As I've been writing I realized I left out big pieces, so the last few days I've been revisiting an important time in my life. Waking up in the hospital after my car accident in April of 1994. And so we're going to revisit that. I don't have many pictures of my life from that time, so I'll choose a general one.
I could hear the voices off in the distance calling my name but I couldn’t respond; the voices kept getting louder and louder, almost to the point that it felt like screaming in my ears. It felt like my eyes were glued together and it took great effort to peel them open and I lifted my right hand up towards my eyes to give them some help. I heard a lot of commotion, I felt more movement and the presence of people around me and the voices close by got more clear. They were calling my name and telling me they loved me and to keep it up. Keep what up? Why were they cheering me on? My eyes settled and my vision came into focus, and I recognized my mother; there were also a lot of other bodies around her I didn’t recognize, and I had no idea where I was.
The room was gray all around, I had a window to the left and a sink ahead of me and what looked like a bathroom and it began to be clear that I was in a hospital. That meant I was injured so I looked around my body and checked each limb and counted them all. Everything was there. So what was my injury and why was I here?
I had to go to the bathroom and immediately grew impatient and angry with not understanding where I was, so I thrust my body up and around tossing my legs off the side of the bed intending to stand, but my legs collapsed underneath me and I fell to the floor. What the fuck was happening. Why can’t I walk and why am I in the hospital? A nurse with a gentle feeling voice began to speak directly into my ear as she helped me into a wheelchair that appeared by my side and she told me I’d been in a car accident, that it was April 1994 and that I’d had a traumatic brain injury. She let me know that I was safe and I’d eventually be better, but for now, my body would need to relearn all its basic functions and it would take some time, but the most important thing for me to do was relax.
Relearn my basic functions?
I had prom next week so what the hell did she mean I couldn’t walk?
She wheeled me over to the sink and I pushed myself up enough in my chair to look at myself in the mirror and I gasped at the face staring back at me. Her cheeks were chubby and the left side of her head was shaved and had some bandages bandages on it. That wasn’t me I thought, but yet it was. I asked to be alone in the room with the nurse who was now bringing me into the shower and I let her wash me as I began to take in the enormity of this new reality I was facing.
Here’s what I remembered from what happened: that I had a jeep, that I’d been on a road trip to Moab with my friend Toni and two older guys who worked at the ski resort, that I had lied to my parents about who I was with on the road trip, and that I’d lied to the guys on the road trip about what my name was. My body cowered inwardly in embarrassment of all the deceit I’d participated in and would now have to face punishment for. I wondered how much my parents knew. Did they know I was with the older guys? Did they know I’d changed my name to Katie? Did they know I had orchestrated a fake chaperoned spring break trip to hide the trip I was really on? Not my proudest moments. And where was Toni? Was she even alive?
The nurse watched me closely and seemed to see that I was going through a bunch of internal questions, so she reassured me I was safe and fine and that my friend Toni was safe and fine and how I am a very lucky girl. Lucky? I thought? I got dumped right before prom and now I have a shaved head and I can’t even walk. And with eyes full of tears I asked her who would want to go to prom with me now that my head is shaved.
And that’s when I began to realize that a block of time had unfolded in which I was not present, and prom had passed, and now I, as Harriet was in for some long healing time at University Hospital in Salt Lake City. After the shower the nurse helped me change into a hospital gown, put me back in bed, laid out some medicine, and another nurse entered the room with a tray of food and a serving of delicious chocolate cake. If I'd been eating like this a few times a day, no wonder my face looked a little chubby.
I settled back into my bed and enjoyed every last bite of my food and drifted off to sleep. Perhaps tomorrow’s awakening would go a little more smoothly and I’ll begin to understand more of what happened and what my life looks like now. Now I just needed to sleep.
When I awoke the following morning I secretly hoped it had all been a dream and that I’d be in my own bed up in Park City, but as my eyes opened, I saw the same grey walls, I knew this wasn’t the case. I pressed the buzzer to alert the nurse I was awake and she helped me carry out the most basic tasks like going to the bathroom, brushing my teeth and taking a shower. These were all things I used to do without assistance without even thinking about them, and now I was dependent on someone else; it was humbling.
Learning how to walk, talk, eat and write is a normal part of life that happens from 10 months to 5 or 6 years old. But having to relearn all of these basics as a brain injured 16 year old was scary and vulnerable, and I wondered if I’d ever catch up to where people my age were. I never realized how many motor functions it took to just eat until I lost those motor functions, but I was in good company, because for one meal a day the hospital staff would wheel me into a small common space where I’d have a group meal with several other patients from my hospital floor, each of us arriving to the table in a wheelchair, and supporting each other at our various stages of coordination. I could hardly get food onto a fork, and it took two hands to steady my hand and direct it to my mouth. I felt in a lot of ways like a beginner at being human, at least in a physical sense. But I adapted quickly to my new reality somewhat quickly and began to celebrate small victories, such as walking 4 steps on my own (and then collapsing) in physical therapy, writing a complete coherent sentence on a page in my therapy notebook (with the handwriting of a 2nd grader) and remembering what happened 3 hours earlier in the day. The small wins became some of my biggest accomplishments. My prior thoughts of what were people going to think of my hair, my chubbiness or how I didn’t get to go to prom became ancient memories, and I began to really realize that after whatever it was I’d been through, I was indeed lucky to be alive.
During my time in the hospital I had a constant stream of visitors. It was mostly acquaintances from my sophomore class at Park City High School, where I’d been the new girl 8 months ago after moving on my 16th birthday from Dallas. As the faces appeared in my line of vision everyone seemed familiar for a moment, but then transformed into strangers as my memory wouldn’t recall anything about them or who they were in relation to my life. My mom, who was my greatest advocate during my recovery, would have each visitor record a brief spoken message on a handheld recorder after they exited the room from saying hello to me, and then she’d play it after they left as an exercise for my memory.
“Harriet, do you remember Vanessa?” My mom would ask
“Yes I remember Vanessa, but I haven’t seen Vanessa is so long, how is she?” And it had been 20 minutes since Vanessa was sitting by my side holding my hand.
I was forgetting my present life just moments after it happened, which I learned is common for people after they had a severe traumatic brain injury, but that didn’t make it easier to deal with. Doctors told my parents that post traumatic amnesia lasts for several months, and sometimes years, and that sometimes the memory would come back completely, but sometimes it wouldn’t, and I’d have to wait to find out. My new reality was that the life I was living might dissolve immediately from my memory, and it was out of my control, so I just needed to stay in my present and be grateful for it. This was a terrifying reality, yet no one seemed to be talking about the emotional aspects of that with me. Instead they were talking about naming the foods on my plate and asking me to write a sentence about who was sitting next to me at dinner, and what I did that day. Life felt fragile and it wasn't under my control what memories stayed and what left.
I was moved into a hospital room with my friend Toni, who had a minor head injury and a broken leg after the accident, and I thought having my former best friend next to me for a few days would be fun. But instead, it brought immense anxiety. Did Toni know what had happened in our accident? Did she tell my parents what we were doing in Moab? Did she tell anyone we’d lied about our whereabouts? Why were the details right before the accident, of all my lies, staying so vivid in my memory, yet other more important things slipped right through me. I was afraid to ask Toni any questions, especially having so many people in the room with us most of the time. Thankfully Toni left to go home after a few days and she returned shortly afterwards to school, to be a center of attention with her big cast on her leg. Her injuries were manageable at home, yet mine on the other hand were going to take some time to heal.
During my stay in the recovery ward at the University hospital, I looked forward to a weekly ritual when the hotel staff would take a small wheelchair bound group of us out on outings. Usually it would be about 3 or 4 of us, and we’d get to change out of our hospital gowns and into real clothes, we’d pack up into the hospital van that was equipped to carry all our wheelchairs, and off we’d go to Crossroads Mall in downtown Salt Lake City, or to a baseball game. These other patients in wheelchairs became somewhat of a team for me, as though we were part of a pack, and we’d support each other emotionally while on these outings, as we endured people staring at us, and sometimes laughing. I knew my time in a wheelchair was temporary, but some of the patients were in a wheelchair for life, a realization that gave me great perspective about indeed how lucky I was. On these things most people looked away when they saw me in a wheelchair and I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to explain that I’d be back to normal and walking in a few weeks, and from that moment on I vowed to never look away when I met someone’s eyes who was in a wheelchair. They were just as human as me, except they had a different mode of transport, wheels rather than feet.
I’d spent the remainder of my 4th quarter of my sophomore in the hospital, and as summer approached there was a lot of discussion between my parents and teachers about how I was going to make up for the time I lost at school and where did I belong? I was already old for my grade because I was held back in kindergarten, so holding me back another year made no sense. So the decision was made for me to spend the summer in school trying to heal my brain and catch up on lessons where I could. My mother also convinced several teachers in my sophomore class to accept a research paper on traumatic brain injuries as credit for my last quarter, and she was the one doing the research and showing me, which I knew was therapeutic for us both. I was fortunate that all but my math teacher allowed me to turn in the research paper as credit for my final quarter, so I enrolled in a math course at Brigham Young University in Provo to get me caught up in math.
Math was never my strong point, so my parents hired a private math tutor for me; his name was Dave, he was in his late thirties, and he also played guitar and loved the same kind of music I did. I loved our tutoring time together because it extended past math; after we’d complete my homework, we’d sit for hours together at the local coffee shop, “Bad Ass Coffee” listening to music, hanging out and talking about life. Music and dancing became part of my therapy after the accident and as weird as it seemed in a lot of ways, this married man with a wife and 2 kids became one of my closest friends because I no longer felt connected to anyone my age. I’d accompany Dave to the bars on on Main Street on the weekend or some days after school, depending on what bands were playing. I still had a fake id that I’d gotten in Tx the year before, so I wouldn’t drink alcohol but I would dance and enjoy not being around anyone my age. I felt like I was 16 going on 30 yet everyone (except Dave) still treated me like my age, which though understandable was infuriating for me.
My parents saw that I was having a hard time adjusting and fitting back into my life, so they helped by giving me space and freedom. Our family owned a second house in downtown Park City, so I would spend most of my time there. They also offered me a trip to Switzerland with a company called Young Presidents Organization where I’d be participating in a program to help young adults from all over the world develop leadership skills. I accepted the gift and hoped that I’d connect more with people my age from other countries than I did with the ones from my high school. And I did; it amazed me the difference in conversational style between Europeans my age and Americans. There was a distinct difference in maturity level that I loved, and after 10 days with this group I didn’t want to leave, because I’d have to go back to my high school. I formed a friendship with a beautiful girl named Sabina, and she was from Austria, and the last day we were together in Switzerland we walked past a tattoo parlor that had a picture of a vine around an ankle, and I told her I wanted to get a vine tattooed around my ankle to help me remember this experience. Sabina said she’d get the same when she returned home, and I loved that I’d soon have something physical for my memory to hold onto and a symbol of friendship with a new friend from across the world.
When the end of summer rolled around it was time to return to my junior year of high school in this ski town that I’d only lived in for a few months before this radical transformation of my life unfolded, I was scared. I was still actively healing my brain, though I wasn’t in any official therapy anymore. I had no visible scars of my brain injury, but that felt like a blessing and a curse. I looked normal but felt like an entirely different person, which was confusing to describe, understand and feel. In the hallways of our small school I’d pass Toni and watch her hiking up her short skirt so she could show off her long scar along the outside of her thigh. I’d touch my head feeling a little envious that I didn’t get that sort of attention or sympathy because I had no scar.
I didn’t know how to reintegrate into our high school community even if I wanted to. My memory of people, places and things before the accident was spotty at best, so everyone felt like a stranger to me, including myself. But for some unknown reason my healing brain chose to keep random non precious memories such as my 1st & 2nd loss of my virginity, and feeling so embarrassed when my olympic hopeful boyfriend broke up with me and had a new girl within hours, which prompted my decision to rebel and go on a spring break trip with two older guys under a different name.
But life quickly returned to some version of normal though it felt completely different. I literally had no identity but I did have the new new tattoo on my ankle that I’d gotten after I returned from Switzerland that helped me feel just a little bit unique. I wasn’t around any familiar faces from my Texas days who could help me piece back together an old version of myself, and because Toni’s mom chose to sue my family after the accident, she and I were no longer friends. Toni had grown up in Park City so she knew everyone in school, so everyone got to hear her victim story of the accident and how she now had a big scar on her leg. Toni’s mom told us that Toni could suffer future damage psychologically because of her leg scar, so the money they received was for future cosmetic work to lessen the appearance of her scar. I’m glad I could help protect you from future trauma Toni, when I was still enduring the current trauma with what felt like little to no support.
A few weeks into our Junior year, after they'd received the money, I noticed that Toni and her mom both got new cars. Her mom’s license plate on her BMW Suv said “1 Angel” and Toni’s license plate on her black Toyota Celica said “Angel 2.” Good for them; I wanted to believe that I was the angel they were referring to since my driving skills (or apparent lack thereof) had created such a big lump sum of cash for them, but I never got that thank you. But that’s how life rolls sometimes. We help people silently and have to just be fine with no acknowledgement of that.
I was thrown back into what was normal for Juniors in high school, prep for the SAT exam, that would determine your future college choices. And that was when I realized how deeply my brain injury was still affecting my life, but that’s another story.