Prior to December 21, 2012 I found myself a happy 20 something young teacher living in downtown Seattle. Running on the weekends with my friends,
participating in triathlons, and enjoying hot dates with handsome young men. Four days before Christmas in 2012 my family [my brother Jeremy 21, my sister Jaime 25, her husband Steven 26, and me 27] and I were going on a short vacation to Leavenworth. We chatted absentmindedly along the way until… it happened. As we were driving over the pass a tree fell on our car…and my parents.. and instantly killed them.
A very large snow laden tree fell on the top of our vehicle. Some people say that they see a white light, or faces when they are subjected to these life or death situation’s. I saw nothing, only darkness. In fact, I thought I had fallen asleep and had woken to a very bad dream.
I became trapped with my chest on my knees. Although my sister was dealing with massive internal injuries and many broken bones she managed to keep calm and alert. She helped inform me of what I couldn’t see and also spoke soothing words to her husband who later wouldn’t remember anything the day of the accident. My brother Jeremy had been in the very back seat listening to music and post impact had kicked out the back windows thinking we were all dead. A thoughtful family had put him in their car-not allowing him to see the wreckage, knowing that some images cannot be erased.
While we were waiting for the rescuers I remember a kind woman who sat by the window and despite the trauma that she must have seen, was a calm, and a warm presence while we waited. She stood by us until the paramedics and firefighters with the jaws of life arrived to take us away from the crumpled piece of tin that was enough to save our lives, but not enough for my mom and dad.
I was airlifted to Harborview with my siblings where we were placed in intensive care. My family and friends were able to meet us there. I remember one of my best friends Heather standing by the gurney. I was not breathing on my own and could not talk so she would go through the alphabet and I would blink when I wanted her to stop. I spelled out to her mom’s dead…I saw.
The first report to our friends and family was that we all had broken legs, arms, hips, back, some internal bleeding, and major lacerations that resulted in significant blood loss. I was taken to surgery and when I woke up I was told that I was paralyzed, they were not sure how bad, but that my life would be forever changed.
To be honest, I’m not sure I could tell you what my initial thoughts were on this. There was an immense amount of trauma in my family, and my thoughts were not on myself. Imagine floating out in the middle of the ocean with nothing around you.Every good thing that happens is like a life preserver that you can cling too. Steven is out of surgery, Jaime didn’t lose cognitive function from her stroke, I can breathe on my own.
In the ICU I was unable to move any part of my body other than my head. My doctors diagnosed me with an incomplete C3 ASIA B (that would later changed to C4 ASIA D) SCI. My therapists and doctors were very careful in what they said to me, but expressed that it was incredibly unlikely that I would ever walk again.
For the next week I lay in the ICUa waiting surgeries, receiving nutrition through feeding tube, hallucinating over drugs, worrying about my brother in law and sister and being completely immobile.
After a little over a week I was transferred downstairs to the rehabilitation unit. I spent ten weeks in a room covered with artwork, letters, and mementos that people from my whole community had sent me. During this time I had two intense rehabilitation sessions a day, as well as intense nursing visits where it would take me up to two hours to get my bowels and bladder taken care of, and to get dressed. It was during these nurses time that I found myself most dejected. To not be able to do the most basic of human functions on your own was the most heartbreaking and discouraging part of my day where it felt like if there was any shred of dignity that I had left, it was violently ripped from my grasp.
At this point in my story it is important for me to mention the level of support that I had through all of this. My recovery, and my story would look vastly different if it weren’t for this network of people who mostly metaphorically, but sometimes physically, created a net below me so that I would never have to officially touch ground. For SIX months straight I always had someone by my side. My friends had created a schedule and showed up every minute of every day. This included sleeping on the floor through the night.
I was so terrified of being alone. I couldn’t reach an itch, even though my ventilator had been removed, I still wasn’t confident that I could breathe well on my own, and the nightmares were incessant. I had friends like Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, and a handful of handsome men from the sounders connect with me. I had news stations reach out and talk to me and help spread the word about the necessity of finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. I will forever be in awe and gratitude for the support that so many people were able to provide.
I tell you what, true love and friendship looks like: a friend trying to throw popcorn in your mouth from a distance while dancing incessantly and failing most of her “free throws”. Then curling up on the hospital floor with about 14 blankets for what will surely be a very interrupted sleep. Or a friend that helps you break loose from the rehab unit for a little while to go find where all the hot doctors hang out. True friends clean out your apartment but insist that only the girls clean the bathroom and the bedroom. Love is bringing your toddlers to come see Auntie Jess and go for a ride on her wheelchair. And probably most importantly true love and friendship is not letting the moms go out and buy me granny underwear, instead joining them on the shopping trip and ensuring that my bellybutton is only kept warm by my shirt.
During my time in rehab my body began to change ever so slightly. I was able to wiggle my ankle one day, and then my knee a little bit, and then my hips. I spent my workout time on a mat trying to rollover for hours at a time. I eventually got it and began to feel so proud. I spent my occupational therapy trying to brush my teeth or scratch an itch. These tasks seem to be infinitely more challenging for me because my upper body function was not returning at the same rate that my legs were. I still was unable to feed myself.
I want to tell you a little something about my mentality at this point. As horrific, and life-changing, and formidable as this injury and accident was, I am an inherently positive person. I approach these challenges with the same ambition, perseverance, and optimism that I have approached every other encumbrance in my life.
The doctor continued to say things like “it is highly unlikely that you’ll gain the ability to walk again.” Not particularly motivating, that is for sure. But that didn’t slow me down. Looking back, I’m not sure why – because every medical piece of information was suggesting that my post accident life would not include any walking, or any possibility of an independent life. But you know what I did? I bulldozed all the haters and kept that thought in my head that dammit,
I’m going to do this just for the sheer pleasure of enjoying that I told you so! There is that fine line between reality and reverie and I chose to plant my roots in hope.
After a full three months at Harborview medical center I was transferred to a smaller skilled nursing facility to join Jaime and Steven. They were not permitted to go to rehab after they had recovered enough because you need to have two functional limbs and they still did not.
At this point I was fitted with a power wheelchair that I drove with my chin because I still did not have enough hand function to operate a joystick. Quite honestly, I was terrified of leaving, I was incredibly worried about losing the progress I felt like I was making. Through the education that I received at Harborview I learned that incomplete spinal cord injuries have a recovery window of 18 months. I knew that I had to use every single minute of that time. I did not want to look back and wish that I had worked harder. I did not know where I could go. Luckily I had a wonderful team of support behind me that found Pushing Boundaries.
Pushing Boundaries is an exercise based therapy center, providing intensive exercise based recovery that focuses on regaining function in individuals who have paralysis. I went in for what I thought was a tour when I was greeted by two muscle-y, handsome gentleman. They asked me a few questions, gave me a few tests and said oh yeah, let’s stand you up. I politely declined saying “no no, I don’t think you understand, I can’t do that.” They said, yes you can – and they proceeded to lift me under my arms and help me balance on my two feet.
At that particular moment, I can tell you I have never felt so empowered in my whole life. I have never felt that somebody believed in me so much. That they were not giving up on me, that anything was possible. After months of medical professionals saying they didn’t know, or they were unsure, I finally have someone that said you can do this, it is not going to be easy, but we can help you. And -so they did. It was really hard work, this is not a magic pill, you need to put in the time, but for all the effort I put in, I know that the therapists I was working with put in just as much; designing a plan for me, making sure I felt safe, researching and asking questions, and ensuring that I was pushing myself and not resting on what my brain thought I could do. There were hard days, it was not unusual to hear the occasional bad word coming out of my mouth, or see a scowl, but luckily these therapists are tough, and even my fussy attitude didn’t seem to faze them!
By the year-end I had learned to walk using crutches or a walker! Unfortunately in January the following year I had to have knee surgery to repair my severely damaged knees. I had torn my PCL, LCL, MCL, meniscus, popliteus, and patellar tendon in the accident. The doctors decided not to do surgery on it earlier because they did not think that I would ever have reason to use my knees again, and because the surgery can always be done later.
I spent months back at the skilled nursing facility because I was not allowed to put weight on either of my legs and had to have them straight out all the time! I came to think of myself as the queen of the nursing facility during that time! I ruled the joint!
I have since healed up and can now still walk. I can only walk short distances and with my crutches, but I tell you what, that I told you so not only came with a song, it came with a big fat I told you so dance!
I now learned to drive, when I drive I often use my wheelchair so I don’t have to carry my purse, get the crutches out of the car, shut the door, try to open doors with both hands attached to the crutches…etc. Plus, I had my wheelchair guy soup up my chair so that it goes extra fast! I really do like to zoom right past people!
My recovery is not 100%, my hands still don’t work very well, I still need help doing many things. But here’s the thing, you get one body for this life, love it or hate it, it is the ONLY vessel that you get so you might as well make peace with it.
If you are interested in reading more about the injury and about my siblings feel free to check out our blog. It started as a way to update everyone on our condition and began evolving to share more of our personal journey with recovery and the emotions that come with losing your parents. It is not updated very often because we have moved forward as a family, but it will give you a glimpse as to what those first couple years looked like.