I lived what most would describe as a normal life. Until I didn't. On August 10, 2013 my life changed forever. While on vacation, I was in a tragic accident where I was run over by a boat and “danced with the propeller.” These injuries left me with an amputated left leg, severely injured right leg, and lacerated right arm. In a matter of seconds, a freak accident changed my life forever.
Before that weekend lake trip, I was a working Mom, the mother of a two year old and four year old. I was a wife and friend and daughter. I was an executive at a company I loved. Every day was busy, filled with independent activities, many of which I took for granted. Then instantly, I was snuggling with my kids from a hospital bed and crawling up stairs at home to sing them to sleep. My husband became an instant caregiver. My work was on hold. Even something as simple as brushing my teeth or taking a shower required assistance. I distinctly remember my Mother-in-Law washing my hair in my living room.
Six weeks after my accident, I received my first fitting for a prosthetic leg. It was amazing and sad and humbling and surreal all at the same time. When I first stood up, I felt so tall since I had been sitting down for so many days in a row. I remember the leg looking like a big Barbie-colored plastic blob and secretly hating it, as this leg was clearly not my leg. But this leg would become the only option I had to regain back my life.
During this era, my other, non-amputated leg was actually the bigger problem. I had a giant wound that needed constant care from medical staff. A skin graft surgery was necessary to heal the wound and that proved to be more painful than I could have ever imagined. That initial surgery was followed by clunky leg braces, painful weight-bearing steps, terrible orthopedic shoes and eventually a surgery that rewired my tendons to allow me to walk without a brace.
There were days during my recovery where I had a great perspective and attitude. But there were also many days I was essentially moving through the grieving process. I remember the Anger Days, as I call them, punching my fists into my bed and wailing “why me?!”. I remember the dark days of winter during the Depression Days where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out the other side.
Like all of us, I didn’t want to stay depressed or angry or bitter. That was not the life I wanted to lead. I realized I was going to have to work just as hard at the emotional healing as I was on the physical side. I sought out friends and family and professional counseling. I also found my inner strength and tapped into a well I didn’t even realize I had before my accident.
I started to be conscious about what tactics were helping me heal. These were insightful, key moments that became treasures along this unexpected path. I remember that first morning after my accident, while lying in the hospital bed, telling my husband and a few others that everything was going to be alright. “I’m going to write a book, become a professional speaker and work one day a month.” This was never a notion that had entered my brain before but I started to use it as a north star during my recovery process. I documented my learnings – on the good and bad days – via a blog I shared with others. I read books to broaden my ideas. I watched TED talks. I actually vowed to do my own TED talk and last month I actually did! I received a standing ovation and I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. I’m still working on that book, but it’s a goal for 2018!
Here is a summary version of a few of the things I learned during my unexpected journey.
PERSPECTIVE IS KING.
It’s a common phrase to hear or say, “wow that puts things in perspective” when you hear some tragic news. This notion is powerful, but often short-lived. Once the next distraction enters our brain, we typically let go of the power to see the important versus the trivial.
Through my recovery process, I learned I had to find ways to make perspective last. I would do this by simply – and actively – focusing on it. I would ask myself questions such as “how could this situation be worse” or “what’s the hidden advantage?” These re-framing tools were essential to my accident recovery. I challenge you to ask yourself five ways your situation could be worse next time you find yourself struggling with something big or small. Make yourself write it down. It’s amazing how it can change your outlook. It was my best go-to tool on my hardest days.
PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY GOOD.
And I'm not even talking about family and friends, that's coming. I'm talking about the general public. We see a lot of bad stuff on the news and hear terrible stories. But I can tell you I've witnessed another side of people. Whether it was a guy I had met once finding my phone number and delivering me a special bed for my living room from his mattress store to help me recover at home or the strangers that give me high fives when I’m doing something active today, good people are everywhere.
VALUE YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS.
We all know this at some level. My accident and recovery taught me this in spades. When someone in your circle is hurting, it’s critical to show up. You don’t have to say the right thing (there isn’t a right thing to say) or do something miraculous, you just have to be there. That can mean mowing a lawn or delivering a meal or sending a card to let them know you care. It really matters. This support was critical to me and I learned so much about what it means to have your circle.
I thought I was resourceful. I would have labeled myself as “scrappy” (in a good sense). After going through my recovery process where every single daily routine was a challenge, I discovered a whole new level of resourcefulness.
In the early months after my accident, I couldn’t participate in my kids’ bedtime routines. Their bedrooms were upstairs and I was in a wheelchair. This special and snuggly part of the day was sacred to me as a working mom. One day I couldn’t take it anymore so I found a way to get out of my wheelchair and crawl up the stairs. I would rock my daughter to sleep and text my husband to come and transfer her to her bed. Then I would crawl to my son’s room and read books and snuggle. I was forced to either get resourceful or miss out. So I got resourceful.
We all have a level of faith that is unique and means something different to us. My personal brand of faith and the faithful support many others gave to me helped me make it through. I remember almost every single moment of the accident. From being pulled under the boat to the ER nurses cutting off my swimsuit. But I don't remember swimming out from under the boat. It's the one black hole I have. I can't even adequately describe the magnitude of this missing link in my brain, but let me just say I don't believe I saved myself without help. And throughout the journey, having faith really helped me get through.
KIDS ARE AWESOME.
Clearly we all love our kids and I am no different - I love my kids more than anything I can put into words. They saved me from that very first moment under the boat. I distinctly remember thinking “I am not going to leave them without a Mother”. And through my journey, I've witnessed a new vantage point on the beautiful naivety and unconditional love kids naturally have. Often, completely unprompted and always at just the right moment, my son will say to me, "Mom, you are walking really good!" or "Wow, you just walked up that hill super fast!". He seems to know at some instinctually caring level how to find these kinds of words. And all little girls emulate their mamas. They wear their shoes. Or hold their purses. Or pretend to cook or shop or drive a bulldozer or whatever it is their mother does on a regular basis (threw that last one in to recognize all the kick-tail mamas out there :). My daughter will sometimes wear a little leg warmer and call it her prosthetic leg. She did this for the first time, unprompted, at two years old. Solidarity.
PEOPLE ARE GOING THROUGH STUFF.
We've all heard the adage that everyone is fighting a battle of some sort, so be kind. If I saw a quote of that nature prior to the accident, I wouldn't have really thought about it much. Of course we should all try to be kind, got it. But as I've said before, people tell me things now as a way to relate and I'm always taken aback at the variety of challenges people are handling each and every day. Give people grace, because everyone is dealing with something challenging to them.
FIND A WAY TO BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
I distinctly remember some dark winter days where I didn’t think I would ever truly be happy again after my accident. I couldn’t shower without assistance. Walking to the bedroom felt like the Boston marathon. Though I was trying desperately to be positive, I was struggling to believe I could find a way through this disruption to a (dreaded term) “new normal.”
Once I started to realize my ability to see and believe a positive outcome was crucial, I focused on what it would take to make me believe. I started to document every little step of my progress to help me see an upward trend versus obsessing about the challenge du jour. Put in ponytail today. Wore prosthetic leg for two hours straight. I forced myself out of my comfort zone time and again to build some leading indicators of success. For instance, I went zip-lining in Mexico five months after my accident versus canceling the planned vacation. I’ll never forget the feeling of the wind on my face and the belief in my heart.
YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK.
My husband and I have reflected on how we learned you can handle so much more than you think. If someone would have told me the day before my accident what I would have to face, I never would have believed I could have dealt with it. Though I have always been a person who is confident I can handle most situations and generally dive in without thinking twice, situations like this tend to be at a level beyond our ability to fathom. Can I handle moving to a new city without knowing a single soul there, sure! Can I figure out how to care for a newborn, let's do this! Can I survive when my leg is cut off, what?? But you just do. People will tell me I'm an inspiration or that they couldn't have handled what I have handled. You don't know until it happens and you would surprise yourself with what you can do. Trust me, you can handle more than you think.
PS - Here’s the link to my TED talk if you want to check it out: