August of 2009 was just about as exciting a time for me as I had ever known. I had just turned 15 and was about to enter my freshman year in high school. I had been selected as the captain of my cheerleading squad and had just begun competition cheerleading. I was about to fly to Europe to pick out a new show horse for my riding competitions. My stomach problems were finally tolerable and I was in remission. I felt more organized and put together then ever and was looking forward to a fresh start.
To celebrate the start of the new school year, a group of us had arranged to spend a weekend at one of our girlfriend’s parents’ lake house in Alabama. Her parents agreed to host us and serve as chaperones, and despite my Mom’s initial misgivings, she agreed with the other parents to our plan to enjoy the weekend tubing, jet skiing and canoeing on the waters of Lake Wedowee, and just having fun together.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘This year will be amazing.’ I had a great group of friends and the new school year was going to be exciting. The weekend would be just the thing I needed to get my mind off things. Justin and I had broken up and I was looking forward to forgetting about everything except what was going on that very moment and enjoying this time with the girls.
We arrived on Friday night and the fun began immediately. We spent the night laughing, joking, listening to music, just being girls and looking forward to getting on the water. We awoke to a beautiful morning and could not get on the water fast enough. The day was just as we had envisioned, on the lake with music blaring, tubing, knee boarding, wake boarding, and just having fun.
Two of my friends and I were riding on the Jet Ski, while the rest of the crew was preparing to go out on the lake in a canoe that was being towed by a powered ski boat. We were having a blast on the Jet Ski, jumping waves, doing donuts, and flipping everyone into the water. At one point, as the boat pulling the canoe was getting ready to head out, we decided to do donuts with the Jet Ski. As we did, however, we flipped over and all three of us were thrown into the water. Even as we were complaining about the impact of being thrown into the water and how the water was clogging up our ears, we were laughing and enjoying every minute of it as we were getting back on the jet ski.
None of us would be prepared for what would happen next.
As we were climbing back on the Jet Ski, it filled with water so we all jumped back into the water. My two friends were on one side of the Jet Ski and I was on the other. In an instant, I saw the boat that was pulling the canoe coming right at me. The driver of the boat was looking behind him at the canoe, so he never saw me. I tried to swim out of the path of the boat, but could not get away fast enough. I tried to swim under water, but my life jacket kept me on the surface of the water. At the last second, I threw my head back in a final unsuccessful attempt to avoid being hit. As I was hit, I was sucked under the boat and felt the propellers of the boat make contact with my lower body.
From the moment of impact, my body and my brain went into a fog like state of slow motion. I remembered floating on top of the water and looking around me, seeing the color red, just like in the movie ‘Jaws’, when the shark ripped someone’s legs off. I could see my muscles and skin floating on the water, and I told myself not to look at my leg, but I did anyway. I saw my leg basically separated from my body and chopped up. I saw bone and a mish mash of spaghetti like body tissue floating all around me.
When I realized what had happened, my mind went in a thousand different directions. I remember thinking “Why Me God? I had endured living through and surviving a deathly illness, and now this???”
“It seemed I had spent the last year of my life living in and out of the hospital, and was finally getting better. And now, this happens?
“You can’t prepare for a sudden impact. You can’t brace yourself. It just hits you. Out of nowhere. And suddenly, the life you knew before is over. Forever.”
I remember trying to rationalize why bad things seemed to keep happening to me. Growing up in a Christian family I had always strived to be Christ like, treating others with kindness and compassion. I had never crossed bridges with anyone or had a problem with a single person in my life. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. ‘What had I done to deserve this? ‘
I was in a state of shock. My mind was zig-zagging between questioning why, to pretending it didn’t happen, to preparing for the worse. I began to tell myself, “It’s all right. It’s just a dream. I’ll wake up any minute…. and even if not, I can use one of those prosthetic legs, right?’’
All I could think of was that both my legs were gone. It felt as if someone had taken a chain saw and was chopping my leg off over and over again in slow motion. It was an indescribable type of pain. Again, I tried to remind myself how my leg was missing, but it would be okay. ‘I can get a prosthetic leg.’ I pictured myself running a marathon with a prosthetic leg. At one point, I remember just laying back and focusing on the clouds in the beautiful autumn sky above me and praying over and over again for God to take away the pain.
When my friends in the canoe heard the thud of their boat hitting something, they all turned around to see me lying in a pool of red water. They started crying hysterically, screaming, and panicking. My best friend’s dad, who was driving the boat, jumped in the water as soon as he realized the boat had hit me. He picked me up and put me on the Jet Ski, which was a miracle in itself because he can’t lift one arm over his head due to a past injury. He took me to the dock and laid me down. I saw him whispering to his wife that it didn’t look good.
I had suffered significant injuries to my legs because not only had I been hit by the boat, but I had been struck by the boat’s propeller. As I would later learn, my right femur was broken in half and the femoral artery on my left leg had been severed. All my arteries and nerves were cut. I had also been struck on the head by the kayak being pulled by the boat. I had a collapsed lung with blood going into my stomach.
Everyone was trying so hard to act calm to not freak me out, but I knew how bad it was. I couldn’t straighten my legs or even control them. I could tell they were trying not to scare me. I just stared at the clouds and wished the pain would go away. Lying on the dock, I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker, not being able to keep my eyes open. I felt light-headed, and everyone was so blurry and in slow motion. As much as I wanted to close my eyes, they wouldn’t let me. They made me talk so I would remain conscious because I was losing so much blood. I knew it would not be much longer before I wouldn’t have any blood left. I felt myself slipping away and knew I was going to die.
“They say lightning never strikes twice. But that’s a myth. It doesn’t happen often. Lightning usually gets it first time. When you’re hit with 30 thousand of amps of electricity, you feel it. It can make you forget who you are. It can burn you, blind you, stop your heart and cause massive internal injuries. But for something that happens only in a millisecond, it can change your life forever.
Lighting doesn’t often strike twice – it’s a once in a lifetime thing. Even if it feels like the shock is coming over and over again. Eventually, the pain will go away. The shock will wear off. And you start to heal yourself. To recover from something you never saw it coming. But sometimes the odds are in your favor. If you’re in just the right place, at just the right time, you can take a hell of a hit. And still have a shot in surviving.”
I started to think of all my favorite memories and kept having images of people that I knew… my family, my friends, Justin. I started to think of my last conversations with some people, and feeling regretful that they weren’t all positive. I remember wishing I had told all of them that I loved them.
My best friend stood over me, holding me and brushing my hair out of my face. She was praying, urging me not to give up, and saying I had to stay with her. I looked over at my other friends. They were in a circle, crying and praying. I had the thought that this would be the last time I would see their faces. I felt certain I was about to die, but I remember thinking I had to keep going for them because I did not want them to see me die.
When the accident occurred, 911 had been called, and ambulances were on their way, but it felt like we were waiting for hours before they arrived. My friend’s parents had wrapped my legs with towels and put a ton of pressure on them to stop the bleeding. In the fog and haze of my semi-conscious state, I could hear the sirens of the ambulances getting closer. I was scared. I was scared that there would be more pain when the paramedics moved me from my painful, but motionless position on the dock. I remember thinking I shouldn’t have watched all those E.R. and House episodes.
Eventually the ambulance and the paramedics arrived. As they kneeled to begin the process of moving me, I grabbed their hands and begged, ‘Put me out! Knock me out! Please just put me to sleep!’ I remember begging them to take me to Scottish Rite Hospital because that is where I had spent so much time during my salmonella poisoning ordeal. At least I would be someplace where I knew the doctors and all my friends that I met during my stay there. It was the only hospital I ever had good experiences at and the only one I trusted.
The paramedics rushed me into the ambulance to drive me approximately two miles to the dam where a life flight helicopter was to meet us and transport me to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, the nearest facility that could accommodate my injuries. The road from the lake house was a bumpy dirt road filled with rocks and potholes. With one leg broken in half and the other exposed to the bone, the pain of the ambulance ride was pure torture. Even though I was securely strapped to the gurney, I was bouncing around in the back of the ambulance, agonizing over every bump in the road.
When we finally arrived at the helicopter pad, I was transferred to the helicopter, but there was a complication in straightening my legs, which further delayed getting me to the hospital. Entering the helicopter was the last thing I remember. I had lost a massive amount of blood and was suffering from hypovolemic shock. I was later told that my heart stopped in the helicopter.
What happened next was the first of many miracles that saved my legs, and my life.
When I was hit by the boat, the propellers had chopped up my left leg, tearing through my muscle, nerves and skin, and severing the femoral artery leading to my heart. During the helicopter flight, I had lost so much blood from my femoral artery being severed, I flat lined, which meant I had no pulse or other signs of life. From a medical perspective, I had died.
When that happened, the paramedic that was working on me declared me dead, and instructed the flight nurse to record the time of my death. The nurse, who happened to be a mother with a child around my age, became very emotional and begged her partner not to give up. The back-and-forth between the paramedic and the flight nurse escalated. As he tried to explain to the nurse that further efforts to revive me would be useless, she continued to plead with him that they continue their efforts, despite the paramedic’s arguments. She refused to give up. I can remember her yelling… “Caitlin, Breathe!!!” She became highly emotional, knowing that her tone and her actions were putting her at risk of losing her job. The paramedic ultimately relented and resumed efforts to revive me. And, miraculously, they did so.
Were it not for my “angel” — an emergency medical worker in the life flight helicopter, who had children around my age — I would not be alive today. She risked her job to save me, and thankfully she was successful.
By the time the helicopter had arrived at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, I was in critical, near-death condition… but I was alive.
But the saga did not end there. When doctors at Children’s Hospital saw the extent of my injuries, they realized they would not be able to save me. They gave me 8 units of blood and one until of plasma (FFTP), and immediately arranged yet another transfer to the critical trauma and burn hospital at the University of Alabama Birmingham. During the ambulance ride, I flat lined a second time… and again I was revived.
In medical practices, there is something called the Glascow Coma Scale, which measures the level of consciousness in a person following a traumatic brain injury. Upon arrival at the University of Alabama Birmingham, I was a 3T on the Glascow Coma Scale. This is the lowest possible score and indicates that I was unconscious and unresponsive. My medical records described that I had suffered severe arterial bleeding in my left leg from a deep laceration, a fracture of the right femur, left superficial femoral artery (SFA) injury, and right apical pneumothorax, which is, in laymen’s terms, a pocket of air in the chest cavity that causes an uncoupling of the lung from the chest wall. In my left leg, my physicians noted that there was “severe and significant muscle injury and several transverse and oblique deep lacerations creating a large open wound leaving a stellate-type laceration pattern with several areas of tenuous skin.” The lacerations totaled in length 40 cm.
I was immediately taken to the operating room by vascular surgeons to repair the vascular injury to my left leg. To complicate matters even further, shortly after arrival in the operating room, I suffered cardiac arrest and underwent CPR. Bilateral chest tubes were placed after the arrest.
After I was stabilized, the doctors proceeded with the surgery. I underwent surgical repair of the superficial femoral artery in my left leg, left femoral vein ligation, and left lower extremity fasciotomy. During this procedure, surgeons noted that what appeared to be a significant branch of the sciatic nerve had been lacerated in the accident. The surgeons tried to repair a gap of approximately 4cm by grafting a vein onto the nerve.
Though the doctors were able to revive me yet a third time, my body was in such a fragile condition, they could not administer any more anesthesia for fear that I would not wake up. I was, however, given medicine to paralyze me. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t blink, and I couldn’t talk. As a result, I was awake and alert during the entire procedure.
At one point during the procedure, I could hear them saying, ‘We’re going to have to take her leg. Okay, we are going to amputate it.’ Though paralyzed and unable to move or utter a sound, I was freaking out at the thought of losing my leg.
They are going to amputate my leg while I am awake? No!
I tried to scream to beg them not to take my leg, but it was no use because they couldn’t hear me. It was like having an out of body experience. I could also hear them say there was no possible way I would ever walk again, or live a normal life, with or without my leg.
By this time, my parents had been notified about my accident, and had arrived from their two hour drive from Atlanta. They had not seen me, nor did they know the extent of my injuries, and were left to wait helplessly in the waiting room while I was in surgery, not knowing if I would come out of the surgery alive. The doctors told them that they were doing the best they could, but it didn’t look good. They had no clue how extreme my injuries were, but now knew that they faced the possibility of never seeing their little girl again.
The miracle in the helicopter was followed by what can only be described as a series of additional miracles that would occur during my surgeries.
It was a miracle that the surgeons, beyond all assumptions that my leg would have to be amputated, were able to repair the nerves and the muscle tissue and salvage my leg.
It was a miracle that the one plastic surgeon who was a specialist in the emergency repair of skin tissue just happened to be at the hospital when I arrived, and was able to close my wounds and avoid the agonizing procedure of applying skin grafts.
It was a miracle that the blood bank had just replenished their supply of my blood type, and was able to accommodate the multiple blood transfusions and the loss of over 20 units of blood.
It was a miracle that they managed to save my leg.
It is a miracle that I would walk again. And it is a miracle that I am alive today.
The care and treatment I received through the entire resuscitation and surgical procedures were miraculous, and are the reason I am alive today.
After surgery, I was returned to the Trauma & Burn Intensive Care Unit (TBICU), and the following day, I was back in the operating room. This time I underwent orthopedic surgery for my right femur fracture (IMN right femur), which was washed out and repaired by placing a rod in my leg. During this surgery, a small area of necrotic skin was trimmed back and a small amount of necrotic torn muscle was debrided. After surviving these surgeries, I was returned to the TBICU still intubated on pressure support. I was then induced into a coma which lasted for three days. Afterwards I went through another surgery where the physicians closed my lower extremity fasciotomies, which were the procedures designed to save my legs.
I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, alone in a sparse room with white walls. I couldn’t talk or move. I had a tube down my throat, which maintained my breathing. I had two tubes which had been inserted in my chest to pump blood back into my body. I had over 6,000 stitches in one leg and a rod in the other leg extending from my hip to my knee. After five harrowing days in which I had flat lined at least three times and had many major operations, I had survived. However, my long road to recovery had just begun.
After a trauma, your body is at its most vulnerable. Response time is critical. So you’re suddenly surrounded by people, doctors, nurses, specialists, technicians. Surgery is a team sport. Everyone is pushing for the finish line, putting you back together again. But surgery is a trauma in it of itself. And once it’s over, the real healing begins. We call it recovery. Recovery, however, is not a team sport. It’s a solitary distance run. It’s long, it’s exhausting. And it’s lonely as hell.
The length of your recovery is determined by extent of your injury. And it’s not always successful. No matter how hard we work at it. Some wounds might never fully heal. You might have to adjust to a whole new way of living. Things may have changed too radically to ever go back to what they were. You might not even recognize yourself. It’s like you haven’t recovered, anything at all. You’re a whole new person, with a whole new life.
The nurses and the entire medical staff in the ICU were incredible, but the constant movements, adjustments and procedures they were required to administer were agonizing. Bandages had to be changed every 2-3 hours. Tubes were constantly being changed or adjusted. The intensity and the frequency of more needles, more tubes and more adjustments made my stay in the ICU very painful and very uncomfortable. Every part of my body was sensitive and painful to the touch, and the constant poking and prodding with needles and the continuous changing of my bandages offered little or no time to simply lie motionless and be pain-free.
My only source of distraction from the medical procedures and the pain was a TV that played the Comedy Central channel non-stop. I got a constant dose of ‘Family Guy’ and ‘American Dad’, which I was unable to turn off or tell someone else to. I came to hate those shows, and anytime those shows come on, even to this day, I have a painful flashback to those days in the ICU.
Pain comes in all forms. A small twinge, a bit of soreness, the random pain, the normal pains we live with every day. Then there’s the kind of pain you can’t ignore… a level of pain so great that it blocks out everything else. That level of pain makes the rest of the world fade away. Until all we can think about is how much we hurt.
How we manage our pain, is up to us. We anesthetize, we ride it out, we embrace it, we ignore it… and for some of us, the best way to manage the pain is to just push through it. You just have to ride it out. Hope it goes away on its own. Hope the wound that caused it heals. There are no solutions. No easy answers. You just breathe deep and wait for it to subside. Most of the time, pain can be managed. But sometimes, the pain gets you when you least expect it. Hits way below the belt and doesn’t let up. Pain. You just have to fight through. Because the truth is, you can’t outrun it. And life always makes more.
Pain was not my only companion in the ICU. I was also scared. I was scared of the pain I was feeling, and scared of what the future of my life would be. The little time I had to myself was consumed by thoughts of my condition and what lied before me. It seems my mind played a continuous loop of alternating from prayer and talks with God, asking for courage and reassurance, to fear and panic attacks thinking about my circumstances, back to praying and talking to God. The isolation of my room provided far too much time to think and reflect. And had I not had the relationship with God that I enjoyed, I could have easily fallen into a serious state of depression.
Other than the nurses, doctors and other medical staff that were in and out of my room conducting their procedures, my contact with people during my time in the ICU, was limited. Given my condition, I was only allowed visitors for a few minutes at a time during visiting hours. Other than my parents and my brother, I only remember a few people seeing me in the ICU, although I know a ton of people came. My best friend wouldn’t leave my side, and seeing her tears made my heart break, because I had never seen her cry before. My friend’s dad, who had been driving the boat and dove into the water when I was run over, also visited me. I was unable to speak due to the breathing tubes, but I mouthed “hero” to him for saving my life.
In many cases, when I did have visitors, I was in a continuous state of drifting in and out of consciousness, so rather than being able to interact with them, I spent more time listening to them talk to each other. Assuming I was asleep. I listened to their whispers, most of which were about how bad my condition was.
In addition to my parents and Christian, the person who I most remember visiting me was Justin. He had been in Europe attending a Taylor Swift concert when he learned about my accident, and immediately made arrangements to return to the U.S. to visit me. We had only recently broken up, and our final words to each other had not been pleasant. And though I was hurt and angry when we broke up, when I saw his face, I realized how happy I was to see him. I realized that life is too short to be mad at someone.
I remember thinking that anyone can go away at any second, and reminded myself to never let your last words to someone be anything except an “I love you.”
Since I could not talk, I began writing simple words on a note pad as a way of communicating. The first thing I wrote down when Justin arrived was, “I’m traumatized.” I remember him sitting at the edge of the bed crying. He had his guitar and was singing me a song he had written for me over and over again. I remember writing down on the note pad telling him to keep singing to me. Though Justin and I were no longer in a relationship, I will always love and appreciate him for being there during those very difficult days.
After three weeks in the ICU, the doctors felt I had improved enough to be moved into a regular room, but the pain seemed to be getting worse. The breathing tubes and the tubes in my chest had been removed. And though I was so glad to have them removed, the removal itself was agonizing.
After being moved to a different floor, I still could not move and still spent all of my time in bed. However, people could now visit me any time, and I had a steady stream of visitors, even people I did not know. I loved seeing them, but as much as I appreciated their love and their visits, I would always feel a sense of sadness when they left.
It was painful for me to listen to everyone talk about their day and life, while I was stuck in a bed missing out on all they discussed. In my rare moments of self-pity, I remember thinking how wonderful it was for them that they could leave whenever they wanted to, and I was stuck in my hospital room, unable to move. For them it was just a part of their day, but for me it was my entire day. They would leave and then I would be all alone again. It made me sad seeing the way everyone looked at me. Their eyes were filled with tears and pity.
At UAB, I began physical therapy, however, as my medical records describe, “due to significant pain and poor core strength the patient was not progressing as hoped.” Indeed the pain was so severe that I would begin to cry when the physical therapist entered the hospital room. I began to have nightmares. For example, while at UAB, I had recurring nightmares that my leg was gone. I also had what my psychologist characterized as “intrusive thoughts about the boating accident.”
I cried most days because I wanted to get out of there. I was in constant pain, and felt like I had no control over my body or my day to day routine. Every night the nurses would draw blood, and every three days I had to get a new IV without being numbed. I was beginning to get bed sores. I felt like a human pin cushion, and had to continually fight off bouts of irritability and self-pity. God and prayer were my only weapons for doing so.
Slowly, I began to feel stronger and more like myself. I could even feel my sense of humor coming back. One day, a few of my friends came to visit me and I decided to play a little joke on them. I was in bed, unable to move. Though I could see them, my voice was barely audible, and I had had no real interaction with any of them since the accident. My mom was there, and asked me, ‘Caitlin, do you know who these people are?’
‘Yes’, I said meekly.
‘Do you know their names?’ my mom asked.
I slowly stuttered, ‘Maarrgaret, Nancy and Katiee.’
Those were not my friends’ names, and I knew they were not their names. But they assumed I was being serious and simply could not remember them as a result of the accident. They looked at each other and at my mom, on the verge of tears, when I let them in on my little prank.
‘I’m messing with ya’ll!, I said. ‘I just wanted to play a joke on you and see you smile!
Though they were shocked at the prank, they were relieved to know that I was slowly showing signs of being on the road back.
Days and weeks went by, with more surgeries, and more poking and prodding. There were continual up’s and down’s, but eventually, I had progressed enough to be transferred to the Physical Rehabilitation unit back in the Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta. It was Mom’s birthday, and her birthday wish had been for me to be able to go home. They transferred me back to Atlanta on her birthday, where I began the long process of exercising my legs and hopefully learning to walk again.
My transfer back to Scottish Rite, where I spent so much of my time battling salmonella poisoning and meeting so many friends, also provided a very emotional reunion. About the same time I was transferred, my young friend Brody Cole had been readmitted to the hospital as his condition had worsened. He died, not long after I arrived, but not before we were able to enjoy a tearful, but joyful reunion of our very special friendship. I lay with him holding him as he took his last breaths.
Brody’s death was a reminder of the times he and I shared in the hospital together, and the times I had asked God, “Why Me, God?”, and the answer my mom felt came from God in return, “Why NOT you?” Brody’s death reminded me I had more to fight for than just me. He provided me one more reason to regain my strength and get on with whatever God had in store for me.
During my rehab process, one of the procedures that continued was having a shot in my stomach twice a day, which were excruciatingly painful. I asked the doctor when the shots would end, and his response was, ‘They will end when you start to walk.’ That’s all I needed to hear. If I weren’t already motivated enough to regain my ability to walk, ending those twice daily shots gave me even more incentive. I was determined to stop those shots, and as painful as the rehabilitation process was, I was determined. I worked my bum off!
I was awakened each day at 7 in the morning for weight lifting class. Though it was nerve racking the way the nurses would barge in each morning, turn the lights on, and pull the sheets off of me, I knew this was really important, and I was motivated, so I did not complain.
They started me off with one pound weights. Given my motivation, during one of the sessions, I asked for five pound weights, but was told, ‘Sweetie, that’s too much for you. Let’s go with the one pound weight.’ My walking exercises were conducted with a walker, the type you would associate with older people. That walker became my means of relearning how to walk, so I didn’t care what it looked like, or how I looked using it. I just wanted to walk again, and go home.
I actually had another motivation for wanting to go home. Prior to the accident, I had been chosen Homecoming Queen for my grade. It was something that, at the time, was very important to me. I wanted desperately to get home in time to attend the Homecoming festivities and receive the honor for which I had been chosen. I started spending my days looking through magazines and online for dresses and every day I begged the doctors to release me in time to attend the event.
One day, one of my best friends came to visit me and was jumping for joy with some exciting news she wanted to share with me. Assuming I would not be available to attend the homecoming festivities, the school had given her my spot for Homecoming Queen!
I was devastated.
She knew I was going to be home in time for the event, so first of all, I could not understand how she would have accepted my position, knowing I would have been able to be there myself. Secondly, I was hurt that she would be so excited to tell me, knowing how much the honor meant to me.
As it turned out, I was not able to be released in time to attend Homecoming as I had hoped, but the doctors did agree to let me leave the hospital for the day so I could at least attend the ceremony, and then return back to the hospital that night. Unfortunately, that too, did not happen. Given the awkward nature of the circumstances, the school asked that I not attend. It was bad enough that I would not be able to receive the honor that I had been chosen for, but now I was not even welcomed to attend the ceremony to observe the festivities.
The combination of events was a crushing blow. Confined to the hospital, and unable to attend Homecoming as I had hoped, I was heartbroken and angry, and felt myself sinking into a state of depression. That was one of the more difficult times of my recovery, but I had to remind myself there was more to live for. I had to fight on.
Determined to get on with my rehabilitation, each day I would take steps with the walker, and each day, I slowly improved, taking a few more steps than the previous day. I also had other distractions that made the process a little more bearable. My dad brought me my guitar and Justin would teach me how to play through the computer screen on I-chat. After weeks of this daily regimen, I was eventually walking enough and deemed strong enough, to be released to continue my rehabilitation process at home.
After almost three months in the hospital, I was finally released and able to go home. It had been three months since the accident, and three months since I was able to be outside and enjoy the sunshine that gleamed across the lake that fateful Saturday morning. It was not the life I chose, nor was it the way I expected to return home from our weekend on the lake. But I was alive, and I was going home.
When I was discharged from the hospital, I was barely able to walk on my own. I had no feeling in my left leg and could not straighten my right knee. As a result, I would be going home wheel chair bound until I was able to work up to a walker without assistance.
My physical therapy and occupational therapy regimen continued at home, though my progress was impeded by several obstacles. The emergency intubation that was performed after the accident caused granulomas in my throat, which affected my breathing and ultimately caused me to lose my voice. Treatment to reduce the swelling with steroids was a temporary success, I required surgery to remove the granulomas. Shortly after the surgery, the granulomas returned. Because of the problems I had experienced with surgery, I refused to have another surgery to remove the granulomas, so they are periodically treated with steroids to make them shrink. I have required surgeries for other issues, however, and each of these surgeries requires intubation and irritates the granulomas.
About a year later, I had surgery to manipulate the scar tissue in my knee to improve its mobility and to remove a screw from my knee, which was contributing to my constant pain. The screw would poke out of my knee every time I tried to bend it and it eventually started breaking through my skin. A few days after the operation, I had to be hospitalized again because I was suffering from intense back pain thought to have been caused by the nerve block administered through my spine. The spinal fluid leaked throughout my body causing extreme chronic pain.
The rehabilitation sessions were grueling, lasting two hours a day for seven months, until I had eventually regained my strength and muscles and able to walk again, on my own. It required almost a year of physical therapy for me to get to the point where I no longer required a wheelchair or walker. For years, my foot would drag when I walked, causing me to walk with a pronounced limp, and even now, I still need a wheelchair on occasions when I am required to walk long distances, such as going through an airport.
Today, that weekend on the lake and the tragedy of that moment is behind me, but the scars, both emotional and physical, remain. Though I made extraordinary strides in my recovery, my body will never be completely healed, and my battle will never be over. To this day, I still do not have full range of motion in my legs. I suffer from almost constant pain. Additionally, I suffer from poor circulation, swelling in my leg and chronic back pain. I carry constant reminders of my physical limitations, many of them very painful, which will be with me the rest of my life.
I have lymphedema in my left leg, which is a swelling caused by a lymphatic system blockage. As a result, I’m supposed to wear very matronly and unattractive hose, but I remind myself that is a minor consequence to the alternative possibilities. I have no feeling in my left leg because all of my nerves were cut. I can’t walk for distances or my legs shut down. None of the nerves in my left leg are completely repaired, and when I walk too much it swells really big. It’s easy for me to get blood clots, given the collapse of my lung, stomach, and liver from the accident.
When my leg gets really swollen there is nowhere else for the fluid to go so it flows to my arms, stomach and face. So, there are times when my whole body looks really swollen which makes me look REAL attractive (LOL).
I am unable to stand on my legs for more than 5 minutes without experiencing pain, and some days not even minutes.
My life today is a constant state of pain and discomfort. It is my new normal, but I realize how much worse it could have been, so I do not complain.
It’s one of those things that people say, you can’t move on until you let go of the past. Letting go is the easy part, it’s the moving on that’s painful. So sometimes we fight it, try and keep things the same. Things can’t stay the same though. At some point, you just have to let go. Move on. Because no matter how painful it is, it’s the only way we grow.
I never experienced that freshman year in school that I was so excited about.
I missed the entire school year and missed out on a hightschool and college experience. After my release from the hospital, I had a tutor three days a week, but could only muster only enough energy and concentration to work with the tutor one hour at a time. My attempts to keep up with my studies at home had been impaired by my physical conditions and the cognitive issues with which I was struggling. Even a year and a half after my injury, I could only handle instruction for three or four days per week, and for only one to two hours per day.
Between the salmonella poisoning and the boating accident, by the time I was fifteen years old, my body had become a walking medical encyclopedia. If it were not so serious, my medical chart could sound like a glossary of terms for the final exam of a senior medical student.
I continue to have my Crohn’s disease like symptoms, bad acid reflux, arthritis, bile reflux, auto immune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, and other symptoms that remain with me today, and will continue to for the rest of my life. Add to those symptoms a number of remnants from the accident, including chronic neck and back pain, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, frontal lobe seizures, adrenal fatigue,insomnia, sleep apnea, POTS, TMJ, RSD, neuropathy, Lymes disease, PCOS, depression, anxiety, ptsd and more.
POTS disease (Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) is a condition that causes the patient’s heart rate to dramatically increase, and requires the body to use significantly more energy than a normal person to even stand up. This syndrome caused me to experience extreme fatigue when standing or sitting upright. Somedays I would be exhausted just getting out of bed and just walking to the couch, or doing simple tasks like running errands, cooking and cleaning.
My POTS was caused by the lengthy periods of time I was confined to my bed after the accident. My physicians had instructed me to exercise daily to curb the severity of my POTS symptoms. Unfortunately, every time I attempted to exercise, I experienced extreme swelling in my legs. It was a vicious cycle – I suffered from POTS because of the significant amount of time that I was bedridden; I needed to exercise to improve my POTS symptoms, but exercise caused my legs to swell; when my legs would swell, I would need to elevate them in bed, which only worsened my POTS.
Thankfully I eventually found a workout routine that worked for me. I would do Pilates as my physical therapy and weight training instead of cardio or other exercises that would increase my heart rate. Even knowing the risks, sometimes I would still try to do exercises that would get my heart rate up, but each time I tried, I would end up getting very light headed and sick. I’ve since figured out ways to control the swelling in my legs by elevating them and resting on the days that I worked out.
I still have severe and prominent scarring on my legs, and I still lack most all feeling in my left leg. My doctors told me that I may never have feeling in my leg again. This continues to affect me in some unexpected ways. For example, it makes showering uncomfortable because I am frequently cold and cannot feel the warmth of the water on my leg. It also poses a risk of injury when I cannot feel that bath water is too hot or that my cat is scratching my leg.
I have permanent damage to my right knee and may someday require additional surgery to remove the rod from my leg. I have very little energy. This is caused, in large part, by the POTS that I developed as a result of the accident. My lack of stamina is also caused by my inability to sleep well, as I developed insomnia, sleep apnea, and a type of narcolepsy. I suffered from atrophy in all of my muscles. Six months after the accident, the strength of my grip was comparable to that of an 11 year-old. My atrophy was especially severe in my hips but it has improved tremendously even though my right hip always hurts when I stand on it for too long.
It was more than a year after the accident that I was able to write again, and years of occupational therapy to regain the strength in my grips and hands. I still experience tremors and it is very difficult for me to write and have nice hand writing. That was because I had neuropathy up the right arm that moved all the way up to my fingers. The tremors not only affect my handwriting, but my ability to eat, or anything else requiring fine motor skills. I cannot hold my hands still most the time. Some days are worse than other but it is something that I have learned to deal with and it is normal to me now.
As a result of these physical limitations, I still struggle with simple daily tasks. It’s hard for me to put on socks or shoes without difficulty, especially when I have to tie the straps or buckle the buckles on my shoes. It’s hard to bend down or sit or kneel on the floor as I still have not regained full motion and flexibility.
My doctors have told me that I would not be able to participate in many of the activities that I previously enjoyed, such as cheerleading or skiing. Nor would I be able to ride a horse the way i once could. I am able to play tennis for a short period of time now but not like I once could. My legs don’t think as fast as my brain like they once did. I haven’t been able to ride my horse since my accident for more than 5 minutes.
During my surgeries, I experienced what is called “anesthetic recall”, which means I could hear all of the conversations during my resuscitation and surgery, and I remembered the pain I experienced during the surgery. This recall is a consistent part of nightmares and flashbacks that continue to haunt me. Anytime I have to be put under for surgery I am terrified that it’s going to happen again. I have a constant tremor, and am treated for anxiety, panic disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am much more prone to fear than before the accident. I get very bad anxiety from just normal day to day tasks. Leaving my house to run errands or being stuck in traffic is too much overload on my brain and body leaving me with horrible anxiety. I imagine the worst case scenario for anything going on around me.
The accident also caused serious harm to my cognitive capabilities. I do not process information as well as I did before the accident. I am forgetful and have serious problems with short term memory. For example, I seem to grasp concepts as they are taught, but about a half hour later, I had forgotten what I just learned. Everything that I had learned before the accident I still can remember but any new information it is hard for me to retain. Simple directions I will forget minutes after. I tried to take classes online, but learning is just not as easy as it once was for me.
I typically do not talk about these ailments with friends or acquaintances, which can be frustrating both for them and for me when I appear to not have the energy to do things, or when I look like the life has been drained out of me. These are not conditions I was born with, and are the complete opposite of who I was before the poisoning or the accident, so I continue to have to work hard to adjust to a lifestyle filled with limitations. Today, to my friends and those around me, I look completely fine, and though I have learned to hide it well, every day I am hurting somewhere on my body.
“People have scars, in all sorts of unexpected places. They are like secret road maps of their personal histories. They are diagrams of all their old wounds, and each of them has a story. Many of the stories we don’t care to revisit or retell. Most of our wounds heal, leaving nothing behind but a scar. But some of them don’t. Some wounds we carry with us everywhere and though the cut’s long gone, the pain still lingers.”
As much as this experience changed my life physically, the impact it had on me spiritually is far greater. I have always enjoyed a strong relationship with God, but this experience took that relationship to an entirely different level. I believe I went through this for a reason. I believe it was yet another reminder that God has a purpose for me, and that the boating accident and the salmonella poisoning were both intended to help me discover that purpose.
According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, when we’re dying or have suffered a catastrophic loss, we go through five distinct stages of grief. We go into denial because the loss is so unthinkable we can’t imagine it’s true. We become angry with everyone, angry with survivors, angry with ourselves. Then we bargain. We beg. We plead. We offer everything we have, we offer our souls in exchange for just one more day. When the bargaining has failed and the anger is too hard to maintain, we fall into depression, despair, until finally we have to accept that we’ve done everything we can. We let go. We let go and move into acceptance. I found myself every day begging for acceptance.
Looking back, it was if God used the salmonella poisoning to prepare me for my accident. I do not believe I would have been strong enough or brave enough to survive the accident had I not already experienced the pain and suffering from my poisoning. And I believe, the combination of the two incidents was God’s training ground for preparing me for the life I live today… a life that remains in a continuous state of recovery, both physically and emotionally, but also a life now dedicated to healing others who have had similar experiences.
Both the salmonella poisoning and the accident have given me a different outlook on life. They made me learn to put all of my faith and hope in God, and taught me that no matter how great my suffering may be and how I might feel, I am not alone. Someone, somewhere, is facing challenges far worse. My hope is that my survival and recovery from these events help anyone who reads my story to better persevere through whatever challenges they are facing. I smile when I think that my courage and strength help others to be strong.
I would go on to experience even darker days following my accident. But they too, like the accident itself, and like the salmonella poisoning before the accident, would serve as the basis for preparing me for my life’s purpose.