I had been with friends in San Jose and was heading back to Lafayette. I was on 680 North between Livorna Road and Rudgear and had actually come in sight of the exit that would take me to a meeting with the physical trainer who was preparing me to enter bodybuilding competitions. I never made it to the exit because a woman who was driving under the influence strayed from her lane of traffic and sent a car in the adjoining lane right across my pathway. I swerved to avoid a collision and at that point my conscious memories were replaced by recurring dreams in which I was in my car, continually swerving out of control, and striking my face against a hard object.
The accident interrupted my career as a medical esthetician, which had first attracted me when I was a receptionist at a cosmetic dermatology office in Gainesville, Florida. I was fascinated by the science involved and became an avid learner of the industry products and how they worked. Before long, the staff discovered that I had been explaining to patients details about their medications and treatments, so they began assigning me to do consultations. I decided to become licensed as an esthetician so that I could work with a plastic surgeon or dermatologist doing such treatments as chemical peels, microdermabrasions, facials, and other skin resurfacing treatments.
I returned to California and enrolled in the San Francisco Institute of Esthetics and also took classes at the International Dermal Institute. I got my state license and found a good fit at Dr. Ed Becker’s Walnut Creek Skin and Laser clinic where I began doing product sales, consulting, and treatments. I discovered that I really enjoyed what I was doing. Teenagers with acne and older people with pigmentation issues were delighted with my services. I loved my job, plus I loved the patients I served and everyone I worked with. My long-term goal was to return to school, become a registered nurse, and do more invasive procedures such as injectable treatments, laser skin treatments, Botox, and and laser hair removal.
Three years ago I began going to a gym for the normal reasons. I wanted to stay in shape and control my weight. I began seeing wonderful changes take place in my body. Some of my friends were body builders and I was dating a man who was into training, so I began working out seriously. I would get up each morning at 4:00 a.m. to do cardio, come home, eat breakfast, work until 5:30, and then go back to the gym until 8:30. I began working with two trainers preparing to enter women’s bikini competitions. I was following a training-table diet, and before going to bed I would weigh my meals for the next day. I was doing weight training five days a week and cardio six days a week. All my routines, hopes, and ambitions came to a violent end at one moment of time when that drunken driver forced me off the highway.
Through a Dark Valley
It was nearly six weeks following the accident before I finally became aware of what had happened to me. I had been forced off the freeway and sent careening to the top of an embankment, whereupon my car catapulted eight times end-over-end, finally coming to rest back on the freeway upside down. The airbags never deployed and when my body hit the steering wheel the impact broke my jaw, knocked my teeth loose, crushed the orbital bone that surrounds my left eye, fractured two vertebrae in my neck, caused contusions in my lungs, crushed my diaphragm and broke my right leg. A woman who was in the car behind me witnessed the accident and had the presence of mind to retrieve my purse from where it had fallen beside the road and got my license number. A life flight helicopter airlifted me to John Muir. I learned that the inebriated woman who caused the accident had continued driving towards Martinez, but a citizen who had witnessed the event followed her, kept in contact with the cops, and she was arrested not far from the accident scene.
When I was admitted the doctors never expected me to survive. The medical staff put me on a rotary bed, hooked me up to life-support, and waited for my final moments. Perhaps one reason I survived was due to the fact that I am a naturally strong-willed human being, always ready to go after what I wanted with energy and determination. Under some circumstances the mind obviously exerts a great deal of control over the body, and perhaps at some subconscious level I simply made the decision that I wasn’t going to die. What the doctors know for sure is that my physical training meant that muscles with a near-ideal level of mass and strength were protecting my organs. Otherwise, they said my extensive injuries would certainly have resulted in my death.
I obviously confounded the doctor’s expectations, and in five days my condition had stabilized to the point that I was able to endure the first of what would be many operations. They began by performing fusion surgery on the two vertebrae that had been fractured, going in through both the front and back of my neck. They inserted a titanium rod to strengthen the broken femur in my leg, and relieved the pressure from the crushed orbital bone around my eye by opening a passage through my eyeball. Even at that point, however, the doctors confidently predicted that I would never again be able to eat, drink, talk, or even to breathe on my own.
A Long Road Back
For the next three-and-a-half months I remained at the John Muir ICU Trauma Unit and was maintained on life support through a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. On June 10 they moved me to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which specializes in treating spinal-cord injuries. They began weaning me off the medications that for more than a month had kept me in a medically induced coma.
During all that time I had been in a nightmarish state during which my mind continually replayed the accident. Only occasionally would I wake up, think that it had been a dream, and then fall back into that unconscious state. As they began to draw down the medications, I finally actually woke up and realized that the nightmares were real.
My situation was made nearly unbearable by the ventilator that was keeping me from suffocating but that also prevented me from speaking to the nurses or to anyone else. At the beginning everyone believed that I would be stuck with the ventilator for the rest of my life, which even then they imagined wouldn’t be a very lengthy period of time. However, after a couple weeks they were finally able to wean me off of that thing. It was a difficult process that began by introducing a PCV valve for a few moments, which would allow the air to go in and out in a natural way so that I could spend a few moments speaking. It was an unimaginable relief to be able to talk and I was really sad when the initial five-minute session was up. My voice had changed; it was higher pitched than normal, and for some reason it was initially difficult to make the sound of the letter “e.”
They eventually began to reintroduce me to the joys of eating, as well, beginning with a few ice chips and then an occasional sip of water. Once again, the medical staff was surprised because they had predicted that I would never be able to eat. In fact, swallowing was really tough at the beginning because there was a sensation of harsh scraping. They began giving me 15 pills a day that I had to swallow with water, which was tough. They gradually began to introduce soft foods and eventually added Jell-O to my diet. They were still giving me medications and nutrients through my feeding-tube, and I really wanted to get rid of that thing.
They finally promoted me to the rehabilitation floor. I still had my tracheotomy and was undergoing breathing treatments every two-hours during which they would cap my trach and permit me to breath through my mouth and nose. Throughout that recovery, the staff wondered how I could be so motivated. The fact is that I was driven by a fierce ambition to get my old life back to the extent possible. I overheard a staff member
tell my mom that if her daughter couldn’t perform the required three hours minimum of therapy, they would send me back to the recovery floor. I made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen and before long I was spending over five hours a day in rehabilitation. The nurses would often laugh because, while many of the patients apparently were reluctant to undergo the difficult and painful treatments involved, I was the only person who couldn’t wait to get to my treatments. I eventually devoted each day, from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the evening to my recovery. I embraced the routine. I wanted to get out of there!
My recovery was nothing short of miraculous. My physical training helped, as I said, but my attitude made a huge difference. My mind moves back and forth between optimism and realism — never for an instant sinking into pessimism. Never once throughout this ordeal have I had any pity-party thing going on. At no point did I sit in the hospital in a depressed state. From the first moments of consciousness I regarded myself as a survivor not a victim, and determined to make the best of my life. I absolutely refused to let the accident define who I am. I am still the fun-loving person that I was before the accident. I am planning to go back to the gym and to continue being a positive influence in other people’s lives. I will use my knowledge, expertise, and experience to help them in any way that I can.
Part of the reason why I’ve been able to remain positive through the horrible passages that I’ve had to navigate is that I have always had a fundamental belief that nobody gets a free pass through life; that everything can be gone in a moment, in the blink of an eye. On that fateful day I simply experienced the truth of what I had always believed. John Lennon was right when he said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Anybody with injuries like mine will have bad days; but in the darkness I always know that the next day will once again bring light and encouragement.
My family is one of the most important factors in my recovery. My father has been a real hero. He took time off work to build an easily accessible addition to the house. He also upgraded the heating and air-conditioning, created accessible features in the bathroom, and built a porch with an industrial strength sunlamp. My Aunt Sue has also been a champion and has taken on herself a lot of the burden for my care. She comes several days a week, often in the evenings, to help with whatever I need help with. My primary caregiver, Kim Le, is with me every day and usually all day. With that level of contact, if Kim were a grumpy or sullen person, the quality of my life would be seriously diminished. But Kim is continually bright, cheerful, and compassionate. Besides helping me with daily tasks, she lifts me up. She’s more than my assistant; she’s my friend. My best friend! I am glad to be with her.
My recovery has put me in touch with a number of other people with disorders or impairments, some of them worse than mine, beginning with a number of connections at Valley Medical Center. Some of them became mentors. Most important, perhaps, has been the help I am receiving through the Spinal Cord Injury Functional Integrated Training (SCI-FIT) program. For three days a week I’ve been working with a personal trainer. One of the best things about the training is that I can get out of my wheelchair. We do such things as weight bearing exercises, practice transfers and bed-mobility, use a walker, and exercise on an elliptical. One of the great exercises is riding a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bike, which uses electronics to stimulate leg muscles, enabling me to rebuild atrophied muscles by actually pedaling the bike. I am trying to raise funds to purchase a FES bike for use in my home.
Recovery is a never-ending challenge, and one that occupies me full-time because I put in more than 40 hours a week in one form of therapy or another including strengthening exercises, acupuncture, stretching exercises, and massage. The operations are not over. At some point this spring I will undergo three more surgeries for tendon transfers designed to increase the strength in my hands and fingers. Each surgery will mean spending weeks in casts and splints.
There’s a lot to be grateful for. In spite of the massive wounds to my face, my appearance is perfectly normal with no apparent scars or disfigurations. However, no amount of chirpy optimism can alter the reality that the accident took away a lot. I am confined to a wheelchair with only limited movement of my arms and no fine motor skills in my hand. There is no movement and very limited sensations below my waist.
More bothersome than the immobility are the changes in my body associated with my paralysis — issues with blood pressure,bone density, pressure sores, and effects on the health of my skin. My nerves no longer behave as they should. When I get cold it becomes difficult to get warm. I continually do stretching exercises in order to reduce the spasticity that would otherwise cause my muscles to contract and to stiffen. Of course, with almost no control over the muscles in my body below my chest, I can no longer do the weight training and squats that I previously relied upon and must make use of electronic stimulation. I hook my limbs to electrodes that fire the muscles, so that they stay in shape. My muscles are filling out; I am getting back some of the curves that I lost earlier in my recovery.
The woman who caused the accident is still in the midst of the legal process. She is being charged with multiple felonies. The state is pressing charges because of the severity of her crime. As I write this, she is out on bail. The woman doesn’t remember anything more about the event than I do. They said she showed up at her most recent court appearance still under the influence, but nevertheless cried when they took her keys away. There are far too many good things in my life for me to waste energy on hating that woman for what she did. She probably should be pitied as a victim of the compulsive behaviors and habits over which she has no control. It is tough to feel too sorry for her, however. She was weeping because she couldn’t drive and apparently unaffected by the fact that I can’t walk.
Anyway, nobody survives what I have gone through without feeling that there is some reason or purpose in what happened. Trust in God becomes more than a slogan. I no longer get upset over petty and insignificant issues; I have been reminded that the really important issues in life are to live as healthy as possible and to rejoice in the happiness that comes from the people around you whom you love.
I am determined to live so that the rest of my life includes the best chapters of my personal narrative.