I interviewed Dr. Matthew Galati, founder of the Brain Changes Initiative, to learn about his remarkable recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
In the interview, Dr. Galati offers us a reminder of the importance of resilience and perseverance in overcoming obstacles in order to reach your goals.
Readers of the A Life of Virtue blog will find resonance with Dr. Galati’s timely Stoic wisdom of acknowledging that while we may not be able to control external events, we always have the power to make the conscious decision of how we can respond to them.
Dr. Galati’s story serves as an inspiration to us all. Through his work through the Brain Changes Initiative, he advocates for a wholistic approach for assisting TBI survivors through awareness, advocacy and support.
1. Tell me a bit about your story and how you got started with the Brain Changes Initiative?
In 2013 I was driving back to the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in Windsor in bad weather conditions when I hit black ice sending my car out of control resulting into me crashing into a tree.
The accident left me unconscious with brain bleed, multiple fractures and sent me into a three-day coma. Upon waking up, I realized my cognitive abilities were severely damaged. Basic everyday tasks became a challenge. I initially couldn’t walk or talk.
Nine years ago, the research being done on traumatic brain injury was still in the early stages. The predominant view was that as one matures into adulthood, the brain remains static. Doctors initially told me that the chances of full recovery were slim.
After receiving acute care for my injuries, I enrolled in an intensive rehabilitation program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. In addition to my rehab work at the institute, I took the initiative in working on my recovery. I focused on activities that engaged different aspects of my brain.
To achieve this goal, I did of a host of different physical and cognitive exercises including:
- running 5km every morning;
- reviewing my notes from medical school;
- learning guitar;
- practicing mindfulness mediation;
- proper sleep hygiene; and
- eating a healthy nutritious diet.
I took inspiration from the insightful book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J Ratey. In the book, Ratey who is a MD, presents new scientific insights that demonstrate that an active ‘lifestyle approach’ can be helpful and provide positive outcomes in healing from TBI. He presents a study that looks at the effects that a school districts’ revamped physical education program had on academic performance. Of note, the study demonstrated how aerobic exercise can prime the brain for learning.
When I communicated my ambition to complete my medical school degree, I was met with skepticism and hesitation from my academic advisors. Determined to prove the magnitude of my recovery, I demonstrated improvements in my cognitive abilities by rewriting and receiving better marks on my medical school exams than I previously did in the past.
After graduating and completing my residency I began research on traumatic brain recovery, and the potential of a lifestyle approach on brain health.
This led into the Brain Changes Initiative, a non-profit which I created in 2019 that funds ground-breaking research to improve the standard of care for TBI recovery. The goals of the organization are threefold:
- Raise awareness about the possibilities for TBI recovery in the community
- Provide education through our webinar series on the benefits of a lifestyle approach to brain health
- Support research aimed at finding the ideal dose of intensive physical and cognitive exercise to optimally heal the brain after TBI is sustained
2. Your recovery is an example of what we can achieve through dedication, effort and hard work. I was wondering if you can impart any lessons or advice on how we can cultivate more resilience in our lives?
My experiences have taught me that in life it is important to be adaptable. You have to anticipate that things will not always happen the way that you intend them to.
We should always believe in our potential. Be your best advocate. There is a mantra that I like from the basketball star and Toronto Raptor Fred VanVleet – ‘bet on yourself.’ Despite missing the NBA draft, VanVleet’s hard work and determination eventually led him to signing the largest contract as an undrafted player in NBA history. In subsequent years he was a key component in the Raptor’s 2019 NBA championship.
Ultimately, we can’t control external events. For me, I couldn’t control the accident and resulting brain injury. However, I could control how I reacted to the situation. My determination to improve and reach my goals through research and taking an active role in my recovery is on me. No one except yourself and your family is going to care about your situation.
It is up to you to keep on pushing forward.
3. The rehabilitation process required a lot of consistent physical and cognitive exercises. One thing that I personally struggle with is getting into a routine when I am trying to develop new habits. Any suggestions on how we can stick to our planned goals and reach those elusive New Year resolutions?
For those who experienced TBI, it is common to fall into a state of apathy. This occurs when an individual loses hope resulting in feelings of indifference or a lack of interest in their environment.
There were two key activities that were instrumental to my success and recovery, affirmations and scheduling.
Affirmations are positive statements that boost self-confidence, provide motivation and help you overcome negative thoughts. I would post affirmations on my wall, repeating the goals I hoped to achieve. The more often you do this, the more you reinforce these positive thoughts which help you actualize your ambitions.
Another thing that I did was keep an agenda and planner. This helped me keep track of my progress on completing the daily tasks and routines that I set out for myself such as aerobic exercises and tasks for cognitive development. Implementing a schedule is an important tool for developing strong habits.
We must constantly remind ourselves that anything is possible. Numerous people told me that my goals were unrealistic or unattainable. However, no one should compromise their dreams and aspirations.
The brain is truly the most remarkable and complex things on the planet. We can achieve anything that we set our mind to.
4. You talk a lot about ‘neuroplasticity’, what is this concept and why is it important?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt, heal and change. It is the way we learn new skills. The more you do something over and over again you begin to build stronger corresponding connections in your brain.
Again, this concept runs against the common thinking years ago which claimed that the brain is a static organ unable to change once you mature.
It was through the possibilities provided to me by the neuroplasticity of the brain that enabled me to achieve this remarkable recovery.
5. I’ve been intrigued to learn about the lifestyles of those who live in the Blue Zones which are regions where people generally live the longest. Research attributes their life span their diets (mainly plant based), exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, getting enough sleep and having good spiritual, family and social networks.
There are a lot of similarities with these characteristics and the five-pillar approach for brain health that you advocate for.
Do you think there has been a shift in recent years in the medical community towards more holistic approaches to wellbeing?
In Western medicine there is a strong emphasis on symptom management. Of course, this is very important to treating acute care conditions.
A consequence of this approach however is that it can overlook the significance that one’s lifestyle and habits play in their wellbeing. This is the missing element in dealing with chronic conditions.
As part of my studies, I did some training on functional/environmental medicine which emphasized a wholistic approach to health. Rather than just focusing on ‘band-aid’ reactive solutions, it is shifting attention to the root causes of the illness.
That is to say it is preventative rather than reactive.
These changes to my habits and lifestyle are what ultimately healed me. The longevity of those in the ‘blue zones’ demonstrate how being active, embracing a strong sense of community and making healthy life choices can lead to longer and more wholesome lives.
6. My blog, A Life of Virtue, is about exploring about the deep philosophical questions about meaning and purpose. What do you want to get out of life, and what makes life meaningful for you?
My journey to recovery gives me a lot of gratitude and strength. Yes, I suffered traumatic brain injury but I was able to turn my life around through hard work, perseverance and dedication. You always have the ability to reframe your thoughts. You can turn your weaknesses into your strengths.
The lessons that I learned throughout my healing journey have been invaluable. As a doctor, I want to be able to help others with the lessons I’ve learned.
This has become my mission.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity