wellbeing.
“My consultant said skating was part of my recovery because it was part of my life before the accident. They got me skating in the rehab unit, and working in the gym with two physios, and encouraged me to skate again, which was brilliant.”
Despite progress made so far – and his subsequent return to employment in the civil service – he admits recovering lost skills is an uphill push.
“I still have reduced function in the left side of my body. Every day I realise my left hand doesn’t work properly, which is very frustrating. I am still in the early stages of brain injury recovery and have a long way to go.
“In terms of skating, I haven’t achieved the level I was at before I had the accident. It’s a very high bar to hit but I believe if I dedicate myself to it and stay committed I’ll be able to get back there.”
Find details of Lids Save Lives on Facebook.