My Broken Neck Story (Quadriplegia)
I get asked a lot about this, so I’ve decided to post the story here. Because I cry so much when trying to write about my ordeal, I’ve had to distance myself as much as possible while writing it. So if it sounds a little cold, that’s why. 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 things that aren’t necessary to the story, but it’s still lengthy.
November 10, 2004.
I worked at Briggs & Stratton, a job 65 miles away from my home. It took an hour to get there and an hour to get back. My shift was from 4:00 PM to 12:30 AM. I normally left home at 2:00 because the state of MO was adding another 2 lanes to the highway and causing long delays in my commute. On this day, my husband walked me to the car, where I noticed immediately that the car had a flat tire. Panic set in. I absolutely hated to miss work or be late, and I’d missed four days the previous week because I was sick. It was very important that I got to work and got there on time. I had to hurry.
I called my mom to see if I could borrow her car. Oddly enough (and fortunately for me), my father worked at the same place I did and had carpooled with someone else that week, which meant my mother’s car was available to me. So when my mother agreed to lend me her car, I rushed to her house to get it before finally heading to work, leaving my car with my husband so the tire could be repaired and ready for me the next day.
November 11, 2004.
After working my shift, I clocked out. Any other day, I would’ve stayed 2 or 3 hours overtime, but I was in my mother’s car and didn’t feel right keeping it out later than usual. So I headed home, stopping for gas and cigarettes. The time was 12:45 a.m.
I passed another gas station on my way home. It was there I saw my father and the guy he was carpooling with standing outside the station drinking coffee and talking. Their shift had ended 15 minutes earlier than mine, so they’d left sooner. I passed them and continued home. Perhaps if I had stopped and let my father drive us home, I wouldn’t be telling this story to you now. But I didn’t. So the story continues.
It had been drizzling rain all day. It still was. I was about 15 minutes into the drive home when things went wrong. Coming out of a detour (remember those lane expansions?), the car hydroplaned, sliding across both lanes of the empty highway and onto the opposite shoulder. Gravel clanked angrily at the car’s undercarriage. Everything I had ever learned about driving sprang into my mind.
Don’t hit the brake–tap it.
Turn into the skid, not away from it.
I did all those things. I thought that I could ease back onto the highway and make it home. And it would’ve happened that way…if not for the pile of boulders stacked at the side of the road, put there to keep the rain from eroding the ditch of the newly constructed highway.
Hitting the boulders, the car began to flip. I watched out the windshield as the world went up, then down, and then up again. I somehow managed to count the flips as I watched out the windshield, through the dust and shattered glass and flying debris.
During the first flip, the driver’s side window was busted out, hence the shards of glass flying around my face. On the second flip, I felt my body being pulled toward the open window from the centrifugal force. I knew that on the next flip, I was going to be ejected. But I also knew that if that happened, I would die. And the one thing I absolutely hadn’t planned on doing that day was dying. Sure enough, on the third flip I felt it happening. I was going to go out the window. Determined to keep that from happening, I instinctively put my hands to the missing window, and as the driver’s side of the car rolled across the ground, I put my palms flat on the wet earth and pushed myself back into the car. It all happened so fast, I didn’t realize until much later what I’d done. I had saved my life.
After flipping three and a half times, the car came to rest on its top.
Suddenly, all the chaos and the noise stopped. The world in and around the car went silent but for the CD which was still playing in the stereo. I opened my eyes and tried to assess my situation, fighting back the panic that wanted to consume me. It was dark and I was confused, but there were certain things I knew. I knew that even though I was lying on my right side, sort of, my left leg was lying in front of my face. I knew my body was tingling all over, the feeling you get when your foot has fallen asleep for a long time and starts to wake up. I didn’t know where my arms were because I couldn’t see them or feel them or move them, but beyond all doubt, I knew I was in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.
I’ll lie here for a minute and collect myself, then I’ll crawl out of the car.
I tried to move but couldn’t.
Okay. It’s not a big deal. I’ll just lie here a couple more minutes, and then I’ll get out.
But I still couldn’t move. I told my legs to move, my arms to move, my hands to move, but nothing happened. I couldn’t tell while I was in the car, but later, thinking back on it, I realized that I was lying on the roof of the car on my neck. In the pictures that were taken, I can see all the blood on the dome light and surrounding area. It pains me to see those photos, but I’m glad they were taken.
Lying on my neck cut off my air supply. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe as I slipped further and further down onto my neck, pushing my chin onto my chest. It didn’t help a thing that my sweatshirt and my breast slid down and covered my face. So I was lying there, unable to move, with the weight of my body on my neck and my clothes covering my face, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about any of it.
Did I mention I’m claustrophobic? Did I mention I have an intense reaction to not being able to breathe, or even feeling like I can’t breathe? Because I am and I do. If I get my head stuck in a shirt as I’m pulling it over my head, I freak out. If I accidentally pull the covers over my head while lying in bed, I panic. So you can surely imagine the hell I was in at that moment. I was suffocating and there was nothing I could do to save myself.
I’m not ashamed to say that I panicked, but I’m proud to say I only panicked only for a second. Even as the fear settled in on me, I knew that if I lost my cool, I would die. I had very little air, and I couldn’t afford to waste it on stupid things like crying or screaming. I had to be calm and conserve my breaths.
Suddenly, over the music that still played, I heard a man’s voice at the passenger side window. He told me help was coming, which was a huge relief, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they would make it in time.
I couldn’t breathe. And each inhalation was more difficult and more shallow than the one before it.
My chin pushed harder onto my chest and my breathing became raspy and ragged. The sound reminded me of a dying dog, and it was becoming clear to me that I was thinking my last thoughts.
My last thoughts.
If that was the case, if these were the final thoughts I would think on this earth, I was going to make them good thoughts. Happy thoughts. Not the panic-filled thoughts I was thinking. So I thought of my son, a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in Kindergarten, who at that moment was at home in bed with no idea that his mother was about to die. He was so handsome and smart and funny. It was a shame that he was going to have to grow up without a mom. Would he remember me? Would all the things we’d done together, all the laughs and good times we’d had, be enough to hold him for the rest of his life? No. It would never be enough. How old would he be when he started to forget me? I thought of my husband, so loving and kind and wonderful. He was a great friend and father and would undoubtedly remind my son of me, making sure to keep me alive, if only in memories. Surely, they would be okay without me.
The man leaned into the window again to tell me to hang on. I told him I couldn’t breathe, but he had a hard time understanding me. It was no surprise. I’d shoved my tongue between my teeth to keep them from being clamped shut and closing off my airway. Also, my sweatshirt had muffled my voice. I told him again as best as I could that I couldn’t breathe. He told me he couldn’t move me, but I didn’t want him to. I knew exactly what kind of trouble I was in, and I knew I couldn’t be moved. Fortunately, he knew that too. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if he would’ve tried to pull me from the car. I only wanted him to move the shirt away from my face to allow me just a little more of the air I craved, but he stood and left me alone in the car with a rapidly diminishing supply of oxygen.
This was it. I was going to suffocate, never finding out where my arms went. I closed my eyes and saw my son’s face, heard my husband’s voice. I didn’t want to die, but I could fight it no longer. I had done all I could do.
Then, from outside of the car, I heard a familiar voice. My eyes snapped open. I heard someone crawling through broken glass, making their way toward me in the car. “Are you okay?” he asked. It’s my father. My eyes fill with tears, but I quickly blink them away. I’m so happy that someone is with me now, someone I know. Not a stranger. My father. He mistakenly thought I was my mom, and why shouldn’t he? He didn’t know that I borrowed his car. I told him I couldn’t breathe, and he pushed my shirt away from my face. It helped a bit, but I still feared that help wouldn’t arrive in time. I’d never heard breathing that sounded like mine. Wet and raspy. Quick and shallow. They were gasping breaths. It was the most terrifying sound I’d ever heard.
During my time in the car, which felt like an eternity but was really only about fifteen minutes at this point, I’d noticed a slight twinge at the corner of my right eye from time to time, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I’d been too worried about staying alive to wonder why my eye felt funny.
Finally, help arrived. A paramedic replaced my father in the car. He placed an oxygen mask over my face, supplying me with crisp air. It helped, but not much. After all, I was lying on my neck, pinching off my airway. I relaxed a little, though, because I was still alive. Help was there, and I was still alive. I felt that since I hadn’t died yet, I probably wouldn’t. And now that the professionals were there with me, I felt that I didn’t have to try so hard to save my own life. I could let them do some of the work.
They told me they were going to pull me from the car, and a wave pf panic washed over me. My neck was broken. I knew it. And I also knew that if they moved me wrong in any way at all, that would be the end of me. But, seeing as there was nothing else to do, it had to happen. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. I felt myself being pulled from the car and flipped onto my back. When I was placed on the gurney, my airway was no longer restricted. I could breathe again! I gasped a big, beautiful breath of air as I opened my eyes and stared up into the drizzling night sky. My father told me later that he thought the sound of that gasp 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 was placed in the Ambulance, where I laid with my eyes closed, listening to the paramedic ask my father questions. My father was answering as if I was my mother, listing her age and the medications she takes and any ailments she had. He still thought I was her. I was so bloody and muddy, he couldn’t tell that I was me.
I said, “I’m not my mom.”
The paramedic asked, “What?”
I repeated, “I said I’m not my mom.”
It was silent for a moment, and then my dad said, “That’s not my wife. It’s my daughter.” I felt horrible for him in that moment. Can you imagine?
I was rushed to the hospital. I kept my eyes closed as much as possible because it hurt to blink. They were full of glass and dirt, and each blink was like scraping sandpaper across my eyeballs. I answered questions, and I begged for pain medication. I was denied. They wouldn’t give me anything until they knew the extent of my injuries. I understood the reasoning, but it sucked. So I laid there, drifting in and out of consciousness, waiting as the hours passed slowly. Yes, hours. Then, I heard another voice I knew. My cousin. We were like sisters growing up, and as soon as she said, “Kim, it’s Joanna,” I began to cry, telling her they wouldn’t give me anything for pain. She asked them about it, and they told her the same thing they told me; they can’t yet. Not until they know the extent of my injuries. Later, I heard my grandmother tell the nurse, “She told me that if anything ever happened to her, make sure to tell you she wears contacts.” The nurse told my grandmother that I’d already told them that, but they haven’t had time to take them out. I smiled because my grandma had remembered what I’d said after reading the book A Stranger’s Eyes, in which a man survived a plane crash, was in a coma for months, and lost his eyesight because they’d failed to remove his contacts. She had remembered.
Then, I drifted away again.
At one point, I woke to find my husband standing over me with my son. I told them both how much I loved them. I don’t remember what else, if anything, I said. (My husband told me later that he wasn’t going to bring our son in to see me in that condition–bloody and muddy, but he was afraid it might be the last time he would ever have the chance to see or talk to his mommy, so he brought him in.)
*This is a picture of the x-ray of my neck that night.
I woke later in an Ambulance. I was being transferred to another hospital where a top neurosurgeon was waiting for me. I was supposed to be flown, but the weather didn’t permit flying. So instead, I was in an Ambulance that made the hour-long trip in about a quarter of an hour. Every bump in the road caused me great pain.
I drifted away.
The next time I woke, there was a man working on my head. He had one hand between my flesh and skull while the other hand squirted a cold liquid into my head. I told him it hurt. He said he knew, but he had to get the dirt and gravel and glass out before he could sew it shut, which would end up taking 67 stitches. I let him work. What choice do I have?
As that was happening, a man walked toward me carrying some sort of curved metal thing. I asked what he was going to do with it. He said it was tongs and he was going to screw it into my skull. I asked if it would hurt, and he assured me it wouldn’t, though I would feel pressure. Before I could protest, a lady came toward me with a clear plastic hose. I asked what she planned to do with it, and she told me she was going to put it in my stomach via my nose. I asked why. She said in case I got sick. I promised her I wouldn’t throw up, but she put it in my nose and forced it down my throat anyway. Everything they did hurt. Everything except having the tongs screwed into my skull. It didn’t hurt, but the smell of my bone being drilled away wasn’t pleasant. Then, I drifted away.
I woke later as I was wheeled into my new room in SICU. It was to be my home for the next month. I was strapped to a rotating bed. Traction. There were 25 lbs. of weight on the tongs, pulling and stretching my neck. The worst part was I still couldn’t move or feel anything below the neck. I was on a lot of drugs. Morphine, Demoral, and various other drugs that dulled the pain, made me sleep 23 hours a day, and made me hallucinate a lot. I ate nothing more than chocolate pudding and applesauce because I was afraid I would choke. If I did, there was nothing they could do for me. I couldn’t be moved. My neck was still broken. In fact, it remained that way for 11 days. Technically, it was a severe dislocation. My spinal column was 75% offset. Imagine stacking two tires on top of each other and then sliding the top one almost completely off the bottom one, until the holes in the center are 75% offset. That was my spine. My doctor told us that he’d never seen anyone with an injury as severe as mine regain anything more than a little use of their arms. He pricked me daily with a needle to see if I could feel it. I couldn’t.
They x-rayed my hands many times because they were so swollen and bruised they thought for sure they were broken. After all, the car rolled over them. They were cut and bruised but not broken.
2 days before my 27th birthday, I had my first surgery. A piece of my hipbone was fused into my spinal column through the front of my neck. I laid in bed what little time I was awake and focused on moving my toe. My right leg was twisted in the wreck and was stuck now in a boot to straighten it out, so I focused on the big toe on my left foot. I would ask my mother if the toe was moving. She said no. The next day, I asked again, and again she said no. But there came a day when the answer was yes. She told my doctor, who told us to not get too excited. It was most likely just muscle twitches. But it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t. I worked my ass off to move that toe. And I kept doing it.
It would be okay if I was paralyzed from the waist down. I knew that I could still live a pretty normal life as a paraplegic. But if I didn’t regain the use of my arms…I laid there in that bed and thought about how our lives had changed. As a quadriplegic, I would need constant care. Rotating to avoid bed sores (which I ended up getting anyway–they hurt!), cleaning, etc. I couldn’t do anything for myself. If I needed a drink of water, someone had to get it and give it to me. If I had an itch on my cheek, someone had to scratch it. If I was hungry, someone had to feed me. All I could think about was how much of a burden I was to my family now. And the worst part was I couldn’t even kill myself.
A couple weeks later, I had another surgery. This time, a plate and a cable were installed into the back of my neck. The muscles were cut and pulled away from the bone. That caused me pain. Even though I was still a quadriplegic, when people bumped my bed, I cried. It hurt my neck more than I ever thought possible. The doctor also had to cut away a piece of skin off the back of my head. It was damaged in the wreck and couldn’t be touched because they couldn’t get to it, so it had become infected.
My hair still contained mud, rocks, glass, and dirt from the wreck. Yes, several weeks after the wreck, my hair was still full of rocks and mud and glass and dirt. It was a knotted mess. They tried to wash it, but it was impossible. They tried to comb it, but it hurt way too much. I finally told them to ‘just cut it.’ They did.
I was transferred to another hospital to start rehab. The transfer hurt like hell.
My son called me and said, “I wish you still lived with me and my dad.” I choked back tears and said, “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 hurt me more than my neck. The hospital was great with us. We had our own room. My husband had a bed of his own in the room. They wheeled in a TV for us, and on the weekends and Christmas vacation when my son stayed with us, they allowed us to hook up my son’s PS2 so he could play games. We tried to make sure life was as normal as possible for him.
I eventually learned to walk again and was released to go home 79 long days after my accident. With the aid of a walker, I walked out of the hospital. It was the happiest day of my life.
There were bruises that stayed with me for nearly a year before finally going away. Those on the back of my hands and a large one on my right shoulder. A few weeks after being released from the hospital, I had to return to have another surgery. Once again, a piece of my hipbone was fused into my neck.
I endured so many nerve tests, catheter issues, physical hurdles, and embarrassing moments that I couldn’t wait to get home. There really is no shame in a hospital. I’ve pooped while sitting on a bedside toilet with my head resting on a nurse’s abdomen. I’ve had a room full of doctors and nurses waiting and watching to see if I could pee without a catheter. I’ve had a team of nurses have to pick me up after I passed out trying to stand up. I’ve had to be wheeled in a wheelchair back to my room after passing out in the shower. But you do what you have to do.
Can we talk about the hard neck brace? Oh my god, those are horrible. I was in a hard brace for months. I woke up wearing one after one of my surgeries and had to wear it for months after that. I hated every second of it. But every time I took it off, it was scary. My poor neck was exposed and vulnerable. It was terrifying, but relieving.
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. 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. It was so twisted in the wreck, it’ll never be the same. I get what I call ‘jelly leg’ after walking any distance. The farthest I can walk is a mile and a half (and that’s on a really good day). Any farther and I can’t control my right leg. It gets all floppy on me. Jelly leg. 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 roof of the car above the windshield buckled and cut my face. The scar starts at the outer corner of my right eye, runs back toward my ear and branches off, going up the side of my face and into my hair. 67 stitches it took to sew it up. That was the twinge I felt at the corner of my eye as I laid in the car waiting for help. 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 or notice the issues I have. 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 I’ve 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.
Having a broken neck and being a quadriplegic is the most terrifying thing you can have happen. No one prepares you for what’s to come after your body heals. No one tells you about the emotional issues. The depression, the ‘why me’ questions, the ‘it’s not fair’ whining, the anger, the sadness, and the loneliness. No one understands unless they’ve been through it. It’s rough, but you can do it. You’re not the only person it’s happened to, and since we all know what it’s like, we’re all willing to help each other get through it. There are support groups online. Plus, I’m always here.