Nearly a decade after Jesse Ryckman made the decision to get behind the wheel of his car while drunk, he's still living with the consequences.
Ryckman suffered a brain injury in the early morning hours of April 24, 2004 when he crashed and was ejected out of his vehicle and on to a road in central Alberta. He was airlifted to a Calgary hospital, spent two weeks in a coma and had to re-learn how to walk and talk.
Since the day of the crash, everything in Ryckman's life has changed.
Due to his brain injury, Ryckman lost his senses of taste and smell, he fatigues quickly, has trouble remembering and is unable to work full-time.
Prior to his injury, he was an accomplished baseball player. Nine years later, he's still learning how to play his favourite sport once again.
For the past seven years, Ryckman has been telling his story in the hopes of teaching young people not to make the same mistakes he did. Every Thursday during the school year, he goes to the University Hospital of Northern B.C. to take part in the Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Trauma in Youth (PARTY) program.
"I tell the kids that one of the luckiest things that happened was that I only injured myself with my stupid mistake," he said. "It could have been a lot worse than that."
At the PARTY program, students from across Prince George as well as high-risk youth from Camp Trapping, hear from police and medical staff, as well as Ryckman and other brain injury survivors about the effects of risky behaviour.
Since Ryckman's injury isn't visible, many of the students are surprised to learn he has an injury - but it becomes obvious when he speaks with students and his memory problems prevent him from remembering the questions the students just asked him.
One of the most powerful parts of Ryckman's story is when he tells the Grade 10 students who attend the PARTY program about the educational part of his rehabilitation. He was a high school graduate at the time of the crash, but Ryckman had to take elementary school lessons to gain back some of the skills he lost due to the brain injury.
"I started off at Kindergarten and I went all the way to Grade 12, doing different areas of each grade," he said. "I did Kindergarten to Grade 12 in a year."
Whether it was learning basic math skills again through the early grades or picking up grammar and writing at the high school level, Ryckman said the special program gave him the confidence to get his life back after the devastating injury.
At the PARTY program, Ryckman not only tells his story, he presents a slide show to paint a picture of his life before and after the crash.
"The kids write letters to me, they'll ask me questions or they'll tell me how positive they feel from my story," Ryckman said.
Like Ryckman, Jamie Cooper knows he made a mistake and wants to share his story to ensure others don't end up in his predicament.
Fifteen years ago, Cooper and a friend were drinking, doing drugs and riding four-wheelers without helmets. When they crashed, they were both seriously injured. Cooper's friend eventually took his own life in the aftermath.
Cooper ended up in a wheelchair with limited mobility and requiring a computer to speak. He tells his story at the PARTY program, explaining to the students that he needs to eat all of his food pureed, requires help going to the bathroom and needs to be woken up every three hours at night so that a staff member at the Prince George Brain Injured Group (PGBIG) group home can flip him over.
An overwhelming number of acquired brain injuries such as those suffered by Ryckman and Cooper can be prevented. From wearing a helmet when cycling to making better decisions to preventing slips and falls, taking the proper precautions can avoid a possible life-altering brain injury.
PGBIG is instrumental in getting that message out to the community. They hold bike rodeos at schools, sell low-cost helmets, make presentation to workplace groups and have booths at community events like Canada Day celebrations to talk about what steps can be taken to avoid getting hurt and what services are available for people in the community who have acquired a brain injury.
"Quite often when you begin a conversation, they share that they know someone or they themselves have experienced a brain injury and that's often how we get clientele," PGBIG education and injury prevention co-ordinator Julia Koopmans said.
Northern Brain Injury Association remote case manager Will Lewis estimates that up to 95 per cent of injuries can be prevented and his group is trying to spread their safety message across northern B.C. through a poster campaign and educational outreach. His group is also in the process of developing brochures to insure brain injury prevention in the workplace.
Lewis said finding ways to reduce the number of injuries will not only benefit the health and welfare of citizens, it will also safe the healthcare system money in the long run as the cost of treating brain injury survivors runs in the billions of dollars annually.
The safety message appears to be working as more people wear helmets when they engage in leisure activities.
"When you look at downhill skiing, when I was a kid, none of us wore helmets," PG BIG case manager Jane Daigle said. "When I went skiing this winter, the mountain I was on, there wasn't one person on that mountain without a helmet."
Angus McDonald knows firsthand how the importance of wearing protective headgear. He had a helmet on his head on Sept. 16, 2009 as he was riding his bike along Northwood Pulpmill Road and was hit by a pickup truck.
He credits the helmet with saving his life, but the collision still caused serious physical injuries as well as a brain injury.
"I'm incredibly lucky. I should not be here, I should be dead," McDonald said. "I was minutes away from death, bleeding to death and I was on the road not breathing. I'm very thankful that I'm still here."
As a result of his brain injury, McDonald has trouble keeping his balance. The former Iceman champion can no longer cross-country ski and has problems speed skating. He estimates that his athletic regime is about 10 per cent of what it once was.
McDonald believes that by sharing his story he can help raise awareness about brain injury prevention. He brings his message to school groups to let children know the dangers of cycling without a helmet.
"Just wearing a helmet, even for basic things, can help save your life and save your head," he said. "I think it's important to show people how physically damaged I am and how important it is to protect your head."
Despite the life-changing nature of a brain injury, not everyone responds well to helmet and brain health campaigns.
Some in the athletic community get protective of their sports and worry that too much emphasis on brain injury prevention could change the nature of games like hockey and football.
Daigle said her group is not trying to shut contact sports down, but just ensure the right precautions are taken before athletes step on to the field or ice.
"Our message is having the right gear for the right sport," she said.
Another area where local brain injury prevention advocates are promoting more helmet use is among people with mobility challenges who use motorized scooters to get around.
"They have a high centre of gravity, a very narrow wheel base that that's a recipe for disaster," Lewis said. "It's one of those things like with motorcycles where it takes time for people to realize the extent of the danger and then actually do something to deal with it."