SISTER, INTERRUPTED: A TRUE STORY
You’re 17 years old. You wake up Monday morning at a friend’s house. She lives on a winding mountain road somewhere in Shingle Springs, California. It’s one of those teacher meeting days. No school today. A senior in high school, a member of student council, a cheerleader, a model, a beauty pageant winner — you’re on top of the world in and out of the classroom. Your grades are not great but you have big ambitions. You want to study business and make a million. You should be thinking about which college will get you there. Instead, you’re preparing for a nationwide beauty pageant. Between parties, that is.
The relentless rain doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the day off. Your boyfriend arrives sometime after breakfast in his late model Porsche. He’s handsome, confident, strong. The envy of every guy at school because he’s picking you up for a day of fun.
You wave goodbye to your friend and her mom.
You do not put on your seat belt. Later, the firemen will say that it wouldn’t have mattered.
Your boyfriend is no better or worse a driver than any other teenage boy. He swerves around bends in the road on the slick surface as you chatter about music, checking your make up and hair in the visor mirror. Your boyfriend decides the music has to change. Maybe you don’t like it. Or maybe he doesn’t like it. He fiddles with the tape player. Something is wrong with the tape. He needs to look at it. He takes his eyes off the slippery road for just a moment.
One fateful moment.
He loses control of the car. Your stomach is in your throat as the car fishtails. Spins. Instinctively, your right foot braces against the floor as if pressing the brakes. Your whole body tenses. The wild screech of tires. A sickening crash against a tree. You don’t see it coming. You’re in the “murder seat.” The car collides with the tree trunk on your side. Against your window. Your skull takes the brunt of the monstrous blow.
My sister, Danielle, is on the left. She was crowned Miss Teen El Dorado in 1987.
A nurse is driving to work. She comes across the disaster. She stops and talks to your boyfriend, who is still strapped into the car. He is disoriented, dazed. Unhurt. She sees the blood covering you, spattering your side of the Porsche. She throws a tarp over the car. She then runs to the nearest house and calls 911.
Life Flight can’t get to you because of the trees.
You arrive at the local hospital in an ambulance, but they soon discover that you’re too far gone for their expertise. Emergency vehicles carry you to another hospital. In Sacramento. The clock is ticking. They are almost certain you will die.
But you are unaware of this. You are in a coma. The devastating injury to your brain has ripped you from consciousness. From your friends. Your family. Football games and parties. Pageants and graduation.
Your life has ended. But your body carries on.
For eight months you are in a coma. It’s not like in the movies. You awaken very slowly. At first, you open your eyes but you are not awake. The nurses put drops in your unseeing eyes to keep them wet because you don’t know to blink. Your family members hold your hand and you grasp back — not out of love but because it’s a reflex, the doctor says. A simple physical reflex. Nothing more.
Day by day, you emerge from the deep, deep sleep.
You are moved to a long-term facility in Pacifica, California. The Greenery. Although you can breathe on your own, you’re fed through a stomach tube and your mouth is thick with thrush from the constant antibiotics. Your eyes are open and wide with terrors that only you can see. They place you in a room with another teenage girl who is in a vegetative state after a similar injury. She has been there quite a while. She will be there the rest of her life.
When the doctors aren’t looking, your desperate mother puts drops of Bach Flower Remedies in your mouth.
After several weeks, you still cannot walk or talk. You cannot swallow. The first words you communicate are written with a felt pen on a portable whiteboard with the help of a nurse who holds the tablet for you. You do not write in English, your native language. For mysterious reasons, your tortured neurons reach for a language you had started learning in high school. Spanish.
Danielle as a toddler wearing a colander on her head.
“Te amo,” you write to your sister. I love you.
You do not remember the accident. You do not remember what happened two minutes ago. Or an hour ago. Or a week ago.
Your friends disappear. They are only 17 years old themselves and they cannot drive to Pacifica. But you don’t know they are gone. You barely recognize your family. Your parents take an early retirement and devote the rest of their years to your care, even though they aren’t capable. Born before The Depression, they don’t trust the government. They lie on legal documents so that you fall through the cracks.
Your parents say you cannot take normal showers, as a piece of your brain remains in your ear canal. If it gets wet, you could die from an infection. Surgery is too risky. This is not true, but it is what they believe. You go to the hairdresser once per week for a hair wash in the bowl. Ears well protected. Hygiene is always challenging, but your mother sticks with it.
Over the years, your vocabulary improves, as does your sense of humor, but you will never hold a job. For years you are wheelchair-bound. Your parents build a ramp to the front door. When you eventually regain use of your legs, you wear braces. But at least you’re walking. And communicating. Even if you don’t know where you are.
Your IQ has been torn in half. You are an 8-year-old trapped in an aging body. You have no concept of yesterday. Or tomorrow.
You tell people that Jesus did this to you. Jesus did this because you were headed down the wrong path. You were running with the Devil. Getting drunk at those parties. Jesus saved you by putting you in a coma.
There’s a lawsuit. Your family wins, but they can’t collect the $1.4 million that the court has awarded you because your boyfriend’s family immediately declares bankruptcy. The auto insurance company pays his policy limit of $100K. Every penny goes to the health insurance company under subrogation.
It angers you that people are always helping you. You are not allowed to do anything you want to do. You cannot drive. You cannot even go for a walk by yourself. People call you “disabled.” You hate that word. You are not “disabled.” You are fine. Nothing is wrong, you say. A problem with your balance is all, and your ear. You are often overwhelmed with rage. Your neuropsychologist helps you come to terms with your injury somewhat. He teaches you to use a calendar journal to keep track of what you eat and where you go. Otherwise, you would have no idea where the minutes went. Whom you have seen.
What day it is.
It’s your birthday. You are 42 years old. And 8 years old. Your parents have died. You did not mourn either of them. The part of your brain that emotionally connects you with other people was damaged that day so many years ago. When the car hit the tree. You have trouble connecting with people. You say “I love you” because it is something you say back. A verbal reflex. Nothing more.
You still have feelings.
Danielle learning to cook chicken enchiladas.
Your parents isolated you for 25 years, so you have no friends. No peers. Just a few family members who live far away, visiting when they can. Trying to have the relationship with you they could never have when your parents lived. They call to wish you a happy birthday. An old friend of the family checks on you. She lives across the street. Your full-time caregivers and the Public Guardian work steadily to reconnect you to the world. To keep you from harm. To teach you living skills you never learned. Like cooking.
You sing in your parent’s church choir despite your hearing loss. The church ladies pick you up from home to go to practice and take you back.
Thanks to the government, a little church assistance, and a special needs trust, you are well cared for. You are unaware of the political battles snipping away at your safety net.
You watch the TV with the volume low. Sometimes you lean forward and talk to the people on the TV screen in quiet, rambling sentences. Caregivers come and go. The TV people are always there.
Reading is difficult. You use a bookmark but you don’t remember what you just read. Your caregivers take you out to eat. To the movies. To the grocery store. And to shop. You’ve always loved shopping for clothes. Your taste in colors is impressive. You email your sister every day. Sometimes in the middle of the night. Every hour is the same. And she replies.
Beauty pageant trophies gather dust on the cluttered piano top. Newspaper clippings about high school triumphs turn yellow in gummy photo albums.
You insist nothing is wrong with you. You’re not an “invalid.”
What is the name of your caregiver again?
You are happier than ever.
The doctor asks you how you hurt your leg yesterday, but your brain can’t remember. Instead, it creates a new “memory” that little resembles what actually happened. To fill the memory void, your brain spins stories about your life. You do not realize that these are fantasies. Confabulations. To you, the stories you tell about your life are reality. Stories about your two sons. Your stint in the Marine Corps. Your marriage to your high school sweetheart who works in construction. Your successful career as a federal judge in Sacramento.
None of these things ever happened.
None of them ever will.
This is my sister’s story. This blog post only touches the devastating effects of this injury and the dangers of distracted driving, especially for teens. John Hopkins University says that someone with an undergraduate degree is seven times more likely to completely recover from a traumatic brain injury than someone who hasn’t completed high school. For more information, please check out the website for the Brain Injury Association of America.
Originally published April 30, 2014 on www.mariaalexander.net.