by Wendy Badman
The seatbelt I was wearing that ordinary day saved my life, I was told, as the EMT’s cut the pants I was wearing off my legs and took my vital signs en route to the trauma center of the local hospital. Unimaginable pain pulsed through my body. From what I was able to piece together, the company car that I was a passenger in was rear ended by a box truck and pushed down the road while the driver of the vehicle I was in kept his foot on the brake. The crushing impact sent me flying into the dashboard, knocking me unconscious, the seatbelt then pulled me back with such force it broke the seat. When I regained consciousness, the first sounds I heard were of Larry in the drivers seat screaming, blood dripped down his face from a laceration. My seat was in the horizontal position, on top of Frank, the passenger in the back. I blacked out for a short period of time. When I regained consciousness again, Frank and Larry were no longer in the car with me. I tried to sit up, but the pain was excruciating in my head, hip, thigh and ankle.
“Is your ring ok?” asked my fiancé Steve upon arrival to the ER trauma center. Fortunately my engagement ring was undamaged, unlike the rest of my body that was being poked, prodded and x- rayed. Our wedding was only 4 months away, this accident was most definitely not on the to do list.
I spent three days in the ICU before being released from the hospital on crutches. In addition to a head concussion, my heart was bruised and I was not able to put any weight on my right leg, an appointment was made to see an orthopedic doctor.
A sense of panic and despair accompanied the pain I felt, most especially after my leg turned blue during dinner shortly after arriving back home to my family’s house in Northeast Philadelphia. There was hardly any relief from the agony. Looking at my leg caused extreme discomfort, sitting was torturous and sleeping in my bed was near next to impossible, the mattress was to hard and hurt my body. I spent the majority of my day and evenings sitting with my legs up on the couch in the family room.
The orthopedic doctor believed my hip dislocated and popped back in from the combined force of the truck impact and seat belt restraint, causing damage to the soft tissue in the hip socket. The swelling in my knee and ankle were most likely from hitting the dashboard and floorboard. He prescribed Physical Therapy to begin immediately.
“You can cry all you want to during PT, “ said Jeff Jaurigue, the Physical Therapist assigned to my case. “My job is to get you up and walking again for before your wedding day.” Session one was spent answering questions and testing my abilities. Everything hurt, I could not tolerate any pressure on my right leg at all. Afterwards Jeff informed me that he believed I sustained damage to the sympathetic nerve for my right leg and hip and recommended I make an appointment to see a neurologist. An appointment with Dr. David Tabby confirmed Jeff’s suspicions, the sympathetic nerve in my right leg/hip was damaged, the diagnosis was reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. The goal of the treatment was to stop the progression of the syndrome, manage the pain and regain the mobility and functionality of my right leg and hip.
In addition to the blue tinge, the skin on my lower leg was shiny, it was hypersensitive to the touch, even fabric caused intense pain, my leg was swollen, especially at the hip, knee and ankle and it was impossible for me to attempt to stand on the leg without it buckling and causing excruciating pain.
Fortunately for me, Jeff and Dr. Tabby formulated a game plan that included PT 3-5 days a week and medication to help manage and hopefully put the syndrome into remission. Jeff had studied RSD extensively for his masters degree and had an arsenal of treatment therapies. PT was akin to a torture session.
“It might be difficult to believe at the moment, “ Jeff said during one of our more painful PT sessions, “your body will get used to living with a certain level of pain.”
Jeff was right, I didn’t believe him and in fact thought he was crazy, maybe even sadistic.
Some of the highlights from my PT sessions included desensitizing my leg to temperature and touch. Easier said than done. One exercise involved sitting in a high metal chair and immerse my leg into a warm whirlpool tub for five minutes, then plunge my leg into a bucket of ice. I passed out from the pain the first time this was attempted and had to be strapped to the chair to prevent toppling over into the whirlpool at future sessions.. Another device routinely used in therapy was a machine I had to stick my leg into, when the start button was pressed the warm ground up corn cobs would toss and tumble around my leg. An Electric acupressure pen that measured electric current along the nerve was routinely used along with conventional techniques of, therapy bands, weights, stationary bike riding and using the therapy bars to try and walk.
Some of the biggest challenges I faced were outside of the physical therapy room. My supervisor at work informed me that I was not allowed to return to the office until I could stand for twelve hours. I wasn’t able to put weight on my right leg much less walk without the use of crutches to get around. It also didn’t matter that my current job description along with the new job I was promoted to didn’t entail standing for that many hours.
My family was extremely supportive during my recovery. It was not easy losing my independence. My parents had to drive me to doctors appointments and physical therapy sessions since my condition left me unable to exert any pressure on my right leg, I was not able to drive myself anywhere. Steve, my fiancé` lived over an hour away, we spoke on the phone in the evenings and he came to visit me on the weekends.
Wedding plans helped to occupy many of the hours of the day not spent in physical therapy. I taught myself calligraphy and practiced writing so I could hand address all of the wedding invitations and return envelopes. Most of the arrangements for the wedding were completed prior to my accident. The last minute details of finalizing a band and videographer were still chores that I could handle from the couch. I scoured bridal magazines, watched and listened to band highlights reels as well as played musical chairs with the table arrangements for the wedding reception.
My wedding gown had to be altered to accommodate flat shoes while I stood with the aid of crutches in the bridal store. Eight weeks prior to the wedding it was still unclear if I would be crutching or walking down the aisle. Jeff insisted that I start to wear my updated wedding shoes to physical therapy to help me prepare for the big day.
Progress was painfully slow. Although I should have been happy to graduate from the use of crutches to a cane to walk, it was not easy on the ego being 24 years old and having the walking gait of an 80 something year old.
A series of three lower lumbar sympathetic nerve blocks were ordered for the week of my wedding. These injections were very painful and required that I lay on a hospital gurney in a contorted position while a series of needles were injected next to my spine that blocked the messages the damaged nerve was sending to my brain. After the injections I went directly to physical therapy.
It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, it took an party of bridesmaids to get me into my wedding gown. Two to hold me up and two plus my mom and neighbor to get the gown over my head since it was impossible for me to step into the gown. Instead of crutches I relied on the steady arms of my parents Harry and Diane to hold me up as I slowly, inched my way down the aisle in a shuffle drag step kind of way. My cane was wrapped in white silk, I stood and swayed during the first dance with my husband Steve. This wasn’t the wedding I dreamed of but my family and friends made it memorable as well as wonderful.
Adjusting to life as a newlywed has it’s own unique trials and tribulations. Moving from the city of Philadelphia to rural Upper Bucks County took some adjustments, it was quite a culture shock. My entire support network as well as doctors and physical therapist were over an hour away. I was still not able to drive or walk very well with the assistance of a cane. My new “neighborhood” had one neighbor, no sidewalks and lots of trees and time to fill on the days that I was not going to physical therapy.
Seconds ticked slowly by into minutes. My only company were my two cats Spike and Elvira. Spike was still a kitten at six months old, I decided to see if I could teach him dog tricks. Elvira enjoyed sitting on the back of the couch watching. Spike learned how to fetch and retrieve, could play “dead kitty” and jump in the air and flip. Spike was also a daredevil, he enjoyed leaping onto the shower curtain rod and walking it like a tightrope and could surf on a boogie board when our basement flooded each time it rained.
Minutes turned into hours. I devoured all the novels on the best selling list and some that were not. Never thought I would look forward to the torture sessions with Jeff.
A few months after my wedding I was informed via a letter that the my services were no longer needed at the company I had worked at since graduating college. I lost my job, my work family and sense of self worth.
I had to reinvent myself beyond changing my name on my driver’s license and social security card.
I decided that I would take this time to learn something new each day, something that I always wanted to know or do, first on my list was to teach myself how to cook, might as well put to use the gifts I had gotten at my bridal shower. Each day I attempted a new dish, which made my husband very happy!
My mother in law gave me a used sewing machine that I had no idea what to do with, so I taught myself how to sew and decided to start to make teddy bears to give as gifts to my family and friends who were starting families of their own. It took me over nine hours to create each bear. After using bear patterns for the first few bears, I designed my own pattern and ended up making over 100 bears. I had always wanted to learn how to quilt, so I did just that, made a quilt for my sister.
Cooking was good, but baking bread was more time consuming and you got to punch down the dough, great stress reliever, I learned to make a variety of different types of bread.
Apple pie became my signature dessert dish, an apple tree grew next to our driveway. I baked pies for the doctors who injected me with the nerve blocks and the PT department that tortured me and of course made pies for my family.
A family friend told me I should learn about computers, he helped me select an affordable IBM PC, and I spent hours learning how to use it, design with it and manage the family finances with the programs.
My father always planted beautiful flower gardens in our front and back yards in Philadelphia. He helped me get the supplies to start a flower and vegetable garden from seeds. Steve would transplant the flowers and veggies outdoors once the danger of frost had passed.
It was over two years before I was cleared by doctors to be able to start to drive a car again. I had to find a way back into the workforce and get my career back on track.
The job search was daunting and filled with rejection letters from prospective employers. I decided to reach out to the local non profit organizations in the area to volunteer my time and talents and network. I worked with the local historical society, which lead to helping out with historical society in the town next to mine, which opened up an opportunity to assist with the public relations and marketing of a new theater. Writing press releases and photographing the cast of the plays at the theater opened the door to freelance writing and photography assignments at the local newspapers.
I had come full circle, back to what I had loved doing originally all of my life, writing, serving my community and capturing history in the making with my camera. Although my body and spirit had been broken, the journey back to myself was very rewarding. Normal isn’t what it used to be, but that is alright, because I am living proof that what doesn’t kill you, most definitely makes you stronger.