Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The aftermath

The day after my accident I was transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital so that I could get the level of care I needed. (St. Anthony's Hospital where I was at, is only a level II trauma hospital, and I needed to be in a trauma I facility.) I was taken to Barnes in a helicopter and the doctor caring for me insisted that a nurse ride along in the helicopter with me to hold my head the entire time. My neck was that unstable, and even the slightest bump could have killed me or made my injury even worse.

I stayed in the ICU at Barnes for the next seven weeks and this started my road to recovery. So much happened, but I will just hit the highlights.

My neck was stabilized on November 19, two days after my accident. Dr. Riew, the surgeon that did my stabilization, was the best cervical spine surgeon in the world, and he only works on the cervical vertebrae in the neck. The surgery was only supposed to take four hours, but it ended up taking eight. After the surgery, the surgeon told my mom that he had never seen a person who's neck was so badly broken who was still alive. After my neck had been stabilized, I was put in a halo vest that I would have to wear for the next six weeks so that my neck could heal properly. (The halo was attached to my skull with four large screws.)
This is a halo vest
Since my neck was broken at the C2 level, I wasn't able to breathe on my own anymore. A tracheotomy performed a few days after my neck stabilization surgery. (A tracheotomy is when a tube is surgically implanted in your trachea, or windpipe.) A feeding tube was also surgically inserted in my stomach since I couldn't swallow food and water anymore.

I was kept in a drug-induced coma for about a week after my accident, but then the doctors started waking me up from time to time so that my family and friends could talk to me. One of the questions I get asked most often is what I thought when I woke up for the first time and I realized I couldn't move. Since I was really drugged up, I don't have one clear, defining memory where I remember waking up to find out the shocking news that I was completely paralyzed. However, when I was lucid enough to have coherent thoughts, I was fully aware of what had happened to me. It's hard to explain, but it's as if I had learned what had happened to me in my unconscious state, and I'd processed it and accepted it. I was just so happy to be alive that that is what mattered to me the most, even though I was paralyzed. I was also so relieved when I found out the accident wasn't my fault. I think it would've been/would be a lot harder to deal with if I'd done this to myself by causing the accident.

As the days went on, the doctors stopped giving me the drugs that would keep me sedated, and I began to learn more about what had happened to me and what my condition entailed. I loved hearing the details of the accident and everything that followed. I asked people the same questions over and over again, and I was just so amazed at what had happened to me. Up to this point in my life, I'd never broken a bone or even had stitches, so being a badly injured patient in the hospital was a completely new experience for me.

Here are a few thoughts about Thanksgiving 2003: My mom had originally planned to spend Thanksgiving in Texas that year with my oldest sister Miriam and her family. My younger sisters were going to be going with my mom, too, but I decided to stay home so that I could work. However, everyone's plans changed when I had my accident. My situation was very tenuous, and at first the doctors weren't even sure I would make it, so all of my family came home to St. Louis. Thanksgiving was just 10 days after my accident, so all of my sisters and their families were home for Thanksgiving, even though none of them had planned to be.

I don't remember all that much about Thanksgiving Day 2003, but I do remember all of my sisters being in the hospital with me, and someone had the idea of taking a family picture. I remember trying to smile for the first picture. It took so long to take the picture and it also took so much effort to try and smile that after the first picture I just laid there. I remember thinking, "No one's going to care whether I'm smiling or not." Here's the picture:

The only thing I wanted for dinner on Thanksgiving was a grape popsicle because I was so incredibly thirsty! However, I wasn't able to eat or drink anything since I couldn't swallow. (I'm not sure of the exact reason, but my muscles used for swallowing were very weak.) I also couldn't speak at all, not even a whisper. I could mouth words, but everybody found it difficult to read my lips, which was quite frustrating.
This picture is a picture of me wearing the halo vest that helped my neck heal in the right position. One of the nurses was wearing a Christmas hat and she put it on my head. One of the other nurses took a picture of me wearing it.
In this picture, the halo vest had been removed, and I was now wearing a hard cervical collar around my neck. 

I love looking back on these pictures because I can see just how far I've come since then.



I've appreciated being able to read about your life changing experience. It's been so educational and inspiring.

Ashley Rose said...

I remember coming to visit you in the hospital. I never got to know you very well--I had only seen you in passing (early morning at seminary when you were leaving for school or work) and we never really talked--I suppose it was the age difference LOL. Anyway, we decided to come visit you at the hospital and even though I didn't know you very well, I was so incredibly sad and upset about what had happened--but relieved that you survived! I insisted on printing and framing the poem, "Invictus" so I could give it to you... I am so impressed at how far you've come and how much progress you have made! You are amazing!

"Tee" said...

Hello Heather, I'm new to your blog and I've just love the post that I've read about you so far. Your story is amazing and even though I don't know you, you've already touched my life. I've learned to really be thankful for the things I have in life. To read your post and see how positive you are is such a wonderful and amazing thing. I'm glad you've come so far and have recovered so well. Stay sweet, loving and positive and never ever change.

Sondra said...

Hi Heather, thank you for sharing your experience with us. I know it's hard at times to do this, to rewind your life at one of it's most vulnerable moments. But, God knows exactly what He's doing and who your story is suppose to touch! You are an inspiration, and I appreciate YOU for inspiring me!! Sometimes we think we're the only one's in life that understand, and perhaps so, because we each have our own cross to carry!! But, He helps us carry it, and puts wonderful people in our lives to help! Reading your blog has helped me! Your testimony has made my cross easier to carry!! Thanks, God loves you so much, and so do I!

Lorraine said...

OK, I went from holding my breath at the first part of your story, to tearing up on this one. I am amazed that you loved to hear all the details of your accident, and also that you were just so glad to be alive. That is inspiring. Blessings.

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