I get asked a lot about this, so I’ve decided to post the story so I can tell it once (though I will write a story about it later; in fact, I have one in progress). Sorry it’s so long. This is not the as-condensed-as-it-can-be version, but it’s condensed a lot. I left out a lot of stuff that isn’t necessary, but it’s still lengthy.
November 10, 2004.
I get ready for work like always. My husband walks me to the car as I leave. I have a flat tire. Panic sets in. I HATE missing work. Equally, I hate being late. The previous week, I missed 4 days because I was sick, so it’s very important that I get to work on time. And I work 65 miles away from home. I have to hurry.
I call my mom to see if I can borrow her car. Oddly, my father works at the same place I do, but he carpooled with someone else and has rode with him that week. So I rush to town to get her car and finally head to work.
November 11, 2004.
After working my usual 8-hour shift, I clock out. Any other day, I would’ve stayed 2 or 3 hours overtime, but I’m in my mother’s car and don’t feel right keeping it out later than usual. So I stop for gasoline and cigarettes and head home. The time is 12:45 a.m.
I pass another gas station on my way home. It’s there I see my father and the guy he’s carpooling with standing outside the station drinking coffee and talking. They’d gotten off work 15 minutes earlier than me, and had left sooner. I pass them and continue home. If only I had stopped and let my father drive his car home, I wouldn’t be telling this story to you now. But I didn’t. So the story continues.
It has been drizzling rain all day. It still is. I’m about 15 minutes into my trip home when things go wrong. Coming out of a detour, the car hydroplanes. I slide across two lanes of fortunately empty highway and onto the opposite shoulder. Gravel clinks angrily at the underside of the car. Everything I’ve ever learned about driving springs into my mind. ‘Don’t hit the brake; tap it.’ ‘Turn into the skid, not away from it.’ And I do all those things. I’m actually thinking that I can ease back onto the highway and get home. And it would’ve happened that way, if not for the pile of boulders stacked at the side of the highway.
Hitting the boulders, the car begins to flip. I watch out the windshield as the world is up, then down, then up again. I somehow manage to count the flips as I watch out the windshield, through dust, shattered glass, and debris. What am I thinking? Mom’s gonna kill me for wrecking her car.
The car is flipping again, and this time, I feel myself being pulled toward the driver’s side window. Even in this moment, I know that if I go through that window, it’s over for me. I have no doubt that the car will land on me and I will die. Instinctively, I put my hands to the missing window and as the driver’s side of the car rolls across the ground, I push myself back into the car. Another flip. Three and half in all.
Suddenly, everything is silent, but for the stereo still playing. I open my eyes and try to assess my situation. It’s dark and I’m confused, but there are certain things I know. I know my left leg is lying in front of my face. I know my body is tingling. I don’t know where my arms are, but I know I’m in trouble. I think, “I’ll lay here for a minute and collect myself, then I’ll get out of the car.” A few minutes later, I still can’t move. I think, “I’ll lay here a couple more minutes, and then I’ll get out.” I still can’t move. I’m lying on the roof of the car on my neck. My sweatshirt and my breast is sliding down and covering my face. It’s already hard to breathe with my chin nearly resting on my chest and the weight of my body on it. But now, my sweatshirt hinders my breathing as well.
I panic, but only for a second. I know that if I lose it, I’ll die. I have very little air and I can’t waste it on things like crying or screaming. I have to be calm and conserve my air.
A man’s voice comes to me from the passenger side window. He tells me help is coming. I can’t help but wonder if they’ll make it in time.
My chin creeps closer to my chest and my breathing becomes raspy and ragged. I remind myself of a dying dog, and it’s becoming clear to me that these are to be the last thoughts I’ll get to think. If that’s the case, I better make them good thoughts. I think of my son, in Kindergarten, so handsome and smart and funny. It’s a shame that he’s going to have to grow up without a mother. Will he remember me? How old will he be when he starts to forget me? I think of my husband, so loving and wonderful. He’s a great father and will remind my son of me. Surely, they’ll be okay without me.
The man leans into the window again to tell me to hang on. I tell him I can’t breathe. He has a hard time understanding me, and it’s no surprise. I’ve pushed my tongue between my teeth to keep them from being pushed together, closing off my airway. Also, my sweatshirt has muffled my voice. I tell him again as best as I can that I can’t breathe. He tells me he can’t move me, but I don’t want him to. I know what kind of trouble I’m in here. I know I can’t be moved. I only want him to move the shirt from my face to allow me just a little more air. But he stands, leaving me alone in the car with a rapidly diminishing supply of air.
This is it. I’m going to suffocate, never finding out where my arms went. I close my eyes and see my son.
Then, outside of the car, I hear a familiar voice. I snap open my eyes. I hear someone crawling through broken glass toward me in the car. “Are you okay?” he asks. It’s my father. Thankfully, there’s someone with me, someone I know. He mistakenly thinks I’m my mom and why shouldn’t he? He doesn’t know that I borrowed their car. I tell him I can’t breathe and he pushes my shirt away from my face. It helps, but I still fear help won’t arrive in time. I’ve never heard breathing that sounds like mine. Wet and raspy. Quick, shallow, gasping breaths. Very scary.
I’ve noticed a tingle at the corner of my eye from time to time, but haven’t given it much thought. I’ve been too worried about breathing and about the whereabouts of my arms and why I can’t see my right leg.
What feels like forever passes before help arrives. A paramedic replaces my father in the car with me. He places an oxygen mask over my face. It helps, but not much. After all, I’m lying on my neck, virtually eliminating my airway. I relax a little, though, because I’m still alive. Help is here and I’m still alive. I suppose since I haven’t died yet, I probably won’t. When I feel myself being pulled from the car and flipped onto my back on the gurney, I gasp a big, beautiful breath of air as I stare up into the drizzling night sky. My father told me later that he thought that was my last breath escaping me, but it wasn’t. It was the first breath of what was to be the rest of my life.
I’m placed in the Ambulance and I hear the paramedic asking my father questions. He’s answering as if I’m my mom. I tell them I’m me, not my mom. It’s silent for a moment, then I repeat that I’m not my mom. My dad says, “That’s not my wife. It’s my daughter.” I feel horrible for him in that moment.
I’m rushed to the hospital. I keep my eyes closed as much as possible because it hurts to blink. My eyes are full of glass and dirt. I answer questions and I beg for pain medication. I’m denied. They won’t give me anything until they know the extent of my injuries. So I lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, waiting. Then, I hear another voice I know. My cousin. She tells me she’s there and I cry, telling her they won’t give me anything for pain. She asks them, and they tell her the same thing they tell me; they can’t yet.
Later, I hear my grandmother. She says to the nurse, “She told me that if anything ever happened to her, make sure to tell you she wears contacts.” The nurse tells my grandmother that I’d already told them that, but they haven’t had time to take them out. I smile because she’d remembered to tell them. Then, I drift away again.
At one point, I wake to find my husband standing over me with my son. I tell them how much I love them. (My husband told me later that he wasn’t going to bring our son in to see me, but he was afraid it might be the last time he would see me.)
*This is a picture of the x-ray of my neck that night.
I wake later, in an Ambulance. I’m being transferred to another hospital with a top neurosurgeon. I was supposed to be flown, but the weather didn’t permit flying. So instead, I’m in an Ambulance that makes an hour trip in about a quarter of an hour. Every bump in the road causes me much pain. I drift away.
The next time I wake, there’s a man with his hand inside my head squirting a cold liquid under my skin. I tell him it hurts. He says he knows, but he has to get the dirt and gravel and glass out of my head before he sews it shut, which will end up taking 67 stitches. I let him work. What choice do I have?
A man walks toward me carrying some sort of curved metal thing. I ask what he’s going to do with that. He says he’s going to screw it into my skull. I ask if it’ll hurt and he assures me it won’t, though I will feel pressure. Before I can protest that, a lady comes toward me with a clear plastic hose. I ask what she plans to do with that, and she tells me she’s going to put it in my nose and into my stomach. I ask why. She says in case I get sick. I promise I won’t throw up, but she puts it in my nose and forces it down my throat. Everything they’re doing hurts. But surprisingly, having the tongs screwed into my skull doesn’t hurt. I do, however, smell my bone shavings as he drills the holes. Then, I drift away.
I wake later as I’m wheeled into my new room in SICU. It’s to be my home for the next month. I’m strapped to a rotating bed. There is 25 lbs. of weight on the tongs, pulling my neck. The worst part is I still can’t move or feel anything below the neck. I’m on a lot of drugs. I sleep 23 hours a day. I hallucinate a lot. I eat nothing more than chocolate pudding and applesauce. I’m afraid I’ll choke. If I do, there’s nothing they can do for me. I can’t be moved. My neck is still broken. In fact, it remains that way for 11 days. Technically, it’s severely dislocated. My spine was 75% offset. My doctor tells us that he’s never seen anyone with an injury as severe as mine regain anything more than a little use of their arms. He pricks me daily with a needle to see if I can feel it. I can’t.
They x-ray my hands many times because they’re so swollen, surely they’re broken. The car rolled over them, after all. They’re cut and bruised, but not broken.
2 days before my 27th birthday, I have my first surgery. A piece of my hipbone is fused into my spinal column through the front of my neck. I lay in bed what little time I’m awake and I focus on moving my toe. My right leg was twisted in the wreck and is stuck now in a boot, so I focus on the big toe on my left foot. I ask my mother if it’s moving. She says no. The next day, I ask and again she says no. But there comes a day when the answer is yes. She tells my doctor who tells us to not get too excited. It may just be muscle twitches. But it’s not. I know it’s not. I’ve worked my ass off to move that toe. And I keep doing it. I think that it’s okay if I’m paralyzed from the waist down. I can still live a pretty normal life that way. But if I don’t regain the use of my arms…I lay there in that bed and think about how I’m now such a burden to my family. And the worst part is, I can’t even kill myself.
A couple weeks later, I have another surgery. This time, a plate and a cable is installed into the back of my neck. The muscles are cut and pulled away from the bone. This causes me pain later. Even though I’m still a quadriplegic, when people bump my bed, I cry. It hurts my neck. The doctor also has to cut away a piece of skin off the back of my head. It was a cut from the wreck that couldn’t be touched, therefore became an infected mess.
My hair still contains mud, rocks, glass, and dirt from the wreck. It is a knotted mess. They try to wash it, but it’s all but impossible. They try to comb it, but it hurts way too much. I tell them to ‘just cut it’. They do.
I’m transferred to another hospital to start rehab. I suffer through more pain than I thought possible.
My son calls me and says, “I wish you still lived with me and my dad.” I choke back tears and say, “Haven’t you noticed all my stuff’s still there? I still live there, I just can’t be there right now. But I will be soon.” This hurts me more than my neck.
I eventually learn to walk again and I’m released to go home 79 days after my accident. With the aid of a walker, I walk out of the hospital. It is the happiest day of my life.
There were bruises that stayed with me for nearly a year before finally going away. A few weeks after being released from the hospital, I had to return to have another piece of my hipbone fused into my neck.
I regained the use of my arms and hands, though my fine motor skills aren’t great, especially in my right hand. I have a lot of nerve damage which bothers me constantly. It creates a tingling sensation, almost like when your foot’s asleep and starts waking up. I can’t look too far left, right, up, or down, and I sure can’t look either way for very long. My knee, though I’ve had one surgery on it, still bothers me. I get what I call ‘jelly leg’ after walking a ways. The farthest I can walk is a mile and a half. Then, I can’t control my right leg. It gets all floppy on me. I have a scar on the right side of my face that extends up into my hair where I was cut in the wreck. The back of my left hand is covered with little scars from the car rolling over it. I have a scar on my left hip, as well as on the back and the front of my neck, and one on the back of my head and the top of my head. I am in pain always. But at least I’m not still a quadriplegic.We are constantly aware of how different our lives could be. We take nothing for granted.
If you just met me, you’d probably never know anything was wrong with me. Most people don’t even see my scars. But though I may look fine, I’m in pain every second of every day. I get frustrated at times when my body fails me. It’s been so long now, I can’t even remember what it was like to be able to do things I can’t do now, and have forgotten what it’s like to not be in pain. But I don’t complain much. I don’t have the right to. I know what my life could’ve been. I’ve been a quadriplegic. I’ve been a functioning mind trapped in a lifeless body. And let me tell you this. There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, as bad as that. I’ll take the pain with a smile.