Sometimes life sucks, and circumstances suck, but that’s life. There’s nothing else you can say or do about it. I, of all people, think I know that best. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Sigh.
In 1997, there was an awful car accident between a Jeep Cherokee and another car driven by a young guy, speeding around a corner. The young girl in the Jeep was driving a friend home after a cheerleading performance. The car accident happened on the first Saturday morning after the new school year had started.
I’m the 16-year-old girl in the Jeep, the young traumatic brain injury survivor. The accident put me in a comatose state from which I woke up 2½ months later, right before Thanksgiving.
I turned my car left, past a lane of oncoming traffic when another car came around the corner and didn’t see me in time. I was told the 19-year-old driver slammed into the driver’s side and flipped my Jeep over. I had to be cut from the car by the “jaws of life.” However, I don’t remember because I was unconscious upon impact. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but I do remember some things that already happened that day. I remember that the grass was wet with the early morning dew, and the girls who were on the top for the stunts had to have the bottoms of their shoes towel dried, and then be carried around by other cheerleaders. When my friend asked for a ride home, I remembered saying that I wasn’t allowed to drive with other people in the car yet. I changed my mind, and almost insisted on driving her home; I was still excited I could drive, and wanted to show her that I can. I remember putting on my seatbelt.
After being in the ICU for nearly a month, I was transported to Kluge’s Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. My parents did not know what to think—the doctors and specialists were telling them everything from: I’d never wake up, if I did, I’d be in a vegetative state, to I’d be totally fine. No one knows what to say with a brain injury because the brain is so complex.
Therapy at the hospital would go on all day. I would have physical, occupational, and speech therapy, as well as counseling with a social worker, and school therapy, where we would work on basic writing, and holding a pencil. Every day I would participate in aquatic therapy, even while I was in a semi- comatose state; I could still walk holding onto two people and the movements of the water would be very helpful in regaining my equilibrium. In water, a person is weightless, and I worked on the mechanics and the structure of walking—butt in, lift the feet and push the chest forward. I was using a wheelchair to get around between therapy sessions in the hospital. In physical therapy I was working on stepping, with my heels then my toes, but that never worked because I would always tip toe around at first anyway.
A few months later I watched a video of my first attempt at walking, and was amazed at how long it took me to walk down the hallway. In physical therapy I would use a standing box to get my weight spread more evenly onto my heels. The standing box is a podium on a platform that was stood on. There is a condition informally called “drop-toe” or foot drop that happens to people who are unconscious a long time, and thus are not walking or flexing their feet so the muscles relax and the foot points forward, almost on tiptoes. I wore casts on my feet/legs to try to keep the feet flexed, and after I “woke up,” I worked on shifting my weight to my heels.
In occupational therapy, while I was still in a coma, the therapist was working on my senses, like olfactory/smell by sticking strong smelling herbs in my face. They said I scrunched up my nose and made faces. In my speech therapy we would work on breath control, enunciating and memory The therapist held up pictures, like of the Washington monument, and I answered “the big pencil.” She shook her head no, and my mom was cracking up in the background saying, “No, that’s what she’s always called it.” I was shown other pictures of common items, and got a lot of them correct, could describe them, but could not think of the word. The speech and language pathologist showed me a picture of Princess Diana soon after I came out of my coma. I identified her correctly, and said, “But isn’t she dead?” Her car accident had made news only a few weeks before mine. My memory was very selective, remembering some events, but not others.
Even though life continued for all of my classmates, they hadn’t forgotten me. All my friends were at Fairfax Hospital when I was in the ICU, and a lot of my friends came to visit me in the rehab hospital in Charlottesville. This included friends from my cheerleading all-star squad, the boys that were on the baseball team at my high school and my closest friend who was the maid of honor at my wedding 10 years later, so my hospital room was the place to be on the weekends. Just kidding, but I did get a lot of visitors. My hospital room was covered with cards and stuffed animals, plus both of my cheerleading squads made me get-well banners.
I “woke up” one day while my dad was helping me with dinner. I had a gastrointestinal tube in my stomach to give me medication and food, but the nurses were working on getting me to ingest food orally. Dad must have looked the other way, or got up without putting up the railing on the side of my bed, and a split second later, I had rolled onto the floor, bumping my head. He hugged me close, and apologized again and again.
I think that fall must have knocked some sense into me, because I remember everything from that day forward. It must have been a Saturday, because my dad was with me. He switched off with my mom, who had taken a leave of absence from work to stay with me during the workweek, while my Dad would be at home working and staying with my brother. On Sunday my brother traveled up with my mom to the hospital. When he walked in, I just laughed and laughed. I swore that it wasn’t really my brother, because he was so big and tall. I asked him what grade he was in (eighth), his age (13), and when he told me this, I burst out laughing again because I remembered him as a short little blond, but his hair had turned a golden brown as he had gotten older. I believed he was my brother, but found the whole situation hilarious.
I was allowed a home pass for Christmas, because I had been one of the patients with the longest stay. It was great being at home for Christmas that year. Our family did what we always do—have a “German Weinachten” over at my grandmother’s, attending a church service, dinner and opening presents from Oma and Uncle Pat, and then doing the whole traditional Christmas at home with my parents and brother the next day.
After spending Christmas at home, everything started to feel real. Right after I came out of my coma, I was afraid to go to sleep at night because I thought this would all turn into another long dream. When I was in a coma, I wanted to wake up because I thought was sleeping the day away, but this dream seemed to go on forever. I would fall asleep early, trying to stay up until 9 p.m. when the hospital turned off the phones for the night, but sometimes I fell asleep before, and then I’d wake up at a bizarre hour at night, like 3 or 4 a.m. and talk to the nurses or just lay there until my mom came at 7 a.m. If she was 2 or 3 minutes past 7, I’d tease her and say that she’s late. But after that Christmas break, I could sleep through the night. I knew it was all real then.
Life is real, life is happening. Life goes on, and sometimes we can be very thankful for that life.
C’est la Vie…That’s life, and that’s how it’s gonna be—it just matters what you do with that life. Whether it’s your first chance or second, take that opportunity to do something important and worthwhile. Follow your passions because tomorrow is not an absolute guarantee.
My passion for helping others emerged from my accident experience, and I want to help others in similar situations. I know how hard it is to be in the hospital or a rehab center, with nothing fun to do but the free-time activities provided by the staff. So after graduating high school in 2000, when I was 19 years old, I started looking into schools with Therapeutic Recreation programs, which provides activities to people in a hospital, or another inpatient setting. I found Longwood University to have the best program in the state. While visiting the campus, I fell in love with the small size and friendly atmosphere; when I started school in August 2000, I knew I had made the best decision of my life in attending. Close to home, it was still far enough away to where I could feel independent—which is something that I needed at that time in my life. I had just graduated high school and was still in the process of growing up, learning to be on my own, yet I still needed support after just having recovered from a life-changing car accident. The Academic Support Center at Longwood is wonderful, and was located directly across the street from my dorm building. The staff almost felt like a second family. I would spend many hours there getting help with my classes, or enjoy it as a safe haven in which to come and study.
After graduating Longwood University with a therapeutic recreation degree, I started working in a nursing home assisting residents in the activity department in 2005. I met my husband in 2006, after he looked for similar Longwood alumni on a social networking website; he saw that we had both attended the same high school as well, but never met until after college graduation. We bonded over coffee about our love for Longwood. We got married in 2008, adopted a dog, and bought a cute little townhouse.
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Surviving Brain Injury:
Stories of Strength and Inspiration
By Amy Zellmer
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