Surviving a Car Accident
A year ago in December, I was in a serious motor vehicle accident that changed my life. It was my day off from work and I had been over at a friend’s house for dinner and drinks. I was already exhausted from a long work week and running errands that day and I knew I had an hour long drive home but I lost track of time and stayed late into the night. I should have stayed and slept there but I was stubborn and wanted to be in my own bed.
I’ve never liked driving at night, I have a hard time seeing those New England country roads with the faded lines which are especially hard to see with oncoming traffic and no street lights. With that said, I had driven by one of the turns I was supposed to take and decided to let my GPS direct me home, which can often put you in the middle of nowhere if you aren’t paying attention. Probably 12:30am at this point, on the back roads, I haven’t seen another car in the last 30 minutes. I was cruising. I was so tired. My eyes were heavy. I just wanted to be home. I wanted to be sleeping in my own bed next to my husband. In one brief moment I closed my eyes and jerked back awake, my headlights and I got focused, and there right in front of me in the road, stood a deer.
Now people tell you if you can’t safely avoid the deer, to just hit it. But when you see something in the road, you react quickly. Had I not been tired or drinking that evening, had I been alert or left earlier I could have avoided it. I swerved hard to the left and everything was a blur. I remember trying to correct myself and going off the road, hearing and feeling the gravel on the shoulder, hitting what felt like a ditch, feeling the car go up on two wheels, and then the abrupt and violent stop. The next thing I know I am hanging sideways suspended from my seat belt. I had rolled my car over onto the passenger side and crashed into a tree. I was overwhelmed by the smell of talcum powder and burning fumes. My body was in pain but I didn't know why it hurt yet nor was that my biggest concern at the moment. When I looked up, I could see a light shining on the trees next to me, an orange glow that seemed to be getting brighter. It was fire. My car was on fire.
My flight or fight response had kicked in. My car was pinned up against a tree, there was probably flammable liquids leaking everywhere. I needed to get out my car as fast as possible or else I was gonna die. My heart was racing and my mind kicked in to hyper-speed. I knew if I got the seat belt to release that I would fall down to the passenger window. Somewhat aware that body my was hurt I knew I needed to catch myself somehow or the fall would cause more damage. I put my feet up on the dash pushing my back as hard as I could against the seat to stabilize myself, it was excruciating. I should have known then that something was seriously wrong with my body but I couldn’t process it. I grabbed the side of the door with one hand while I tried as hard as I could with the other to get the seat belt to release. It wouldn’t budge. I tried to open the door, it was jammed. My hand was sprained and too weak anyway. I looked for the horn to honk, it wasn’t there, just a deployed airbag. I had no idea where my phone went. With my feet still on the dash, I tried to recline my seat back thinking I could slide out from under the belt. I couldn’t grip the seat lever or get the belt to loosen, it was so tight. I didn’t have anything sharp, no broken glass within reach to cut the belt. I tried yelling for help but no one could hear me. I was stuck and out of ideas. I could see the flames. I'm going to die. This is how I die.
Everything slowed down. It was almost calm, an eerie and unsettling calm. I stopped thinking about my trapped state or the fact that my car was on fire. The only thought process going through my mind was am I ready to die? Am I satisfied with how I’ve lived my life? How would my family and friends take the news? How would they summarize my life? Would my next moment be standing before God? I could just see my myself apologizing over and over, trying to rationalize my actions and lifestyle. The majority of my life has been a missed opportunity for glorifying God. I wanted to do what I thought was best but now I see how foolish that was, look where that got you, I thought, well it doesn’t matter anymore because you’re about to die. These things flashed through my head in maybe a matter of seconds but it felt like forever.
In that moment of stillness with all hope of escape gone, I saw headlights. Its another car! I hear it hit something in the road and the squealing of brakes. I heard a man say, “don't worry, I'm gonna get you out of here.” I hear the 911 call, I hear one of the doors behind me open, I feel my seat go back. And next I know, I being pulled out of my car as if I weighed the same as a feather. I struggled to walk, my legs felt like jello but they helped me to their car. It's all blurry, I don’t even remember their faces or how many people there were exactly, just their voices asking me if I was okay, if I was hurt. They reassured me that I was safe and help was on the way. Still as they were talking to me, all I could focus on were the flames that were consuming my car. Even while the EMTs loaded me on the ambulance, all I saw were the flames.
As if I wasn't in enough shock from the accident, the series of events that happened next still amaze me. The ER I went to that night X-rayed me and scanned my head. I explained where my pain was, my left side was sore, my hand sprained, my eye felt swollen, and I could taste blood. But this was all nothing compared to my back. Something was wrong with my back. Not knowing what I looked liked though, the doctor was more concerned with my head. He sent me off for a scan of my head and X-ray of my hand. He put pressure on my back with his hands for pinpointed pain and checked by ultrasound for internal bleeding. They pumped me full of drugs, cleared me and sent me home with a back and hand sprain, micro-fractures around my left eye, and some cuts bruises. I walked out there with no known serious injuries. I should have felt relieved.
I was home for a couple days in some serious back pain. My husband and my father had to help me up and down from the couch, the most I could walk was the ten feet it took to get from there to the bathroom. I was supposed to follow up with my primary care doctor the next day but I was too sore to travel and rescheduled for a couple days later. It was Friday by the time I saw her. Being concerned with how much pain I was still in, she ordered me to go to CMMC for X-rays that day so she could get the results right away, rather than going to quick care or waiting til Monday. Once getting there and having new X-rays taken, they didn't push me back to the waiting room for results like they did everyone else. They got me to my wheelchair and kept me right outside the X-ray room. It was obvious and unsettling, something wasn’t right. I watched as I see the technician hurry to the phone and back into the room. Two minutes later she comes out and hands the phone to me. It was my primary care doctor. She explained to me what was going on. I had a fracture of my L2 vertebrae and needed to be admitted right away so they could get further imaging to see the extent of the damage. Hearing those words and seeing the technicians reaction, I knew this wasn’t just a simple fracture.
So after a few days of laying absolutely flat in a hospital bed, being wheeled to MRIs and X-rays, and meeting several doctors and neurosurgeons, they explained what was happening and what their plan was. They pulled up the images of the MRI and X-rays. As soon as I saw it I thought I was going to be sick. I wanted to throw up right there. The L2 vertebrae was completely shattered, a burst fracture that dislodged into pieces was compressing my spinal cord. It was unusual the way it fractured. My surgeon told me that not only was it a miracle I had survived the accident, but that I wasn’t paralyzed.
That evening, I remember my dad asking me how I was feeling. If I was angry or felt I had lost something, if I was grieving. How was I handling this trauma? I could feel the weight everyone was carrying and the hard questions they were asking. Were we in the best surgical hands? Do we seek a second opinion? What if something goes wrong? What if operation paralyzes her? What if? In all the shock and chaos of everything, I have never felt such peace. Peace that we were right where we needed to be, peace that we had the best surgeons and medical staff caring for us, peace that this was in God’s hands. I knew it wasn’t luck that I was able to walk away from that accident. Looking at the pictures of my car and considering the days following, I should be burned, paralyzed, or dead. But I wasn’t. I knew God had other plans and whether or not I could see what it was, I trusted Him. I knew if the surgery wasn't a success, that it would be okay because He had a purpose in this.
Because of the seriousness and complexity of the surgery, they brought in another neurosurgeon to assist. Surgery was almost 9 hours, a posterior and anterior spinal fusion. They made incisions on my left side and the lower half of my back as well as removed one of my ribs to allow more room to operate and to use for a bone graft. They removed all the shattered pieces that they could, replaced the vertebrae with a titanium cage, a plate, two rods, and 10 screws. . I woke up in ICU with pain I've never experienced before. At one point I think I had seven tubes coming out of me, plus oxygen and the heart-rate monitors and later on a chest tube which had to be inserted due to a partially deflated lung. Surgery was successful with only minor complications. I was on the road to recovery. This began the longest winter of my life.
I thought the surgery would be the hardest part, but no.. it wasn't the surgery or the pain, it was the recovery. The waiting. I went from being in the best shape of my life, from hiking 4,000 foot mountains in New Hampshire and running 10ks and training for half-marathons to sitting in a recliner only able to walk to the bathroom and back. On top of that, we found out the sprain in my hand was actually a dislocated thumb that had now healed wrong. Another surgery and they corrected my thumb and reconstructed my tendons and ligaments surrounding it. So now, not only was I not able to move very well, but I was down a hand. Imagine trying to get in and out of bed after major back surgery or trying to pull up your pants with one hand when you can’t even twist to reach the other side. This was my life for the next three months. I was totally dependent on my family to take care of me. There was a level of loneliness I reached that I don’t know how to describe. Not that I was alone, I had my family but I couldn't do anything I loved, I felt disconnected from my friends, I couldn’t leave the house because it was winter and I couldn’t risk a slip or fall outside. It was a complete change of lifestyle in a very short time and I shut down emotionally. I felt I had no purpose, I would wake up and count down the hours til it was bedtime. My day to day was just to heal. Until one day I decided I could either feel depressed and useless or keep my mind occupied and motivated. So I read, a LOT.
I don’t know how many books I went through but the one I spent the most time reading was my Bible. I’ve always found encouragement from Paul’s letters and I needed it. In that time of recovery, I learned what it meant to be vulnerable, honest and weak. I learned what it meant to depend on God through hard times and in very, very mundane times, when things don’t go as I had planned. I learned it was possible to find joy and contentment through it all because I know that these hardships are only temporary but are also opportunities to learn, to grow, to help others. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV) -
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
God didn’t cause the accident, He didn’t cause my pain or suffering. No, that was a result of my poor decisions for which I am responsible. I should have been burned, I should have been paralyzed, I should have died. If there was ever a hesitation of whether God existed or that I wasn’t worth His time, that cured all doubt. To see the events that took place and to be here today, alive and walking, tells me that He has other plans for me. But this isn’t to say that after one year I’m perfectly healed and everything is sunshine and rainbows now. The pain, the trauma, the fear and anxiety are still real. I may not be able to see the big picture or how this pain is gonna be used later, but I know it’s not going to last for eternity and I know I’m here now for a reason. So I’ll continue to find overwhelming joy and contentment in God and trust that whatever I face in life will be used for good and to bring Him glory.