July 1, 1991, is a day I will never forget. My foreign exchange sister and I were headed to Coeur d'Alene from Priest River to have my Honda CRX serviced. We never made it. In Rathdrum, a man driving a pickup truck failed to see me and drove into the side of my car. My exchange sister escaped with minor cuts and bruises. But because the driver's side received the brunt of the collision, it meant that I did, too. I was knocked unconscious and had to be extracted with the Jaws of Life. After two weeks in a coma, I was transported to the brain injury rehab unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center, where I would spend eight more weeks. Instead of attending college in the fall, I had another education in store. I had to relearn my entire life.
I don't remember the accident, only what I've been told. Comas, you see, aren't like the way they are portrayed in the soaps. I didn't wake up with everything miraculously made whole. Only gradually did I become more aware of my surroundings.
One of the first things I remember is being asked where I was. My answer? Mt. Shasta, Calif. Yet while I had been born in northern California, I had lived in Priest River since I was five. The past seemed murky. Memories were fuzzy. I confused dreams with reality.
Initially, I was unable to walk and had to use a wheelchair. I didn't understand why I couldn't walk. I had massive scars on my head and a cast on my arm, but I didn't know why.
It was odd how I didn't question many things. I was giddy due to the brain injury and acted like a child -- a child who was unaware of what she could not do. Because I couldn't walk, I had to have assistance to use the bathroom. I grew tired of having to call for help and, despite being belted and gated in bed, I managed to get into the wheelchair and onto the toilet. But then I fell and had to call for assistance. The nurses started calling me "Houdini."
In order to add structure to my day, I had things I had to do at specific times. Days were filled with therapy. An occupational therapist helped me relearn daily activities, such as cooking and caring for myself. A speech therapist helped me with speech patterns and organizational skills. Simple things like swallowing became onerous: I tended to choke on clear liquids. In order to get water, I would let my ice cubes melt and drink them. I even sucked the water out of my toothbrush.
The physical therapist was my favorite. She had it in her power to help me walk, and I wanted to walk badly. We spent hours in the weight room working on stamina and balancing exercises. I can remember struggling to take a step, my arms and legs shaking uncontrollably. At first, I had to use a walker; eventually, I learned how to lean on helping hands.
After 10 weeks, I was finally released from the hospital to my parents' care. I was able to walk, but only with a compromised gait. Being released, moreover, didn't mean that I was completely better. I soon found that many things had changed, that there were things I could no longer do. My physical and speech therapy continued for another year. Along with all this came depression -- and a new-found determination.
I discovered what the term "fair-weather friend" meant. I had changed, but my friends didn't understand. The looks people gave me made me angry. I felt like a freak. When I was with my parents, people would ask them how I was doing. Had I become invisible? Couldn't they just ask me? As time passed, I would blurt out, "I'm just fine, thanks for asking." In all fairness, people probably didn't realize that I could understand.
People often ask if I had amnesia. Actually, I remember more about my past than most brain-injury victims. The closest thing I had to amnesia may be what my family refers to as "memory surges." They are extremely emotional for me. They don't involve reminiscing about the past, really; rather, they accelerate the past back at me. They usually occur when I go someplace that I haven't been since the accident. When I do, the emotions, thoughts, and feelings I had when last there come flooding back. I often expect that people who had been with me in the past are now present. When I realize this is the present, not the past, in my head I hear the music from The Twilight Zone.
People find it strange when I tell them that I am a different person now. I used to be an overachiever, a Type A personality, and I was a tad introverted. I only let my true self out among those I knew well. I loved to learn and be challenged. I still do. So when I decided I was going to go to the University of Idaho the following year, my parents weren't surprised. Was I up to the challenge? My doctors and therapists worried that it could do more harm than good. They recommended a class or two at a community college, but I would hear nothing of it. I'm glad I didn't lose my never-say-die attitude, because college is where I learned the most and realized I had changed. It was harder for me to communicate thoughts, to grasp certain concepts, to visualize ideas, even to maintain balance. Yet I got to know the new me, and I was able to heal at the same time. Eventually, I earned two degrees.
There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not reminded of my accident. The deficits I've acquired because of it keep me in check. I am not the same person, but I am more outgoing and I appreciate life much more. While I constantly compare myself to what I once was and what I might have been, I usually focus less on the past than on seizing the day.