© Photos by Louis-Charles Dumais
15 years ago, a horrific motorcycle accident nearly took Enrico Quilico’s life, leaving him comatose and with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). His recovery was arduous, but Enrico took on the challenge, incorporating sports, fitness, and studies into his rehabilitation. Since then, Enrico has participated in marathons, including the 2016 Lake Placid Ironman, and worked with the University of Toronto’s Rehabilitation Science Institute, where he is a PhD student, to develop a program designed to help individuals with TBI. We sat down with Enrico to talk about his story and how his experiences led him to where he is today.
You’ve had quite the recovery after your traumatic brain injury—a life-altering experience, to say the least. How did that change your life?
ENRICO: I was 23 when I had the motorcycle accident that led to a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). I spent two weeks in a coma, one month in intensive care, and two more in hospital. Then I was transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation centre for another month before continuing my rehab as an outpatient for two more years. I had to relearn how to speak, how to walk, how to do just about everything again with newfound disabilities. The things I took for granted in life were taken from me and I had to work twice as hard to reclaim them. I went back to school, which was incredibly challenging. I became a teacher and am now in the process of completing my PhD studies. The entire process was a very humbling lesson. I recognize how fortunate I am to still be alive and do not take anything for granted. The accident was the worst event of my life, but I chose to make it a turning point for the better. I believe anyone can do that, if they choose to.
You attribute much of your recovery to sports and recreation, which led to the development of your sports participation program. Can you share more about why sports & recreation are so important to individuals who have a moderate-to-severe TBI?
ENRICO: I led a sedentary life before the accident, but I decided that fitness and sport were going to become the vehicles with which I was going to make a comeback after my TBI. Regaining my physical abilities and the 70lbs of weight I lost as a result of lying in a hospital bed for three months was very difficult. A year after the accident, I decided to take on the challenge of completing a triathlon. I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome anything. So, I started swimming, cycling, and running competitively for the first time. In the summer of 2008, two years after the accident, I participated in the Montreal Esprit Sprint Triathlon and fell in love with the experience. I continued participating in endurance sport events, and by 2016, I was running full marathons and had completed my first full ironman.
Training aside, what helped you the most during your recovery?
ENRICO: I was surrounded by love and support from family, friends, and excellent rehabilitation professionals, which is invaluable. They never left my side, and I could not have done it without them. Another big part of my successful recovery was going back to school. Just like my newfound involvement in exercise and sport, this was the training I did for my brain. I received support as a student with disabilities and was exposed to incredibly inspiring teachers and mentors along the way. I was actually a very bad student growing up, and look at me now! I am working towards becoming a university professor. In summary, I would say that people are what helped me the most.
You are currently working with the Acquired Brain Injury Research Lab in the Rehabilitation Science Institute at the University of Toronto, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal, and more recently BRILLIANT (biomedical research and information living laboratory for innovative advances for new technologies) rehabilitation program to better assist those with Acquired Brain Injuries. Can you explain your role and how your PhD is incorporated into the research?
ENRICO: As a PhD student, who coordinates a multi-site research program for adults with moderate-severe TBI under the supervision of two prolific leaders in the rehabilitation sciences: Dr. Angela Colantonio and Dr. Bonnie Swaine, I am fortunate to know many talented and accomplished multidisciplinary researchers across Ontario and Quebec. As a result, I am exposed to a number of unique rehabilitation initiatives that aim to further optimize recovery and function for people across multiple health-related domains, like BRILLIANT. Beyond my own research, my role as a student in these types of initiatives is to learn from the best-practice examples of other scientists in this area, make connections, and potentially create/seize opportunities for research collaborations in the future, as our objectives are all closely aligned.
You were presented with the Change Maker award from the Neurological Health Charities Canada after being nominated by Brain Injury Canada, whom you helped raise $10,000 for in 2016. You have directly made a meaningful impact on the lives of so many so far, what is the most important thing someone with a traumatic brain injury should know about recovery?
ENRICO: Thank you, that means a lot to me. The most important thing someone with TBI should know about recovery is that it will continue to improve with work and time. I have witnessed and measured life-changing improvements in dozens of participants as the result of being part of a community-based health promotion program. From personal experience, I know that I am further along now, almost 15 years after my accident, than I was five years ago, and five years before that. Recovery continues as long as you keep working at it. Do not give up, reach for the stars every single day!