Twenty years ago today, my friend and I were coming back down I-17, from northern AZ, and I had an allergic reaction as I drove; he slept. I knew I needed to pull off, but thought I could last until the rest stop: six miles.
I remember seeing the sign pass me as my dad’s voice echoed in my head about the dangers of stopping on the side of the road and how rest stops were the only safe place to stop. I was driving his car, not mine, and my nineteen-year-old self had no idea the danger we were in.
I vividly remember, like déjà vu, I passed another sign saying the next rest stop was 26 miles. I have no recollection between the two signs…but the roads that are between those two signs are filled with sheer cliffs and blind turns, steep, winding highway, and rock faces. And yet, we made it.
All I can think is our guardian angels relaxed for a moment when we reached flat land, because just as we did, I passed out and woke to the jarring sounds of my tires on the edge of the road. I responded as I would have in my car, the one without power steering. I yanked the wheel back to the center of the road, and instead of righting us into the correct lane, our vehicle swung in a circle. The world stopped.
I felt my friend grip my shoulder and pin me to the seat. A pole smashed through my door, jolting my legs. The metal disappeared as the sky transformed into a splintering spiderweb of glass, replaced by dirt, then sky, then dirt—a silent and slow dance. I watched drinks leave the car through the now-shattered windows. My notebook blew into the air and floated—I could almost see my drawings before it disappeared in sand and debris. The pressure on my shoulder continued.
The groan of metal caught up through the silence of my senses, crunching as the final roll of the car smashed into the earth. The eerie slow-motion of time returning with the speed of my breath. I looked around, my shoulder aching where my friend was pressing it. I wanted to ask him to let go and as I turned to him, I saw he was curled against the passenger door.
I looked down. Nothing was there. My eyes focused past my shoulder to the cup holder between the seats. My cellphone—loose, and not even plugged in (Nokia, shout out)—was sitting there. Shoes that had been on our feet were gone. But the cellphone made it.
Someone was outside my door asking me who to call. “My dad.” Questions and questions. I handed my phone. I stared at my legs, uncertain why I couldn’t move them. I couldn’t understand the bend in my door that was pressing into my lap.
My passenger had been asleep for the whole thing; his seat was laid back. The roof had crushed in, just brushing my head height on his side—I’m a short girl—he was over six feet. He climbed out through the back window, searching for his shoes.
I tried to follow, but couldn’t move. The rescue team reached through the window and covered my face, giving me instructions that I couldn’t understand. The one truth floating on their voices that hit me: “your head should have been hit by the pole. You should be dead. Somehow, you didn’t lean forward in the crash.”
Thunder split through my eardrums as the jaws of life chewed through my door hinges. My door had slammed into a pole, breaking it off and tumbling us down the hill.
They still couldn’t get me out. My left femur was snapped in half, my ankle broken. I felt nothing. My ears rang with their words as they figured out how to take me out the back window. Solid wood. Neck in a brace. Words. Commands? Arms and middle strapped in. Legs not moving. Face inches from the destroyed ceiling of the car. Tight window—balancing rescuers draped in and out of the car. Open sky. Body wobbling as I’m carried back up the hill. Sky. Sky. Sk—pain is arriving.
The drive from Black Canyon City to John C. Lincoln hospital is apparently 45 minutes. I remember the jolts of the road shaking my bones as I asked the EMTs to sing to me. We arrived in the hospital and I was transferred to a bed with weights hanging off my broken ankle to align my femur. They were waiting for an operating room to open.
They transferred me to a mobile bed. Weights. Pain. Transfer. Ride down the elevator. Someone dying needs surgery. I have to wait. Ride up the elevator. Transfer. Weights. Wait.
This shifting dance happened six times through the night as we tried to get an operating room. The doctors don’t know if this is what caused it or if it was the violent break or perhaps the length of drive…but ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) sometimes occurs in people who have broken a large bone. The marrow finds its way into the bloodstream and the body doesn’t know what to do with it, and so deposits it in the lungs. The lungs begin to harden. Oxygen ceases to process.
My active memory stops here. For two weeks. But I’m told I came through the surgery fine. But then I couldn’t breathe on my own. My lungs were failing. My body following.
I have a flash of memory of a red bed and surrounded by a group of flailing people. But I can’t make sense of it. What I’m told is I was bound to the bed because I kept fighting them as they tried to intubate me (breathing tube down my throat). They gave me the maximum doses of sedative and still I fought. It took the entire module staff to hold me down as I continued to fight them off.
I’m told the head of pulmonology cried as he told the others there is only one reason—sexual trauma—that would make me fight them so severely. He was absolutely right.
The ARDS worsened and the doctors told my family there was not much hope. The week before I was admitted, a body builder had broken his humorous and died of ARDS in the room I was clinging to life in.
The doctor and nurse found an experimental treatment from Europe and they brought it to my parents. They had found when the body breaks apart pork fat in large doses, it often deposits portions of it in the lining of the lungs, forcing the deposited and hardened bone marrow apart. (I am clearly aware I’m butchering the science and don’t claim to understand it).
Problem: I’m allergic to pork. Irony: the Doctor is Jewish.
My parents were left with a decision: try the pork and maybe I’d survive, or not try and it was clear I’d die. They decided to try.
After weeks (unknown time), the doctors told my parents they had to remove the tube from my throat or it would irreparably damage my vocal chords. Yet, they did not know if I could breathe on my own.
I imagine the seconds as they stared at my chest, waiting for a breath. I’m sure it was like years. Pause. Stare.
But I did breathe.
They woke me from the coma and I thought it was the day after my surgery. As a solid prankster, I believed NO ONE weeks had passed; finally, my mom showed me the forests of hair on my legs. My brain could not take it in.
The doctors told my family the odds of survival from ARDS. I tried to find the exact numbers and cannot locate them, but it was something close to one in 50,000 survive. Out of those survivors, one in 50,000 survive without brain damage.
I was alive. And, as far as we can tell, no brain damage. My vocal chords had been damaged, though. I had only a whisper for six months, maybe a year. The doctors told me I might have ongoing lung and voice problems, and I have. My voice has never fully returned. It’s soft. Low. And it hurts to make it loud (normal volume of others’ voices) for long.
Often, people tease me for being so soft-spoken. They chide me to just “SPEAK UP.” “Put a little volume!” “Use the lungs God gave you!” And they don’t know: I am.
The day I walked out of the hospital, a dear friend of mine was working with his dad and took half a step backward into a live wire. In fewer than three seconds, he was dead.
That weight. I survived the odds. I survived the raging roads and flipping metal and glass. I survived ARDS that others hadn’t. And my friend was lost in half a step.
Often, people told me how happy I should be because I was alive. But I was a survivor of trafficking as a child, and I woke back up to a world of memories I no longer could control or stuff without aid or poor coping. I woke up to a world that had gone on without me. I woke up to a world that couldn’t hear me. I woke up to a world that my friend fell out of.
It’s okay to be sad in the middle of a joyous victory. It’s okay to see beyond what others see. It’s okay to pause as the universe circles and storms as you sit in the shattered glass and live wires.
And it’s okay to stand up.
I still have problems with my voice. And honestly, I find myself ashamed of it at times. But the reality is it is proof I made it.
And in no way am I silenced.
#FindingVoice #TodayISurvived #ARDS #CarAccident