Could you rebuild your relationship from scratch?

After her new partner, former Crazy Canuck skier Dave Irwin, suffered a brain injury, Lynne Harrison had to help him walk, talk’and remember who she was

Could you rebuild your relationship from scratch?

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2008

Lynne Harrison and Dave Irwin act like any couple who have been together for a few years. They hold hands as they walk down the main street of their hometown of Canmore, Alta., to enjoy their morning coffee at a local shop. They snuggle under a blanket while watching movies at night. They say “I love you” to each other when they part. Pretty routine stuff for two people in love.

But Harrison and Irwin feel extremely fortunate to be able to enjoy such simple happiness, because seven years ago, just shy of a year after meeting Harrison, Irwin, then 46, suffered a severe brain injury during an extreme skiers’ event at Sunshine Village, Banff.

The worst wipeout of all

Irwin is one of the legendary Crazy Canucks—so dubbed by the media for their daredevil approach to beating the European powerhouses on the World Cup circuit.

A member of Canada’s national ski team from 1971 to 1982, Irwin holds two World Cup titles, and had suffered some spectacular wipeouts.

But that day at Sunshine Village in March 2001, his skis hit a bump, and, in the fall, his knee crashed into his head. Despite wearing a helmet, Irwin suffered a diffuse axonal traumatic brain injury, classified as a three—the deepest state of unconsciousness—on the Glasgow Coma Scale. His chances of walking, talking and leading a normal life again were very small. Harrison was told he would likely die.

“At first, when Dave was in the ICU, I cried,” says Harrison, who was 40 at the time. Before the accident, she says, “when Dave and I would go to bed at night, we were so happy to be together, we would have tears in our eyes. It had been just short of a year, and it was perfect love.” Watching Dave lie near death in a hospital bed, she recalls, “I kept thinking, Will I ever have that love again?”

Irwin had once told her that he would know what her love was made of “when the shit hit the fan.” And when Harrison stopped crying, she realized she would have to fight for her man. She knew she was in for a tough emotional battle—but was not prepared for the fact that when Irwin finally regained consciousness, he would not even know who she was.

Unwavering committment

Harrison was separated from her husband of 16 years when she met Irwin at a mutual friend’s home. It was love at first sight. Over a bottle of red wine, the two talked for hours about their mutual interests, including sports. Like Irwin, Harrison (at the time an administrative assistant for the City of Kamloops) led an active life of mountain biking, hiking, running and, of course, skiing.

The couple’s romance was fast and heated with magnetism. “He made me believe in love again,” says Harrison. They commuted more than five hours each way, back and forth from Kamloops to Canmore, every week for six months, before moving in together with her two children, Jorde and Morgan (now 20 and 18, respectively), and Irwin’s kids, Caitlin and Dean (now 21 and 20, respectively).

Until he met Harrison, Irwin had been a bit of a ladies’ man. But there was something different about her. “Lynne got me. She understood my mind. Little did I know she’d have to become my brain as I recovered.”

A slow return to life

Recover he did, miraculously, but slowly. His speech was incomprehensible for nearly three months, and he couldn’t walk. But Harrison was undaunted. After Irwin’s two-week stay in the intensive care ward, she began putting his running shoes on him every day, picking him up, leaning him against her and manoeuvring his feet until he eventually took some steps on his own.

She stayed by his bedside, usually for 24 hours at a time, reading him nursery rhymes and children’s books to help him start to regain his speech. She also used flashcards to help him remember words for some common household items such as a chair, refrigerator, stove and television.

After Irwin began to walk, he also began to talk. But this was the toughest part of all for Harrison—because he didn’t remember her. Irwin seemed to understand almost immediately that Harrison loved and cared for him, but for the first little while, he called her by other names. Before the accident, they’d been at a stage in their relationship where they would both often say that they felt they had waited their entire lives for each other.

“We were so crazy about each other,” says Harrison. In contrast, it now felt as if they hadn’t really existed as a couple, and that has been very difficult for her to come to terms with.

With the help of her long-time friend, Calgary psychologist Beth Hedva, Harrison eventually learned to not take it personally; after all, Irwin’s cognitive abilities had been seriously compromised.

“One day as we were walking, I told him that when he called me by another name, it hurt me,” says Harrison, adding with a laugh: “He replied, ‘Do you know how many systems I would have to put in place to [keep names straight]? Right now I’m working on other things.’ ”

Being patient

Another challenge for Harrison was that it took time for the romance to come back into their relationship. She had to learn to let go of her need for intimacy, at least for a while.

“I felt sexy and beautiful, but obviously the man I was with was not at a place to appreciate that,” says Harrison. “I wasn’t hearing the compliments I craved as a woman. For a long time, the loving was one-way as he couldn’t love me back. It was hard. But I came to accept it.”

There were other challenges. In the year following the accident, Harrison drove Irwin back and forth every week from Canmore to Calgary’s Foothills Hospital—about an hour and a half each way—to see his occupational and speech therapists. She also took over running Irwin’s company, Mountain Image Distributors, a promotional products and souvenirs business, in between working on her art. (She is an accomplished artist, and her acrylic paintings have been shown in prominent galleries in Canmore and Calgary.)

Harrison also put up with Irwin’s grumbling when his doctors banned him from skiing for nearly a year, in case he reinjured himself. One of his first ski runs was in March 2002—on the hill where he had had the accident—with former competitive skiers Ken Read and Jim Hunter. But for Irwin, skiing was central to his recovery. “Feeling the snow on the edge of my skis, in every inch of the turn, connected my mind and body.”

A love that has grown

Harrison and Irwin both say they have come to love each other more deeply than they could ever have envisioned their love could go. Their story is an example, they say, of how even the biggest of challenges—one partner completely forgetting the other—can be a catalyst for profound growth in a relationship.

Today, seven years after the accident, Irwin still hasn’t fully recovered. In his conversations with Best Health for this story, he would answer a question, then suddenly change topics. And he still has few memories of when he and Harrison fell in love. Irwin says candidly: “I wish I did. I wish I could give this to her.”

His long-term memory, including recollections from his childhood and days as a Crazy Canuck, is spot-on, but his short-term memory has been slow to return, forcing the former Olympian to compartmentalize his thinking and limit himself to working on one thing at a time. He also writes things down—for example, where he skiied—immediately afterwards so he can remember it the following day.

If he wants to remember something, he makes sure Harrison is told. When he does forget, Harrison gently nudges him and whispers a reminder in his ear. “Lynne is my memory now,” says Irwin. “I need Lynne. That may not seem very loving to some, but that’s the truth. When I fell in love with her, I didn’t know how much I’d love her because of her mind.” As for Harrison: “I learned that true love happens when infatuation is over and the tough stuff starts.”

This article was originally titled "Rebuilding Love," in the Summer 2008 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!