July 31, 2014
I remember that day well. It was a sunny, beautiful day and I was at work when I got the call. When I saw my husband’s name on my cell’s caller ID, I assumed he was calling to say hello or ask what I wanted for dinner. I was not prepared for what I heard when I answered the phone.
“My mom was in a really bad car accident. I don’t think she’s going to make it.”
His voice was shaky, but clear and I could tell that he was trying to hold it together, trying not to panic. As my brain slowly processed the information I started to ask the usual… what, where, how?
“She had Bria and a couple of her friends with her. They are saying someone died on scene but nobody knows who yet. I’m really scared that it’s Bria.”
Bria is our niece (my husband’s sister’s daughter) and she was 14 years old at the time of the accident. Bria was born just a few weeks after our wedding, the first grandchild for my in-laws.
We started to make plans. I was at work, an hour away from my husband. And the accident happened in Charleston, South Carolina which was a 14 hour drive from our home. I left work immediately and phoned my parents to make arrangements for our kids. We debated on whether to take them with us in case there wound up being a funeral, but we decided to leave them at home with my parents since we had no idea what was going on in South Carolina. My sister-in-law was in Columbia, South Carolina, two hours away from the accident. So by the time I got home from work, she still hadn’t made it to the hospital to learn her daughter’s fate.
My husband and I packed hurriedly and started driving south. I found a news report of the accident online and they were calling it a fatal crash. I read the comments under the article trying to glean any information. There were actually some comments from someone who witnessed the accident. There were also some hurtful comments – remember family members do read those.
We were in contact with my father-in-law and sister-in-law and information slowly filtered in. My mother-in-law had a significant brain bleed and underwent emergency surgery upon arrival at the hospital. Our niece, Bria, was alive and stable. She had several injuries but none were life-threatening. Bria had two friends with her in the back seat. One was also stable with multiple non-life-threatening injuries. The other friend, Hannah, died at the scene. My mother-in-law had been driving the kids around town in a convertible with the top down. She had lost control of the vehicle and drove into oncoming traffic and was t-boned by a minivan.
After surgery, my mother-in-law did stabilize. My husband decided to take me home to stay with the kids even though we were several hours into the trip. He went to South Carolina alone and spent his days with his dad at his mom’s bedside in the ICU and his nights in a hotel (my in-laws also live in Columbia so they had nowhere to stay in Charleston). The neurologist warned the family that with the amount of cerebral hemorrhage that the MRI’s did not look good. They gave her a very poor prognosis and slim to no chance of recovery. She was in a coma for weeks. As often happens, the family disagreed over what to do. Some wanted to honor her living will and let her go. Others wanted to wait and see and give her a chance.
When she did finally wake weeks later, progress was extremely slow. It was not immediately clear what her prognosis was. The accident had left her with no sight in one eye and limited sight in the other. Her hearing was affected. She had multiple physical injuries. The most significant, though, was the impact of the brain injury. Her brain was swollen and damaged which made everything difficult. She had some intact long-term memory but her short term memory was non-existent.
She learned of Hannah’s death. This may have been harder than overcoming her own injuries. She also had to be told multiple times because her memory wouldn’t let her store the information long. Bria healed physically but struggled emotionally with the loss of her close friend.
As months went by, my mother-in-law slowly improved. She learned to walk again. Her speech improved more slowly but it did improve. Her sight remained limited. Overcoming the effects of the brain injury proved to be her biggest obstacle. She was plagued with headaches and dizziness and she could retain new information for a very short time. My father-in-law retired to care for her at home. She couldn’t be left alone so they hired a part-time homecare nurse to help.
It became clear that their lives had permanently changed. We realized that she would never work again. Prior to the accident she was a vibrant 62 year-old who was a consultant for Alzheimer/dementia patients and their families. She was always on the go. My father-in-law worked two jobs before the accident even though he was retired from the military. Now he was fully retired and caring for his wife who was completely dependent and had many medical needs and was also dealing with grief and guilt issues. The last half of 2014 was tumultuous to say the least.
A lot of emotional healing has happened in this family – for my mother-in-law and between her and her husband, her daughter, her granddaughter and Hannah’s family (who remain their close friends). Right after the accident, the stress of her coma and prognosis caused fractures in the family. These are fractures that have also had to be reopened and healed.
Today, my mother-in-law still walks with a walker. She has regained some of the vision in her better eye. She still has partial hearing loss. She still has some headache and dizziness issues. Her short term memory has improved slightly, but remains a significant setback. Her speech is clear, though slower than it used to be (even slower when she’s tired). She only occasionally stumbles or has to search for words. She still misses Hannah, though she has made peace with Hannah’s family. Overall, she is thankful for a second chance.
Why am I sharing this story? This has obviously changed our family greatly, even more than I can adequately express here. My message is simple. Life can change in a split second. It takes a fraction of a moment to alter the future that we have planned for ourselves. Loved ones can be taken away in a heartbeat. Cherish life. Tell your loved ones what they mean to you. Love and don’t let go.