I've had some people express some interest in my accident. So, I thought I'd write out the story of what happened. Here's a step back into my past..
It's June 27th 2008, hot and sunny, and a gorgeous three day weekend that I plan on spending up in Kelowna with my Mom.
I'd only had my license for a couple months, and this was my first long distance drive. Cruisin’ down the highway in my 'new' cute little 89 Honda Civic hatchback I breathed easy and listened to some amazing music at a volume much too loud - what else is new - with the windows down and the breeze beautiful. I made it to Hope, called my mom for one of our little check-ups, ate a chocolate bar and checked my simple route for the 50th time. Getting back on the road I slid easily through the Coquihalla toll booths and enjoyed my first taste of the 110 speed limit.
Somewhere on the connector, just outside Westbank near Kelowna, something happened. I still don't know how, I must have zoned out - or possibly fell asleep? - but abruptly I'm no longer in my lane; I'm driving on the left shoulder of the road. White plastic pillars are smacking the front of my car and flying over top of it in a panicked beating heart beat. Suddenly the legal limit seems much too fast.
I want to get back on the road.. how did I get here? Smack, Smack, Smack.
I pull right.. Too hard. I'm new at this. I fly across the road.
'Oh shit... this is happening.'
There's a jolt and the car is stopped. All I'm aware of is that my head is on the driver’s seat, my left arm curled up around me only twitching when I try to move it, and there's a seatbelt tight around my neck. I can't breathe.
I'm croaking for help. I'm realizing I can't move to relieve the pressure on my neck. I'm getting scared. I'm praying someone saw and will stop. I can't breathe. Someone had to have seen, please let someone have seen. Someone will stop. Someone will help me breathe.
I hear noises behind me. Oh, thank god. Someone's here. I'm still croaking and they catch on. I hear panicked shuffling away and I don't know how long I wait. I am patient; they'll help me breathe, they have to. I wait. I am patient. Suddenly they're back and I feel a tugging at my neck from their attack on the belt that holds me prisoner. My head drops about an inch to the seat. They cut the seatbelt. I can breathe. Relief.
I try to move, to get up, but only my left arm does that strange little twitch. It then occurs to me I don't know where my body is...
I've broken my neck.
I was taken to Kelowna General where they stabilized me overnight. It was all a blur to me; questions, tubes, and white panelled roofing interspersed with annoying florescent lights. I remember being as patient as possible, reminding myself over and over that if I just do exactly as I'm told, I'll be all right. I must have been in shock. I was surprisingly unfrightened.
I tried to get them to call my Mom, reciting the phone number easily - a number I never remember and have always speed dialed - like I'd been punching the numbers in for years. Apparently under duress, I have a fabulous phone book in my head. I should add, since then, I can't remember my Mothers phone number. I found out later that they never even called my Mom; she has a 778 area code from when she lived in Vancouver, and just carried it over to Kelowna with her when she moved. The nurse, whom I can only assume is a native 250ian, thought I was delirious and gave them the wrong one. Ironic, considering for the first time I had it completely right. I'm still peeved with that nurse; she could have at least tried it.
My mom did make it to the hospital though. She and Tony, my common-law step-father, were nervous at my lack of check-up calls and hopped in the car to drive down the highway. My mom didn’t see, thank goodness, or she may have well flipped right out, but Tony noticed my car being pulled out of the ditch. He casually swings a u-turn and suggests checking the hospital, “just in case”. Unfortunately, he was right.
The next day I was flown to Vancouver General Hospital with my mom by my side and was in surgery that night after a myriad of MRI’s and other tests. I don’t remember much, but I do remember arguing against them taking out my nose stud (of all things) but eventually relenting after the thought of it being magnetically ripped from my little nose hit home through the druggy fog. And I remember seeing the tear stricken and seriously frightened faces of family and friends leaning over me so I could see them. Any movement for me was impossible. My only view - for what felt like eons - was the ceiling, unless someone shimmied close and leaned over my bed to look down at me. I saw my father's ragged face and red eyes, my step-mother telling me she loved me, my friends shaky and wide eyed. Oddly, I don't remember being frightened myself. I am so lucky, though. I have the most amazing support system. I already knew I was loved, but I could not be more lucky, in such a horrible situation, to find out just how much they cared. Beauty blooms above the swamp.
I came out of surgery with a brand new and expensive neck - my C4 and C5 vertebrae fused together with some fancy new titanium hardware and a piece of my hip - and a chilling diagnoses of an almost completely paralyzed body with a 10% chance of walking again. Safe to say everyone surrounding me, and now including me, was very frightened.
VGH was my home for the next 5 weeks, 4 of which I always had someone with me. Either my Mom, Dad, Step-Mom, or friend were near, 24/7. My parents and friends worked in shifts with me to ensure I was never alone. Honestly, I can attribute a massive amount of my success to their determination and love for me. Any time I tried to get down on myself, lose my resolve or drive to succeed, they were right there with a healthy dose of, "Don't you dare!", and kept me encouraged and motivated. A body doesn't heal well if it's stressed. And we truly are more in control of our bodies than we give credit for. If we don't try to heal, we won't. Or at least, we won't come near as close to what we can achieve if we do. I believe this. I am proof of this.
Over the following weeks I met some amazing doctors, physio's and nurses, - some of whom helped me more than I think they know - and slowly (or so it seemed to me, in reality my recovery was astoundingly fast when compared to most spinal injuries) started recovering. My arms began to move, my legs began to move. Every new movement, however slight, was a cause for bountiful tears of excitement and hope.
I remember when one of my fingers moved for the first time; this is huge, you see, for quadriplegics with a C4/C5 injury don’t often regain fine motor function. It is a huge step in recovery, and a suggestion of even more to come.
It was the middle finger on my right hand. Marie - my best friend, my soul twin - was filing my nails for me..
She’s hard at work gently sliding the emery board across my middle fingernail, chatting about who knows what the way girls do, when suddenly my finger twitches. My heart catches in my chest and I barely get out an audible, “Marie!”.
She continues filing away not noticing the movement; it’s normal for someone’s hand to move when you're fiddling with their fingers, right?
“Marie!” I’m a little louder this time. She looks up at me.
I hesitate; it could have been my imagination. I wanted my fingers to move so badly. “Did my finger move?”
She's still filing, not yet comprehending what I'm talking about. “Huh?”
“Did my middle finger move?”
Now she get's it. She freezes solid. She looks like a cat, body tense and eyes wide, poised to pounce, waiting for a movement. The air is quiet. The other people in the room - family and friends - stop in the sudden thick tension. We wait, but I am motionless. My heart drops.
She slides the file across my nail again. My finger jumps.
Our faces snap to each other in shock, eyes wide with instant tears.
“Wait, let me see if I can do it myself,” I say with fierce determination, turning my attention to my hand, staring down my finger like a cowboy gunman. Alright you lily livered piece of cow dung... TWITCH.
Everyone was crying.
I did it, I moved it.
To me that was a major mark of my incredible recovery. I'd been recovering well so far, no doubt, but this started to exceed average expectation for my sort of injury. Everything was gradually returning. My left side was much slower, and scared the hell out me for doing it, but it continued along at a stately pace, following my right side’s lead. One of my nurses called me a show off. My surgeon was amazed by me. One week he gave me the joyous news after assessing my strength and current recovery that he was now sure I would walk, though ‘a little oddly’. I of course said that no, I wanted to walk normally. He gave me that look of ‘don’t get your hopes up’, but I ignored him. Just one short week later I shocked him. I was recovering so fast. After his assessment he laughed happily and said “You know, you may just walk normally.”
And what do I say? “So I will run, right?”
I always want what I can't have, what can I say? And there was no discouraging look that time. But he, of course, could make no promises. Still, I was getting stronger daily. After a little “Kill Bill” showdown with my toes, they began to wiggle. All the fingers on my right side came to life, one by one. My left digit’s were taking their time, but joining suit with agonizing slowness. They do still move more awkwardly, however.
The worst damage to my spinal cord affects my left side. Even now, my left hand is not very strong ad has persistant numbness; my ring and pinkie finger are not paying attention to the whole healing thing the rest of my body is doing, and give me grief. As it stands, I still can’t play guitar, which is a continuous aching pull on my soul. It’s something I try hard to ignore though; this is a continuous journey, and the possibilities are endless.
I have what’s called an ‘incomplete’ spinal cord injury. This means my spinal cord was only pinched and bruised, but not severed. It’s for this reason that I’m recovering at all, and not still laying motionless on that distasteful hospital bed. A complete injury reveals itself in someone who has absolutely no sensation or movement below the level of their break. Incomplete injuries are trying things, though, in their own way. The damage is mysterious, and so the recovery is unpredictable. There are many people out there who have the same level of injury as I do, but are not healing nearly as well as me. There can be a lot of hope, and painfully, no results.
For me, amazingly enough, my results have been incredible.
I then spent 7 weeks at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. 2 weeks into my stay there I was cleared by my doctors that it was safe for me to be weight bearing. I had also fractured my pelvis, and so, regardless of my ability, I was not allowed to even try and put weight on my legs. But by this time my recovery had already been nothing less than phenomenal.
At the 7 week mark after my accident, I stood up for the first time.
I cannot tell you the feeling. After having been bed and chair ridden for 7 weeks, after all the fear and worry that the 90% chance I wouldn't walk would be the winning side of the ratio; I stood. And seeing the world from my height - such a simple thing - just standing at my height and looking around; I couldn't stop crying. In fact, I had pretty much the entire physio gym in tears; in celebration, in envy, and in inspired greed to get where I was. They talk of miracles... The word doesn't hold the weight of how incredible I felt.
They were just going to let me stand the first day so as to gradually ease me into being on my feet again. But I begged. I felt so good. And they relented and allowed me to move to the walking bars.
I started walking right away.
Small, tentative, and weak… but steps. I was taking steps.
Suddenly my world opened up. Independence was possible again, travel was possible again, LIFE was possible again.
From then on my physio's had a hard time keeping me out of my chair. I had, and still do have, a hard time pacing myself to avoid the fatigue issues that plague spinal cord injured patients. My body has to work harder than the average bear in order to do the same amount of work as a healthy person. But I couldn't, I can't, stop. They kept trying to have me use walking aids but I threw them off as annoyances. My determination outweighing their need for safety. And I did have my fair share of drops to the ground. I even had the oh so cliche and surprisingly funny "I've fallen and I can't get up!" moment. I had to yelp and scream for the nurse to come in and help me back up. But I couldn't stop giggling. I thought it was hilarious. Just a, "woops! Can't do that, yet!", moment. ..Yet. And I got there.
So here I am today, almost three years later. I still have numbness in my offending left hand fingers, and altered sensation to one extent or another everywhere. I have chronic nerve pain, most of which is down my left side, though I've found the right drug mix to keep it mostly under control. I do still have a limp and am unable to run, and have bowel, bladder, and sexual health function issues. But all things considered, I’m f*cking lucky.
I’m still determined to find a way to run, to go up the Grouse Grind or hike the Chief, to wear high heels, (and walk in them), and closest to my soul: to play my guitar, with which I will bear my soul and write music. And one goal I've had this whole time, is to travel to Spain and learn Spanish.... and write about my journeys..
That one... is now happening.
I love my friends and family, without them there’s no way I’d have healed this way, so phenomenally. When I came close to losing it, falling down a well of self pity and hatred, they whipped me back up so fast I was dizzy with relief. Love. It’s good for the soul, and incredible for healing. The nurses at VGH were wonderful to me, and helped incredibly with their support and caring. They saved my life. My surgeons, I could not be more grateful to. Dr. Boyd and his team seem to have patched up this lucky neck phenomenally well. And to that mystery man, (I never saw him or heard his name), who saved my life on the highway that day... thank you.
It was hard at first to share what had happened to me. At VGH, I allowed very few to see me, or even know of my condition. I asked that everyone keep it quiet. I wouldn’t say I was ashamed, but I was frightened.
I’m back now, a bionic woman, and gearing up to full throttle.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Since I came back from my first taste of solo travel in 2008, I've been planning on travelling again, and writing about my adventures. Immediately upon my return I started seeking employment in the service industry so I could learn the versatile and travel savvy working skills that many poor, but determined, travelers rely on. If I could serve in my home city of Vancouver, BC, I could serve anywhere. And I thought it would be a fantastic way to save up money for the next plane ticket I already saw in my hand.
Unfortunately life had other plans for me. In June of 2008, about three weeks after my return from my eye opening romp across the world - where I didn't just re-light my wanderlust flame, I ignited a passion for photography, writing, and experiencing life - I got into a very serious car accident. I found myself in the hospital with a broken neck and an almost completely paralyzedbody. My surgeon told me and my family I had only a 10% chance of ever walking again.
Safe to say, I didn't end up working in the fast paced hustle and bustle of the restaurant biz. And I certainly wouldn't be traveling any time soon, if ever.
I began a rigorous journey towards recovery. With the help of a phenomenal groupof people supporting me I worked towards willing my body to move. Nurses, therapists, and so very importantly, my friends and family kept my spirits high and my courage strong. Somehow, and by some grace and fortune I feel I'll never be able to repay, my body began healing. Fast, and shockingly well.
Here I am today, coming up to three years later, and I am walking. I am moving. I am dreaming. And I will be traveling.
I am still technically a quadriplegic, but likely one of the luckiest survivors out there with an incredible amount of function returned to me. I am now finally beginning my plan to complete the dream that started three years ago. I am enrolled in photography school, I am writing..
And I just purchased my flight to New York and Spain.
Mid April... it begins.
Artistic photography by Kristina Shelden
Wreck Beach, Vancouver, Canada