'Walking corpse syndrome' made me think I was dead after horror crash, says war veteran
PUBLISHED: 17:05 22 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:05 23 April 2019
Those who have suffered a near-death experience will often tell the story of a life flashing before their eyes. But a heartbreaking, rare condition led one war veteran to believe he was a "walking corpse" after a motorcycle crash caused him suffer a severe brain injury.
Warren McKinlay fought what he described as “a battle with your own brain and body” after the crash on the A1075 at Watton in 2005.
The former Royal and Electrical Mechanical Engineer, who was based at RAF Honington, was lucky to survive the accident, which left him with a broken back and pelvis.
He ended up hitting a tree at 60mph after being involved in a collision, meaning he was confined to a wheelchair for months.
Gallingly, it was always meant to be Mr McKinlay's last ride on the machine as he was selling the bike on eBay.
The pain of recovery from his physical injuries was a huge challenge for him and his family, with his wife Sarah five months pregnant with their daughter Katie at the time.
But the real battle started when Mr McKinlay, now aged 37, was admitted to the Headley Court medical facility for treating wounded soldiers.
“I went to Headley Court for my physical injuries and for them to help me gain strength in my back,” he said.
“It was about three days before they said they wanted to bring me into a different unit, because they thought I had suffered a brain injury.
“From that point, everything got quite a lot worse for me.”
The severity of the accident meant Mr McKinlay, of Braintree in Essex, had sustained damage to his frontal lobe - the part of the brain which helps people control their emotions.
That meant he would swing rapidly from happy to depressed and back again.
But seeing other injured military veterans around him with lost limbs appeared to trigger an incredibly rare condition called Cotard Syndrome.
Commonly referred to as “walking corpse syndrome”, it made Mr McKinlay - now a father of two - believe he actually died in the crash, even though he was still alive.
It is thought to affect only one in a billion people.
“When they were trying to make me do stuff for my therapy, I began to think there was no point participating in all this stuff because I died in the accident,” he said.
“How could they make me better if I'm not alive?”
The condition is particularly dangerous as people with the syndrome often do not eat and drink, because they do not think there is any point.
Having dropped from 85kg to 70kg in weight, Mr McKinlay had to be given nutritional supplements by staff at Headley Court - a move he believes probably saved his life.
But what really helped him turn the corner was meeting another soldier at Headley Court who had been a Cotard Syndrome sufferer, a miracle in itself because of the rarity of the condition.
“I don't remember a conscious moment of thinking that I'm actually alive and it's all in my head,” said Mr McKinlay, who had been a Royal and Electrical Mechanical Engineer for seven years before the crash and had served in Bosnia.
“The way I dealt with it was to accept that the old Warren was dead, he was gone.
“Because of the trauma to my brain, for the rest of my life I was going to feel a different person. My brain was wired differently.
“Another guy with the same condition helped me come to this decision - that the old me was dead.”
Mr McKinlay said Cotard Syndrome was like “fighting a battle with your own brain and body” where it feels like “everyone is trying to trick you”.
However he said: “Now I'm much more educated about the issues with my brain. It's a mental illness brought on by head trauma.
“The frontal lobe is the part of the brain which controls emotions.
“When I first was trying to come to terms with my brain injury, my emotions were like a light switch - I would go from happy to angry, to depressed.
“It was very tiring and you get very frustrated. It's basically like you have a black hole that you're heading for. The harder you try to run away from it, the harder it pulls you in.
“You become angry with yourself and start giving yourself a hard time.”
Mr McKinlay still has difficult days, saying that he wakes up some mornings with “complete apathy”.
But the future is bright - he is part of the Team BRIT group of disabled racing drivers targeting the famous Le Mans 24 hours race, determined to beat the stigma against disabled people.
He is also part of the new Team BRIT Academy, recently launched by Nic Hamliton, to encourage more disabled people into motorsport.
“We're trying to get people to experience the thrills that I've been able to experience when I'm in a racing car,” he said.
“It's very hard for people with disabilities to live their everyday lives.”
But if there is one group of people he believes helped him through the tough times more than anyone, it is his family.
“I honestly believe I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for my wife,” Mr McKinlay said.
“She encouraged me and tolerated me in my worst times. She's such a caring, understanding person.”