I open my eyes, drop ceiling? I glance to the right, hospital? I look to the left to see my husband, Ron, sitting on a chair.
“What happened to us?”
Ron looks up, “You were in an accident.”
Ron had been at the hospital for three nights, waiting until I was awake and aware of what was going on before leaving to go home. By the time we had the above conversation I had already undergone two of three surgeries. My third surgery would not be for about another week. This was the beginning of what would be a long recovery and adjustment to a “new normal” that to this day, four years later, is still changing.
May 29, 2010 was a warm and sunny day. I was a college student and rode my motorcycle to Baker College in Auburn Hills for class that morning, over an hour away. After I returned home to St. Clair Ron and I rode to The Feast of the St. Claire, an annual re-enactment event held every Memorial Day weekend in Port Huron. We were on the way home, riding side by side down Electric Avenue, the one way southbound portion of M-29 in Port Huron. As we approached the 16th Street intersection Ron slowed for a second to look at something and I continued forward. That is the last thing I remember until I woke up in the hospital.
As I was going through the intersection a vehicle that had been on Military Street, the northbound portion of M-29, cut across 16th street (about two lots wide), failed to stop and hit me full force. The driver was young, 17 years old with his girlfriend in the car. He told my husband and the police he was sorry, he didn’t know he was supposed to stop. Months later when I looked at the intersection I was baffled by his claim. He missed two stop signs (on on the right, one on the left), plus a hanging red blinking light with a stop sign attached to it. Ron told me there were no skid marks at the scene. The accident happened so fast Ron panicked when he heard it and looked forward, locked up his brakes and hit the back end of the car, rolling on the pavement and was later treated for road rash. I was unconscious on the scene. My motorcycle had continued on a southbound path while my body had flown in a northerly direction, what I was later told is a sign of a severe impact.
I was transported by ambulance to Mercy Hospital. After about two hours they informed Ron that they were unable to handle my injuries at that location and that I might loose my leg. I was flown to the trauma center at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, where Ron and our daughter arrived just in time for him to sign the permission slip for my first surgery. They were told I might loose my foot. Due to the skill of two phenomenal surgeons I have both my leg and my foot. At one of my first check-ups after I was released from the hospital I was looking at the x-rays and made a comment that my leg was a mess when I arrived at the hospital. One of the surgeons looked at me and said “You were a challenge.”
When you suffer a severe trauma the life altering impact is instant and ongoing. While in the hospital my injuries prevented me from being able to even lift the cover off my meals when they were delivered. Prior to my third surgery the ankle surgeon visited me in the room and placed an X on my left foot with a magic marker indicating the side for surgery. I laughed and told him I would think the huge wrap-around brace on my left leg that ran from my thigh down the entire leg and included the foot would be indication enough.
Photo taken June 21, 2010, only four days after my transfer from Hurley Hospital to Medilodge.
Eventually I was cleared to leave the hospital and a list of rehabilitation facilities, which are basically combination nursing homes and medical rehabilitation, were provided. Ron made phone calls and had a hard time finding a location to accept me. Some considered me non-rehabilitative because I was non-weight bearing on three limbs, others considered me too young. Finally Medilodge in St. Clair agreed to take me as a patient and I was transported there by ambulance. The start of recovery.
Medilodge assigned appropriate occupational, physical, and speech therapists to work with me. The speech therapist was not because of any difficulty talking, but I had suffered a slight Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and as a result was having difficulty with some cognitive processing. I also was non-weight bearing on three limbs, my right arm had suffered a severe dislocation and was in a brace that immobilized it, and we later discovered the right shoulder was also fractured. My left hand was in a cast for what was called a game-keepers fracture near the thumb. As such both arms were non-weight bearing, I couldn’t even wheel my own wheelchair. My other injuries included a fractured rib, fractured left hip, and my left leg had three breaks, the left ankle had two breaks. My three surgeries were for the purpose of doing titanium implants from my left hip ball across to the center leg, then down the leg to just above the knee, from below the knee to the ankle, and then two plates and numerous screws in the ankle.
It is amazing what you can learn to do when challenged. One of the first things my physical therapist started me on was stomach crunches, with my arms across my chest so I would not be tempted to use them for leverage. By building my abdominal muscles I was soon able to stand up and balance using my right leg only, no pressure or assistance from my arms and no weight on my left leg. Hold your left leg slightly off the ground, do not touch the arms of your chair and stand up and maintain your balance using only your right leg. In a chair of the appropriate height I can still accomplish this today. As for the stomach crunches, the last time I tried I did 25, but at one time I could easily do 50-75 non-stop.
Life at Medilodge became a daily routine of learning things, building my strength and as soon as one task was accomplished, beginning to work on the next. Once my left hand was cleared to bear weight I learned to operate my wheelchair with my left hand and right foot. Then my right arm was cleared and I could now do two-handed wheelchair operation. I had enjoyed the sedate life enough, and if the hallway was clear I would roll my wheelchair as fast as I could to the end, then grab the wheels quickly to slow enough to make the corner. Small thrills in an environment where most people were at least thirty years older than I was.
Once both arms were able to bear weight I was taught to use an old fashioned metal walker, hopping while holding my left leg up and not putting any weight on it. The leg was in a full brace that weighed 5 lbs. How do I know this? Because my therapist had her hand under my foot and thought I was putting weight down. I told her it had to be the weigh of the brace so we had me sit and put my foot portion on a scale – 5 lbs! Once I had mastered climbing platform steps with the walker and could go a fair distance down the hall with the walker it was time to evaluate me going home.
The therapists that worked with me did a home inspection where they noted changes that would have to make so that it was safe for me to come home. Ron had to build several platform steps 4″ high and large enough for me and my walker to hop up and down going in and out of the house. All throw rugs had to come off the floor and furniture had to be rearranged to allow my wheel chair and walker to traverse through various parts of the home. Our over the range mounted microwave was considered unsafe for me to operate so counter top microwave was purchased for me to use. A hospital bed was ordered for our front room because I was not yet weight bearing on the leg and unable to climb the flight of stairs to our upper level bedroom. These are just a few of the adjustments that were made to the home to accommodate my needs. Once I got home additional re-arranging was done so that my computer, printer, and various other items I used on a regular basis became fixtures on our kitchen table and counters.
Photo taken September 11, 2010, about three weeks after I was discharged from Medilodge. Much improved but still a long way to go.
I left Medilodge and returned home August 17, 2010, but my recovery was still not complete. I would have another year of physical therapy, doctor appointments for my leg and ankle, and a ENT for vertigo that developed as a result of the accident. In September 2010 I was cleared to put weight on the leg as pain tolerated. By January 2011 I was walking “heavy” on a 4-prong cane. It was not until April 2011 that I began slowly climbing the steps to our upper level, and it was also April 2011 that I began driving again. By spring 2012 I was completely off the cane. During the period of my recovery Ron handled all household duties, assisted in my wound care, drove me to all my doctor and therapy appointments, plus drove me to college twice a week, staying all day and coming to the room at the end of each class to transport my books from location to location. An accident does not just alter the life of the person injured, it also alters the life of those around them who assist in their care.
Even with all those challenges, I managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude from Baker College with my Associates Degree on schedule , and was also awarded the honor of Outstanding Student. The internship I had to do to complete my degree evolved into a full time Paralegal position that I continue to hold today. This is now the four-year anniversary of my accident, and it is only in the past few months that I have had a harder time accepting the impact the accident is having on my life and abilities.
I had continued to improve physically until the summer of 2013 when I began having trouble with my ankle swelling severely, sometimes bad enough to require the use of my cane. A trip to my ankle surgeon revealed that from the severe impact of the accident my ankle has developed degenerative arthritis, meaning that it will continue to deteriorate and at some point will become severe enough to require an ankle fusion. The reality is that I will never again be able to spend hours on my feet at special events, amusement parks, the zoo, or other similar locals without ending up with severe swelling and pain. I can’t make mad dashes in the pouring rain from building to car. I have to ascend and descend steps one step at a time, not in the normal left-right stepping motion. These and many other things that people never really think about as they live their day-to-day lives will never again be the same for me. Will I continue to make improvements? I assume that in some areas I will. I will also have more challenges and limitations over time. On the positive side, such a life altering event can affect your outlook on life, what is important, what isn’t, and you learn to be adaptable to whatever challenge you face.
Why do I tell this story? Because I hope to impress on people that even a moment of not paying attention can have a severe and permanent life altering impact on someone else’s life. Please stay alert and focused.
Have you or someone you know had a life altering experience?
Please feel free to share your experience in the comment section.