(Click HERE for Part 1)
Heather lost her dad on January 17, 1999. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer for 8 + months. The family was expecting the inevitable, but death of a loved one is always painful.
Heather’s father left a void. He is missed everyday. Heather finds comfort in her beliefs. “I know I will see him again someday. I know that life goes on and that death is truly only the beginning."
Heather’s mom said a prayer for her that night, the night of the accident. She pleaded with Heavenly Father, asking that Heather’s father might be allowed to watch his precious daughter through the night.
Miraculously Heather made it through the night. Heather’s mom was relieved to see her daughter the next day, alive. Although incoherent, Heather’s chances for survival increased the longer she willed herself to live.
Heather’s mom asked her daughter if dad had been there the previous night. She has no recollection of her response, though Heather’s mom told her that she blinked her eyes, indicating, “Yes, dad was here.”
The day after the accident Heather was transferred to a trauma I facility, ensuring that she would receive the best care available. Heather made the trip via a medical helicopter. Her neck was so weak and fragile that a nurse was required to hold Heather’s head the entire journey. A slight bump may have spelled disaster for Heather.
Heather stayed in intensive care for a long seven weeks. It was rigorous and dangerous for both the patient and the doctors. Several procedures were performed on Heather’s broken body. It was an arduous road.
Two days after the accident Heather had an eight hour neck stabilization surgery. She was in good hands. Her surgeon was the best cervical spine surgeon in the world.
Heather’s case was extreme, even in the eyes of this surgeon. Later the doctor would comment to Heather’s mom that he had never seen a patient who’s neck was so badly broken survive the ordeal.
Heather was put in a halo vest for six weeks. The halo was attached to her skull with four large screws. The vest helped her neck heal properly.
Heather’s neck was broken at the C2 level, this means she wasn't able to breathe on her own anymore. A tracheotomy, which involves a tube surgically implanted in the trachea, was Heather’s next procedure. This was followed by a feeding tube inserted in her stomach because swallowing food and water was not possible.
Heather was in a drug-induced coma for about a week. She was periodically aroused by doctors so family and friends might talk with Heather.
Heather’s first lucid thought when waking from her comatose state was acceptance. She was shocked to learn of her paralysis, but felt aware of her condition at the same time. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if I had learned what had happened to me in my unconscious state, I processed it and I had accepted it. I was just so happy to be alive and that is what mattered to me the most.”
Days passed, and Heather was slowly weaned off the “sleeping” drugs. Instead of avoiding the obvious, Heather loved hearing details of the accident and the hours that followed. She asked the same questions repeatedly, completely amazed that she was alive. Before the accident, Heather had never experienced a broken bone or stitches. The patient role was a foreign experience for her.
Heather is grateful that during the few weeks after the accident, she didn’t fully comprehend how her life had changed. Heather understood her condition, but was not aware how different her life would be now. Heather believes her obliviousness to some life facts enabled her to keep a positive attitude. “It’s difficult to express in words exactly how I was feeling.”
Heather was preoccupied with the thought, “Am I really never going to shower again?” She just could not process this very real fact!
Heather realized, while in the ICU, that her once normal life was in the past. She was accepting of her disabled body. Heather tried to stay happy and kind, especially to the nurses who took such professional, but loving care of her recovering body and soul. Heather charmed the nurses. They felt her gratitude and reciprocated with gentle words and actions.
Much of Heather’s healing process involved relearning things that small children can do easily, without thought.
Heather was unable to speak. She mouthed all of her words, causing frustration for herself and anyone trying to help Heather.
Miracles are all around us. The electro-larnyx is a miracle. This small device, 7 inches tall, gave Heather back her voice. It is pressed against the neck of someone who is trying to talk, it catches the vibrations the patient’s voice box is making, and it produces a low, mechanical sound that mimics what the patient is trying to say.
Heather had to relearn swallowing, a function that newborns can perform. She was required to go through a very uncomfortable swallow test several times. The speech pathologist inserts a lubed up fiber-optic camera through one side of the nose and guides the camera to the back of the mouth, finally reaching the throat. A TV monitor allows the speech therapist the ability to watch the patient swallow, ensuring everything is going down the esophagus and not entering the airway.
With the extensive trauma that had punished Heather’s body, there came unexpected side effects. She was having trouble with her heart. Heather kept passing out. The damage to her spinal cord and nervous system interferedwith Heather’s brain receiving the message from the nervous system to make her heart speed up. Lack of blood to her brain caused loss of consciousness. It was frightening as Heather could feel herself blacking out every time. A pacemaker was placed in her chest to regulate the heart rate.
Heather’s story illustrates the importance of good medical care. The following experience happened the morning of her pacemaker surgery.
“On the morning of my surgery a doctor and a nurse who I had never met came into my room at 5:30 in the morning and began to dismantle the halo. I thought the halo would be taken off in surgery after I'd already been put to sleep, but this was not the case. The doctor had a wrench and he just went to work without even acknowledging me even though I was obviously awake. Since the halo was attached to my skull with four long screws it was excruciating to have the doctor jerking my head back and forth as he took the halo apart. When the halo was off the doctor and nurse threw all the parts of the halo onto the floor in the back of my room and then they left without even putting my head on a pillow. I was stunned at what had just happened and I remember feeling very vulnerable since my weak neck was left unsupported. I was really upset at not even been acknowledged, but I figured it was over, so I just let it go.”
Transition and change was part of Heather’s life. When deemed that she was strong enough, Heather was moved to a rehabilitation center. Together, Heather and her mom learned to care for her body. It was the last step before Heather could finally come home.
Home, definitely one of the sweetest words, but even that had to change. Heather could not go to her upstairs bedroom. The front room was “remodeled” as Heather’s bedroom. Family did whatever they could to make her comfortable in her new surroundings.
Heather has had to physically let go of so many things, simple things that many of us take for granted.
• Physical Affection-Heather misses the physical touch of friendship and support. She can no longer give hugs. She cannot put an arm around a friend.
• Driving a car.
• Heather misses dressing in clothes that she wants to wear. In her constant sitting position some fabrics simply do not work. She admits feeling dumpy.
• Carrying a purse.
• Heather misses exercise; the ability to move, stretch, run.
• She misses financial independence. It was something Heather always looked forward to doing. She was ecstatic to turn 16 and begin working at the local movie theater, eventually becoming an associate manager.
• Heather misses nursing school. She desperately wishes that the accident hadoccurred after completing her education because even though she would be unable to physically practice as an RN, she could share her expertise with others. Heather could, at the very least, tell people she was an RN.
• Heather misses cleaning. She enjoyed contributing to household work, helping to put things in order.
• “Most of all, I think, I miss being independent. I'm an adult, but I have to rely on others for all of my physical needs... bathing, eating, getting dressed, etc. It would be so nice to be self-sufficient again!”
Heather has lost the dream that meant the most to her, and no it is not a nurse. Heather’s hardest fact to confront was that the odds are incredibly stacked against her being a wife and a mother. She is confident that she would be a phenomenal wife and mother. Heather’s dream crashed the May after her accident. Her sister Sharon was visiting with her two girls. Simply watching the natural interactions between mother and daughters caused the tears to flow.
“ I'm a great catch, but I know I never get a second look from guys when they see my physical handicaps. I'm really lonely in this way, and that makes me sad too.”
Once again Heather triumphed and she learned to love the life she had. Heather sees it as a blessing that she can empathize with other women unable to have children.
“If I can't have children of my own, truly the next best thing is being an aunt. I dearly love my nieces and nephews, and I'm so glad to have them as part of my life.”
Eight years after the accident, life is unrecognizable to what Heather had once clearly envisioned. "I'm almost 26 years old, unmarried, childless and completely disabled. I have no control over my body and I can't even care for my most basic physical needs.”
“I was hit by a distracted driver. The result of this car accident is that I am now paralyzed from the neck down and will be for the rest of my life. My life has been permanently altered”.
Heather does not want pity. She is happy and positive, more than some people who seem to have everything.
“I'm one of the happiest people I know and I think a lot of other people would be happier if they knew what I know. It's true that bad things happen to good people. However, when bad things happen and when trials come it's at that time that you can either embrace your challenges and become a better person, or you can let your challenges destroy you. The latter is probably easier, but for me personally I know I would be missing out on so many awesome opportunities if I didn't try to make the very best of my situation. Sometimes life seems like a long, never ending road, but with a positive attitude and a reliance on the Lord I know ALL things are possible, no matter how daunting they seem!”
“This is what brings me the most joy!”
Heather is absolutely extraordinary. Please check out her blog Paralyzed with Joy.
Thank you Heather!