10 years after my accident

Published 3:31 pm Monday, December 15, 2008

by Leah Justice As a reporter, sometimes I have to write about tough subjects. Some articles are positive and informative and I enjoy them. But some stories get me in trouble, some make me not so popular with people and others I can&squo;t get out of my head.

The worst for me is when I have to write about young people getting killed in car accidents. We had a series of accidents just a few months ago that took the lives of three local young people in a matter of six weeks. There have been many others over the last 10 years, and I knew many of the victims personally.

Now that I&39;m a mother myself, the tragic deaths of young people are even harder to bear. I worry about my son as he gets older ‐ will he, like so many others, take unreasonable risks, certain that nothing bad can happen to him?

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I know that feeling all too well. It will be 10 years ago late tonight when I came close to putting my family through what I too often have to write about.

Trust me, they went through more than any family should, but they were tough and hopefully we all are a little better off now for it. My car accident was one of those awakening moments in life and I know with no doubts that mine happened for a reason.

It was around 12:20 a.m., Dec. 13, 1998. I was at the time a sous chef at La Bastide, a bed and breakfast/restaurant near Traveler&squo;s Rest, S.C. I had turned 25 years old less than a month before and was on top of the world.

It was raining extremely hard, possibly freezing rain. I was told later that most cars were pulling off the side of the road because they couldn&squo;t see, but I&squo;m sure I pressed on. Nothing could hurt me at the time.

My details are rough in this story because I don&squo;t remember anything from that night and several weeks afterwards because of a drug induced coma. I&squo;m sure now from hearing the stories that I never want to remember what I felt lying in that car that night.

I came down Hwy. 11 toward Landrum and apparently hydroplaned, lost control down a hill, veered off into the woods and hit a tree on my driver&squo;s door.

Mechanics who looked at my car later said that with the frame broken and my front and back tires almost touching on the driver&squo;s side, my momentum down the hill had to have reached more than 100 m.p.h.

I wasn&squo;t wearing a seatbelt, but according to paramedics, I wouldn&squo;t be here if I had. One of those rare cases, I suppose; now I meticulously wear my seatbelt. You can get so lucky only so many times, right?

The impact threw me on the passenger floor board and I was conscious when paramedics arrived, presumably through the whole ordeal. I lay in my freezing 1996 Ford Explorer for possibly two hours. I had recently purchased that Explorer, replacing a truck I had just totaled a month previously. It would have been so much easier if I&squo;d listened to that sign from God.

I apparently knew I was out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, so I reached up and blew the horn. A dog owned by a man who lived up the hill barked until he woke his owner up, and my one working headlight was shining in the man&squo;s bedroom window. He came down the hill with his cell phone and called 911.

I figure it was about 2:30 a.m. or so when he found me, based on what time my mother says she got the phone call that every mother fears. Rescuers rushed me to Greenville Memorial, already figuring I had a head injury because of the erratic way I was thrashing around and being angry at anyone who would listen that I wrecked my new car.

At the hospital, I was put on morphine and set aside. My chances were low and my body temperature had dropped to 92 degrees, so the surgeries I needed couldn&squo;t be done. To make a bad situation worse, I&squo;m a Type I diabetic, which put my chances of surviving the surgeries slim to none.

I had a brain injury, had broken 11 ribs on my left side, broken my pelvis in three places and ruptured my spleen. The big problem was that I had already bled so much internally that the blood inside me was poisoning my organs.

After warming me up, surgeons took out my spleen, which they described later as being in a million pieces. Then I was given an open abdomen, something unheard of at the time. I was told by doctors later that I was one of about 80 people in the country who&squo;d had the surgery and nine out of 10 of those had died. There was a low rate of survival because of the risk of infection, and my diabetes was not giving many people any hope.

The purpose of the procedure, from what I have since tried to understand, was to clean my organs of the blood. The cleaning process happened over 19 days in the Intensive Care Unit, I was told, with my organs kept in plastic bags outside of my body.

Surgeons then took skin grafts from both my legs and covered my organs, but not yet pulling the muscles over them. The skin grafts stayed for about six months and the only way I can describe it is that my belly button was on my side and the grafts looked like aliens had abducted and impregnated me. I have pictures of my stomach but decided to spare readers the image.

My family and friends say coming to see me was unreal because I was so swollen that I looked like I weighed 900 lbs. I had fluids coming out of every crevice of my swollen face. I was hooked up to a ventilator, a chest tube and I can&squo;t imagine what else. My family was told several times the first few days and even weeks that I had less than five percent ‐ some say less than two percent ‐ chance of living. The events are different depending on the storyteller. My dad, though, said something told him from the get-go that I was going to be okay and he stuck with that attitude and probably pulled many through it all. &bsp;

My whole family, including my parents, brother and sister, aunts, uncles and grandparents, came as soon as they got the phone call. I think my preacher came immediately too, based on the dismal information my parents were given about my condition.

I was in a coma for several weeks and woke up with a metal fixator across my body and a lot of pain and weakness. Doctors drilled four poles from my waist into my pelvis to help set the breaks in my pelvis.

Taking that out a couple of months later caused what it is still the worst pain I&squo;ve ever endured and will never forget. I slept through a lot of trauma but I was definitely awake for that one.

My family never left my side for all those weeks and months. I woke up sometime in January weighing about 78 lbs. We didn&squo;t have Christmas that year. Christmas came on Valentine&squo;s Day of 1999 when I finally went home and spent most of my days confined to my parent&squo;s couch.

When I woke up from the coma, I didn&squo;t recognize my parents. I remember vomiting a lot. I spent several weeks in a wheelchair once I could get out of the bed and was in rehabilitation until the end of the summer of 1999, some of that as an outpatient.

The morphine made me crazy sick with withdrawals and there were many days where doctors would come in and ask the same questions like what day it was, where was I and what happened to me. They did that day after day for a while until it finally clicked one day and I remember saying that even though I thought it was December, 1998, I remember that doctors the day before had said that it was January something of 1999.

I was told I&squo;d never walk again and I&squo;d never work again, which devastated me. Luckily, some will inside me wouldn&squo;t let that happen and I just kept asking what I had to do that day to get me out of the hospital sooner.

It was a long and difficult process, but I&squo;m about 95 percent okay now. I try to be thankful and feel fortunate every day because it could have been so much worse. I cringe sometimes to think about how close I came and it was all because I thought I was indestructible.

Now I&squo;m thankful that I had a family who helped nurse me back to health and that I am from Polk County. I say that because the prayers and money donated to help pay my medical bills ‐ which totaled probably more than $1 million ‐ was unreal. You can only get that kind of support from a place like this.

The real cause of the accident was that at the time I was more concerned about living life on the edge than I was about living. And unfortunately,that&squo;s how many young people think. Don&squo;t we all think that all the bad stories on the news can&squo;t happen to us?

A plastic surgeon came to my hospital room one day and said he could help the appearance of my scars. My stomach is nothing but scar tissue and the line down my belly took 70-something staples and more than 150 stitches. I know this because I made them count them after my last surgery, which occurred that May to take my skin grafts off and pull my muscles back over my stomach. I also have the skin graft scars on my legs, two chest tube scars and several weird places where I swelled so much my skin burst.

I told the plastic surgeon that day that I didn&squo;t want anybody to take my scars away. I&squo;d worked hard for those scars. And now I&squo;m thankful for those scars because I have the opportunity every day to be reminded that I&squo;m not really indestructible and things really can change drastically in an instant.

I&squo;ve been told so many times since that day that I&squo;m a miracle. I was meant to die and God spared me is what people say. I don&squo;t think on that level at all. My thoughts are that I was never meant to die. I was just lucky enough for God to take the time to bring me that close to death so I would realize I&squo;m on this earth for a purpose. I haven&squo;t figured out that exact purpose yet, but I&squo;m working on it, as I think most people are. Hopefully most people don&squo;t need such a forceful wake-up call.

The real miracle is that I&39;m a mother even though doctors told me I could never have children because of my injuries. My scar tissue wouldn&squo;t allow a baby to grow, they said, and if by some chance a baby found room to grow, I have bolts holding my pelvis together preventing me from giving birth naturally. They said no doctor would cut into my scar tissue for a C-section because of the risk that it would kill me.

Three years ago I had my miracle. He&squo;s a very energetic and happy three-year-old who tests me every day. It wasn&squo;t a worry-free pregnancy or delivery by any means, but considering the obstacles, I had no major problems. I worked almost until the day I had him. Another lesson&ellip; doctors don&squo;t know everything, but they sure come in handy when you&squo;re about to die.

So, if anybody gets a message out of this reflection of 10 years ago, I hope it&squo;s some young person out there who might give another thought before driving too fast or drinking and driving or whatever else young people do these days to put themselves at risk. I certainly wasn&squo;t living like I was supposed to at the time.

The chances of making it in this world are already slim, so why add fuel to the fire and live on the edge? It&squo;s just not worth it because it can and will happen to you, especially if you&squo;re asking for it.

Don&squo;t do it to your family and please, don&squo;t make me write about it.