Six weeks on from the skiing accident that saw F1’s most successful driver put into a medically induced coma, what can we expect to happen next?
In recent weeks, the news concerning seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher has slowed down considerably. In the early weeks after his injury, Schumacher’s accident dominated headlines worldwide, with praise and prayers for the racing driver occupying coverage on nearly all of the global news networks.
It seemed that those outside medical circles were expecting one of two things: either a speedy recovery, or the unthinkable. As neither of these permutations has been brought to bear, we stand at an uneasy hiatus.
Part of the issue is the lack of official line from the hospital where Schumacher is being treated. His family have vocalised their adamant belief that he will survive, however the official line is frequently given as a vague ‘critical condition, but improving’. Doctors at Grenoble Hospital are working frantically to bring Schumacher out of the coma which he was put in for his own safety, but it seems on the surface, that there are only minor changes in his condition.
Doctors at Grenoble Hospital are working frantically to bring Schumacher out of the coma which he was put in for his own safety.
This situation is one of the most severe, well documented, cases of brain injury in living memory, perhaps leading to the ambiguity. Another head injury to an F1 driver happened notoriously to Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in the 2009 season.
During the Hungarian Grand Prix, a spring dislodged from Brawn driver Rubens Barrichello’s car and bounced down the track, striking him on the forehead at over 100 mph. Massa was knocked unconscious (his life saved by his crash helmet) and was airlifted to hospital in Budapest. Following an operation, he recovered and was discharged after a week.
Despite the severity of Massa’s injury, he spent only a week in hospital. Schumacher, to date, has been in hospital for seven weeks. After his injury, Massa struggled psychologically as well as physically. In a sport like F1, tenths of seconds make all the difference, and thus the impacts of his brain injury were more than evident.
Fans of F1 will know that Massa is only just returning to his former ability 5 years after his injury, and long after the physical wounds have healed.
Former F1 doctor Gary Hartsein, an expert on injuries such as the one Schumacher is suffering from, commented on a recent blog post about Schumacher’s condition that the outlook was “not good. Starting to be really not good”.
Hartsein cites a misjudgement in the high dosage of sedatives administered for Schumacher which resulted in his condition worsening. He also highlights that one of the big factors in Schumacher’s recovery, whether Schumacher is breathing unassisted, remains unknown. If he is then this could be interpreted as a big positive sign.
Even at this stage, Hartsein writes “roughly 50% of these patients emerge, usually with some level of residual dysfunction”, which means that Schumacher’s chances of survival remain balanced, albeit with a high risk of falling into a persistent vegetative state.
What it is important to remember is that if Schumacher does recover, he will not be the same man as he was before the accident, this is what Hartstein means by “residual dysfunction”. Because of the nature of his injury, at this point surviving is not going to be a case of leaping back onto his feet just as he was before, it will be a long and drawn out process that could take up the rest of his life.
If anyone can recover from such an injury, it would be an F1 driver.
Schumacher’s family came out recently and said that they expect him to wake up, following a successful fight against pneumonia. To their credit, if anyone can recover from such an injury it would be an F1 driver, physically resilient and resistant to adverse conditions, although from this stage a full speedy recovery would be a medical miracle.
However a medical miracle is not an impossibility and if there is anything even remotely positive to be drawn out of Schumacher’s terrible accident, it is that it has brought the F1 community of drivers, teams and fans closer than ever, united over respect for a man who undeniably changed the sport forever.
Whether he lives or not, Schumacher will always be a legend in the sport and, indeed, in sport overall, famed as a relentless competitor and an unprecedented champion. There is not a fan, or a member of the sport, that does not wish him a successful recovery.
And if anyone can survive such an accident, it is surely Michael Schumacher.