I don’t know how long I had been staring at the clock, but it felt like hours. Strangely, it also felt like minutes. I was having trouble figuring out the difference.
My eyes wandered from the clock to the room ― a sterile room with white walls, beeping machines and an uncomfortable bed. I was lying in the bed with my neck secured in a brace and my wrists tied loosely to the siderails. I could feel tubes in my nostrils, chest and skull ― though I couldn’t see or touch them. I would later learn that my arms were tied down so that I wouldn’t pull those tubes out.
I knew I was in the hospital, but it would take a while to remember what happened. I wiggled my toes. They moved. Well, that’s a good start, I thought.
I turned my attention back to the clock. No matter how long a stared at it, I couldn’t tell the time. I could read the numbers, but I didn’t remember which hand told the hours and which one told the minutes. Come on, I thought. You knew this yesterday.
I looked at the date written on the whiteboard next to the clock: Sept. 22. Clearly the last day I remembered wasn’t yesterday. In fact, 12 days had passed.
The World Went Dark
Just “yesterday” I was doing yoga and power walking through my Denver neighborhood. I was 30 years old and had just moved to the city to start an evening law-school program.
It was a warm night, and I had stopped to buy a bottle of wine on my way home from class. I planned to open it when I got home to celebrate the completion of my first month of school. Unfortunately, not everyone on the road that night waited until they got home to imbibe.
What happened that night is etched in my mind forever ― a scar as permanent as the ones on my body. After making my purchase, I pulled out of the parking lot to drive the last two minutes home. But I would not see the inside of my apartment again for nearly two months.
I felt the other vehicle as it smashed into my driver’s side door and pushed my car down the road. I heard the resounding BANG of the impact, then everything went still. I will never forget the silence, as my world split into before and after.
In time, I would learn that I was hit by a driver whose blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit. I broke eight ribs, my skull, clavicle, left hip, sacrum and two pubic bones. My diaphragm was torn. My spleen was removed. My lung collapsed. My arteries were mangled. I had a pseudoaneurysm, brain hemorrhaging and frontal lobe damage. I was code blue ― meaning that I was in respiratory arrest and had stopped breathing. I needed an emergency tracheal intubation and ventilator to keep me alive.
When I had pulled out of that parking lot at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday 10 years ago, there happened to be a paramedic team parked in their ambulance outside the coffee shop on the corner. If those first responders hadn’t been there, I’d be dead. I may never know their names, but I will never forget what they did for me and my family.
Fighting Through It
For the first two weeks, I faded in and out of consciousness. I remember fear, pain and an incessant beeping, but little else of reality.
At one point I heard someone say, “Can you hear me? You need to be very still.” I opened my eyes and saw faces above me: strangers, maybe doctors. I acknowledged them, and they preceded to take the brace off my neck. I was instantly terrified by how weak my neck felt without it. Then a doctor jabbed something into my jugular vein, and I passed out again.
“The early days in surgical intensive care unit were a mixture of nightmare and drug-induced hallucinations. On the outside, I just appeared to be sleeping, but my mind kept going as if I was ambulatory -- I thought I was literally running around the hospital raging, fighting and screaming -- trying to break free from my prison.”
Another time I awoke to find my mother in the room. Later I heard my brothers, my sister-in-law and my father. This must be bad if my whole family traveled 2,000 miles to get here, I thought to myself.
I lived far away from my East Coast home and was very focused on building my career and reaching my educational goals. I had spent so much of my adult life keeping the people I love at a distance. I wanted to be worldly and independent. For some reason, I felt that I needed to be by myself to be myself. Yet in this cold hospital room, all I wanted was the comfort of my family.
The early days in surgical intensive care unit were a mixture of nightmares and drug-induced hallucinations. On the outside, I just appeared to be sleeping, but my mind kept going as if I was ambulatory — I thought I was literally running around the hospital raging, fighting and screaming — trying to break free from my prison. There were often sounds of distress in the distance — noisy machines, yelling, intercom announcements — and I would pick up these ICU sounds in my hallucinations.
At one point, I thought a nurse offered me a magic elixir that would take my pain away. I was a bit frightened and kindly declined the offer. He insisted and stabbed me in the neck with a needle. He then turned into a griffin and flew away. In reality, someone was probably just moving the central IV line that was in my jugular vein.
One night, two nurses stole me from the hospital and wheeled my bed down the streets of Denver, ultimately leaving me in a shopping mall food court. On another night, there was a circus performance in my room. Later, I escaped the hospital and fled to Mexico, which happened to be on the other side of Colorado’s Royal Gorge.
When I was conscious, I would mouth words about circuses and travel and magic potions. To me, those experiences were as real as the hospital. No one knew what I was talking about, but I know those active dreams and hallucinations kept me focused on fighting to live.
After about two weeks in ICU, I was weaned off some of the heavier meds and had more conscious moments. Although I was making progress, my lucid hours in the ICU were maddening. The medication took the pain away to some degree, but nothing could be done to eliminate the discomfort of my swollen and bruised body, nasal-gastric tube, inability to get out of bed to use the bathroom and panic attacks.
The panic attacks came at night, when my family was back at my apartment sleeping and the ICU was eerily dark and quiet. I was terrified of falling asleep and accidentally detaching a tube and never waking up again. I was also frustrated because the tubes limited my movement and the ventilator prevented me from calling out for help.
I often forgot I had a call button, so I would deliberately detach my monitors so the alarms would go off and a nurse would come check on me. One night, the nurse saw that I was clearly having a panic attack, and she gave me her arm to hold onto. I held on tight, and she said everything was going to be alright. She didn’t leave my side until I calmed down and eventually drifted to sleep. I would learn to express affection in this way ― an exchanged forearm squeeze was a way to show love when the rest of my body couldn’t be touched. I found it soothing.
Slowly, my mind and body began to heal. Each morning, my mom would ask me if I knew where I was and what happened to me. She would fill in the blanks for me, but would always start by assuring me that I was going to heal ― it would just take time.
Eventually, I started to believe her. I was feeling more human each day. A therapist would come into my room every morning and help me sit in a large contraption that she called a chair ― it looked like a cross between a dentist’s chair and an upright bed. The purpose of the “chair” is to help bedridden patients who are on a ventilator to sit up and open their airways. I hated that thing! I just wanted to lie down and sleep away my misery. But I did as I was told. I did everything I could to improve.
While I was sitting in the chair one day, I looked down at my legs. I had always hated my short, pale and muscular legs. But now they were skinny, bruised and atrophied. I thought about all those times I had wished for skinny legs. Well, I had them now, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I just wanted my strong legs to carry me again.
Nineteen days after the crash, I was making noticeable improvements. I learned to read the clock again and hold limited conversations by using the whiteboard and mouthing words. Then something went wrong. My heart rate climbed dangerously high and I couldn’t breathe.
“There’s a thunderstorm in my chest,” I mouthed. I sat up and my machines sounded noisily. Everything started spinning. Pain pulsed through my body. I passed out and began to dream.
I was in a large circular room that was empty, other than my hospital bed. There were no more beeping machines. There were no more needles and tubes. It was quiet, and I was comfortable for the first time in so long. There were tranquil scenes on the ceiling. Stars. Red rocks. A setting sun.
I was in a planetarium! I had such fond memories of visiting the planetarium when I was in grade school, which must have been why I went there in my mind. It was my happy place. I watched as the sun set and the stars brightened. I wanted to fold myself into the scene and forget all my troubles, but I was interrupted.
A helicopter landed in my planetarium and someone stepped out.
“It’s time to come back,” a female voice said. A nurse? I looked to my right and saw a middle-age blonde woman who was wearing scrubs and a gentle but firm smile. Definitely a nurse.
I shook my head. “No, I’m staying here.”
She sighed. “We don’t have much time,” she said. “You have to get in the helicopter now.”
I ignored her. I wanted to stay in the planetarium where I felt no pain.
“Your mom is waiting for you,” the nurse said. “Don’t you want to see her again?”
Oh, I had forgotten about my mom. I imagined her crying, waiting for me to return. It would break her heart if I didn’t go back. I realized that I wanted to keep fighting.
I got out of bed, got dressed, and took the nurse’s hand as she hastily led me into the helicopter and we flew out of the planetarium.
I opened my eyes and slammed against reality without warning or buffer. I was no longer dreaming about the planetarium. I was back in the bright, loud and painful reality of the ICU.
Three days had passed while I was in the planetarium. I had lost consciousness and was near death as bacterial pneumonia took over my lungs and medical professionals swarmed my bed.
My parents were told to leave the ICU. “We’re doing everything we can. We really liked her,” a nurse said as they were guided to the door.
“Liked?” my mom asked with desperation as she lingered on the past-tense word.
My parents had massages scheduled for that afternoon and they decided to keep the appointment because they could worry just as well during a massage as they could while sitting in the hospital cafeteria.
Halfway through the massage, my mom felt a calm wash over her. She felt in her heart that I had jumped the hurdle and was going to live. She was right.
As the fluids filled my lungs and I came close to dying, the doctors made their last attempts to save my life. They flipped me into a face-down position, a technique to improve oxygenation when other methods fail. My lungs responded.
“My mind and body had to relearn everything: how to brush my hair, put on socks and take a sit-down shower. Although it was frustrating to struggle so hard to do the things I gave little thought to a mere five weeks earlier, I didn’t complain much. I was so happy to have a second chance at life.”
As I was coming back to reality from the planetarium, a young doctor I was fond of whispered to me excitedly, “We found the bug.” I was then treated with the right antibiotics and was given steroids to strengthen my lungs. I vastly improved from that point on.
Life After Near-Death
I began to measure my daily progress by how many machines and tubes the doctors removed. First the ventilator, then the feeding tube, then the central IV in my jugular. All of these were removed within 10 days of the pneumonia incident, and I was relocated to a rehabilitation center.
I have heard people say that ICU is hardest on the family and rehab is hardest on the patient. But whoever said that never spent a month in intensive care. Yes, rehab was hard, but I had so many more freedoms than in the ICU, especially as I learned to move around again.
My mind and body had to relearn everything: how to brush my hair, put on socks and take a sit-down shower. Although it was frustrating to struggle so hard to do the things I gave little thought to a mere five weeks earlier, I didn’t complain much. I was so happy to have a second chance at life.
My time in rehab lasted only two weeks ― not because I was well enough to be on my own ― but because my medical insurance only covered a two-week stay. I am so grateful to my mom, who had the dedication and the means to drop everything in her life. She moved into my apartment for more than three months to take care of me.
My mom and I often talk about how it wasn’t “my” accident, it was “our” shared experience. She went through every step with me. Five years later, I would take her on a trip to India and Nepal, so we could celebrate life and create new bonding memories. But back then, there was more pressing healing to do. By Thanksgiving, I was walking with a cane, and by Christmas, I was strong enough to move into my parents’ condo in Florida.
During the two years that followed the crash, I felt like I was growing up again. In the ICU, I was an infant, completely dependent on others for survival. In rehab, I was a child, learning how to perform basic life functions. After that, I was a teenager, relying on my parents but also striving for my own independence.
I started law school again ― in Miami this time ― a year after I was hit. My brain injury affected my ability to concentrate and to organize information, but I had done so many cognitive exercises and read tons of books to keep my brain active and to prepare for a rigorous legal program. It was a painful first year at law school, but I made adjustments. My body was too weak to carry a backpack full of heavy legal textbooks, so I took the bindings off and carried only the chapters I needed. I couldn’t sit for long periods of time, so I made a standing desk out of pillows to use while studying in my room.
I also learned to ask for help ― from my parents, from my new law school friends and from the school’s disability accommodation office. Something in me had fundamentally changed. I didn’t care about the ultimate outcome of law school. I just wanted to get back to life. Although I was still dedicated to my education, my mental and physical well-being became more important. I spent time in the gym. I forged new friendships. I studied abroad. I learned to let go. It was impossible to worry about my grade in constitutional law after conquering the ICU.
I will always have emotional and physical pain. Sometimes I jump out of bed in the middle of the night, gasping for air, thinking I’m back in the ICU. At times I suffer from intense muscle spasms in my lower back and radiating pain down my left arm and leg. When there are too many conversations happening at once ― at a conference or a dinner party ― I get frustrated and lose my ability to speak or think clearly. It’s as if my brain hits a brick wall and shuts down and I need to be alone to recharge. There are times, particularly after a long flight, that my pelvic injuries feel like they’re on fire. But I vowed to see the world if I made it out of ICU, and I won’t let the pain stop me.
On my 40th birthday last July, 10 years after the crash, I sat on a tranquil Caribbean beach with my amazing husband, who I met during my travels after graduating law school. I got up to take a walk along the shore and to think about how far I’ve come. I thought about the first steps I took in rehab, when I leaned on a walker with my shaky hands and hoped my atrophied legs would hold me up. You can do this, I told myself ― and I did. But I didn’t do it alone. I had the walker, the physical therapist and an army of supporters.
A decade later, as I walked down the beach, I looked at my sturdy legs. They were pale and muscular again, and I had never been happier. I took many steps since the crash: around the world, down the aisle, into the unknown and always home for visits. I will take many more steps in life, but I now know that no matter what comes my way, I won’t have to take those steps alone.
LiAnn Piazza is a legal journalist in Washington, D.C. When she isn’t writing about employment and labor law, she is traveling the world with her husband ― and writing about it. She is the proud parent of three little cats and one big dog. Follow her on Twitter at @LiAnnTravels and her website LiAnnandTheo.com.