real life

Caroline suffered a traumatic brain injury. It was a year before she even knew she'd had an accident.

Caroline Laner Breure has literally rebuilt her life.

After her mind and body were shattered in a horrific accident, Caroline's world changed completely — she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, her friendships shifted and her relationship never recovered.

But as she pieced herself back together bit by bit, she learned something incredibly profound about herself. 

It all began on a fateful morning in September 2019. Caroline was holidaying in Spain with her boyfriend Byron, the two hailing from Sydney's Bondi, though Caroline is originally from Brazil.

The pair had been enjoying an idyllic adventure in Europe together. 

"If I close my eyes, there's just a blur of images and feelings from our holiday. I remember holding Byron's infant niece, Loulou, in London. Her blonde hair was so fine, like golden fairy floss. I also remember how incredibly romantic Dubrovnik was. But there's no memories from Barcelona at all," Caroline tells Mamamia

They were exploring Barcelona's streets, heading out for breakfast. As the Via Laietana pedestrian crossing light turned green, Caroline stepped out onto the empty street.

Seconds later a speeding police car would collide with her. It was utter carnage. Her skull was crushed upon impact.

Watch: Glennon Doyle's life was totally upended in a single evening. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia. 

There were months where Caroline was in a coma, and then in painful rehabilitation.

"I have slivers of memory from hospital," says Caroline, like the vague notion of slowly recognising her mother's beautiful face as she sat by her side.

"Mum was utterly heartbroken, but she never gave up on me. Whenever the doctors would give her bad news, she would say, 'You don't know Caroline, she'll prove you wrong.' Mum has always been a strong woman, as a single mother in Brazil she had to be," says Caroline.

"She would sleep sitting up in the chair beside my hospital bed and she would eat the few scraps left on my meal tray after I'd finished eating. My mum was raised Catholic and is very religious, and she talks about my recovery as a miracle, but I know in my heart that she was the real miracle."

Amid Caroline's recovery, the threat of COVID-19 was looming. There were also complications surrounding visas, meaning Byron had to go back to Australia without Caroline, as she wasn't yet in a well enough state to travel. It meant that as Caroline was in the depths of physical and mental trauma, the love of her life was thousands of miles away from her. 

"My mum told me that I would calm down whenever he spoke to me on the phone, so at some level I must have recognised his voice and it made me feel safe and loved.


"It motivated me to work harder on my rehabilitation, as I desperately wanted to go home to our apartment we shared. At that point my desire to return to Sydney became overwhelming, it was all I could think about."

In total, she spent six and a half months in hospital.

Caroline holidaying in Europe before the accident occurred. The aftermath of the police vehicle after it collided with Caroline. Image: Supplied.


The first proper words that came out of her mouth were "broken glass". She repeated them often. It was likely an unconscious memory of her last conscious moment, the instant when her head smashed into the police car's windscreen. Caroline remembers nothing of her accident.

In a Barcelona hospital she was diagnosed with a grade-three diffuse axonal injury. The doctors gave her a five per cent chance of survival, with a high likelihood of being left in a permanent vegetative state even if she did pull through. She was also diagnosed with Wernicke's aphasia, a language disorder that makes it hard for you to understand words and communicate. 

She also had anosognosia, a neurological condition in which the patient is unaware of their neurological deficit or psychiatric condition. It is often experienced by those who have endured a brain injury, stroke or sometimes dementia. 

"In some ways I was like a little child at that time, I could barely speak or walk, and due to anosognosia I wasn't even aware I'd had an accident, and yet I was always trying to do look my best and my best to impress the love of my life," Caroline says about Byron.

It took exactly one year, to the day, for Caroline to realise what had happened.

It was September 9, 2020, and she was with her mother and stepfather in a quarantine hotel room in Sydney, finally back on Australian soil. Her stepfather reiterated to her that it was the one-year anniversary of her accident, explaining (as he did often) that she had been hit by a speeding police car and almost died.


Only this time did her stepfather's words properly register for the first time. It hit her like a tonne of bricks.

"I was shocked by this news, but then I looked in the mirror and knew that it was true. For the first time I saw my terrible injuries as they really were. I could see all the scars, I could tell that my face had changed shape and that my eyes weren't looking in the same direction anymore," she notes.

"I was very upset, of course but, curiously, I felt stronger, not weaker. I should have been dead, but I was still alive. I felt violated and angry as well. But I was going to reclaim everything they tried to take away from me, starting with the man I loved."

Out of quarantine, Caroline returned to her beachside apartment in Sydney, only to find that her home was not her home, her lover was not her lover and her friends were not her friends. Everyone and everything she'd loved had vanished.

Caroline in intensive care with her mother, Juceli, who never left Caroline's side while she was in a coma, as well as Caroline during recovery. Image: Supplied.


"I never saw our breakup coming. It was like being hit by a car a second time.

"In hindsight there were obvious signs — he didn't kiss me hello or goodbye anymore, and I wasn't allowed to move back into out home. But at the time I was incredibly naïve, like a three-year-old child. I didn't understand what was happening, all I knew was that I was deeply in love with Byron, and I wanted to be with him for the rest of my life."

Things had changed for Byron, post-accident. While Caroline had been in hospital, she says things were good — he had showered her in affection during her rehab, calling her every day and sending countless love letters and gifts.

But when she finally returned home to him, everything was different.

"Sometimes he acted like I was still the woman he loved, sometimes I was a helpless child he had to look after, and at some level he acted like I had died. I know that he still cared about me, and he was always kind and generous, but he didn't have any romantic love for me anymore. Most of the time he regarded me as someone to be pitied."


After three years of being together, they broke up on October 30, 2020, though Byron's interpretation of their relationship timeline differs.

He says it ended in October 2019. Caroline believes he clings onto his version of the timeline, because he started seeing other women in January, even though he was continuing to tell Caroline every day that he loved her and wanted her home.

"When Byron broke up with me, he completely broke my heart."

It sadly wasn't just her romantic love that disappeared, but many of her friendships too.

As Caroline notes, "brain injuries are very isolating". Nothing could prepare her for the feeling of abandonment she felt from her own friends when she returned home to Australia. 

"During those early stages of my recovery what I needed most was meaningful human interaction with people I knew and trusted. I needed to practice listening, speaking, relearning social cues and, most crucially, to build my confidence by feeling safe, loved and included. Instead, I was ignored, uninvited and even shunned," she says.

"Old friends would often treat me like a toddler, not realising that I was still very intelligent. Yes, I had communication difficulties, it took me longer to process information and to respond, but I could still understand everything my friends were saying to me and about me. I just wanted to be treated normally, but when I'd ask them to stop speaking down to me, they would be offended and get upset."


Today, Caroline's Wernicke's aphasia has improved a great deal, though she still sometimes struggles with verbal communication and reading comprehension. Watching Friends also helped her relearn English.

"When I am put on the spot sometimes my brain freezes, so to speak, and I cannot immediately think of the right words to express what I'm thinking. However, my vocabulary is improving all the time and, thanks to my recent eye surgeries and fancy new glasses, I'm finally able to read again, which is wonderful," she says.

It's almost been five years since that accident in Barcelona.

Bradley Trevor Greive, the bestselling author of Penguin Bloom, and Caroline wrote her story together for their new book, Broken Girl. It took countless hours — spread across two and a half years — and thousands of messages sent back and forth.

She feels grateful to Greive for his effort and care, saying "BTG took my story, which was dark and painful, and turned it into something beautiful and powerful".

He interviewed many people in Caroline's life for the book, including her mum and Byron. She says both her mum and ex-boyfriend are very proud of the result. There are some parts of the book that were difficult to write, especially recounting her split from Byron.

"It is cathartic, but it still hurts. I cry whenever I read that part of the book," she says.


Caroline today. She is a survivor. Image: Cameron Bloom Photography/Supplied.

Caroline says her life is smaller and harder than it used to be. Recovery is not linear, and she's lost track of the number of surgeries she has had, or the physical therapies she has completed.

But she also wants to make the most of her second chance at life.

She decided to start afresh and in early 2023 she moved to Portugal with her gorgeous cat Sundy.


"After my accident I felt I was walking around Sydney with the words 'Broken Girl' tattooed across my forehead. I needed a fresh start. I still miss Australia, it's paradise, and I really look forward to coming back. But, right now, this is where I belong," she tells Mamamia

Caroline still believes in true love. She looks forward to making even more new friends, working on building her ethical shoe company, No Saints, into a global brand, and feeling "truly alive" again.

"My book represents closure in a way. Telling my story was the only way for me to stop feeling invisible and forgotten. I feel seen now, I feel truly alive, I can breathe again. I really have moved on, I feel happier now than I have in years. I'm excited about the future," she says.

"I still have physical, mental and emotional wounds that will take time to heal. I accept that real life is messy, and my life is messier than most."

Caroline wants people who read her story to see the reality of living with a traumatic brain injury.

"It's so much more than a broken mind, it's also a broken heart. Don't give up on the people you love and never underestimate people or set any limit on what someone can achieve. We are all a lot stronger than we think."

Broken Girl: A true story by Bradley Trevor Greive and Caroline Laner Breure, Hachette Australia, $34.99, on sale now.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Caroline Laner Breure.