Lucky to be alive
In recognition of TBI Awarness Month,
I thought it fitting to share an untold part of my headache story.
In early February 1991, my husband and I were traveling home with a friend. We had recently complete Navy Basic Training (yes, we were both enlisted at the same time) and had been stationed in Millington, Tennessee for A-School. Because we were married, we were granted permission to live off-base. We’d found a small duplex about a mile from base and were returning home to retrieve some belongings and our second car. It was a rushed trip as we only had the weekend off.
We took off Friday afternoon as soon as we were relieved of duty and drove through the night, taking turns at the wheel. I was asleep in the back seat and had kicked off my socks and shoes to get more comfortable. Full of a false sense of invincibility, I skipped the seatbelt and lay flat across the bench seat. I was young (barely 21) and filled with that post-boot camp high that makes young sailors feel like they can take on the world.
We were just a few hours from home when all hell broke loose. I woke to the sensation that the car was spinning out of control. Strangely, I remained calm by mentally assuring myself that the car would stop soon and all would be fine. The next thing I remember, I woke up to the sound of running water, feeling very cold and wet. A quick assessment told me that I was definitely not dreaming and no longer in the car. It was pitch black, so I felt around for an escape route. I could feel sharp rocks and cold, wet mud. The running water sounded way too close for comfort. Instinctively, I knew I had to move. Unfortunately, I had landed in a creek bed that had dried up due to freezing conditions. By some miracle I found my way to the edge of the creek and tried to climb the steep muddy wall between me and dry land. That’s when I heard shouts from my husband and friend and called out for help.
My husband was in shock, wandering back and forth between me and the car. Our friend had only sustained minor scrapes and bruises, so he was the one to lift me out of the creek and carry me to safety by the road. When there was finally enough light to see clearly, I looked down to see blood and mud covering the sweatshirt I was wearing. I begged forgiveness for ruining my husband’s favorite shirt, yet it never occurred to me to wonder where all that blood came from.
It was a long walk back up to the roadside. At least it looked that way as I turned to see a flashlight at the top of what looked like a big hill. Our friend carried me all the way, where we were met by a family who had stopped when they saw the accident. Somehow my husband managed to find his way to that minivan, too. What that family was doing on the highway at three in the morning, I will never know, but thank God they were there. Without their quick help, I might have died of hypothermia long before we were discovered.
The seriousness of the accident hit me when my husband turned to me and said, “Tammy, your head is bleeding.” I reached up to touch the right side of my head. When I looked, my hand was covered in blood. My adrenaline rush had worn off as waves of pain coursed through my head and right arm. Feeling cold and wet was least of my problems. I needed medical attention right away.
In a time before cell phones, our only option was to travel to the next exit and find a pay phone to call for help. Our Good Samaritans did all the work, including calling home to wake up my parents with the bad news. I lost consciousness during that short ride and woke to the sound of paramedics trying to get my attention. Disoriented, I complained of feeling cold, irritated that no one would cover up my frozen feet. It never occurred to me that I might have a brain injury.
“Miss Rome, we are flying you to St. Luke’s Hospital. Life Flight will be here soon. Just hang on.” a faceless voice broke through. I mumbled something incoherent and thought, “Crap. It must be serious.”
I learned later that although my husband and friend were taken by ambulance to a hospital just a few miles from the crash site, my head injury was more severe than they were equipped to treat. Instead I was taken by Life Flight to the trauma center at St. Luke’s Hospital in downtown Kansas City. Our Good Samaritans stayed to help the highway patrol make sense of the accident site. They also called my mother. She recounts waking up at 3 AM to a ringing phone, only to hear a stranger’s voice tell her there had been an accident and her daughter was in critical condition, being flown to a trauma center. Mom and Dad didn’t hesitate. Dad drove; Mom panicked, as they made the hour-long trip to learn my fate.
I knew that I was in serious trouble yet I couldn’t stop thinking about my husband. I didn’t know where he was, when I would see him again, or if he was okay. That singular thought crowded out all others. Numb (and still cold!) I only vaguely heard the doctor’s findings. My wrist wasn’t broken but badly sprained. I would need to wear a brace for several weeks. My head wasn’t so lucky. Under that 3 inch laceration was a skull fracture and concussion. Despite a generous helping of pain medicine, my head was pounding so hard I couldn’t even feel it when the nurse stitched up the laceration.
If this occurred now, I would have been admitted for observation. No one understood the dangers of head injuries in 1991. Because I was conscious, I was discharged with instructions to follow up with a doctor. Unfortunately, all of my clothes had been cut off, so I had nothing to wear except my panties. At discharge, a nurse offered me a set of paper scrubs and booties. Humiliated, but naked and cold, I accepted and begged my parents to hurry and avoid stopping anywhere on the way home. Dad agrees, but first we pick up my husband and friend who had been waiting anxiously for news of my condition. Both had small cuts, scrapes and bruises, but no serious injuries.
The patrolman investigating the accident had interviewed them both. No one could make sense of how the accident happened. None of us had been drinking and there were no other cars involved. The accident was ultimately attributed to driver fatigue and “black ice” that caused our friend to lose control of the car. It swerved into a guard rail as we crossed over a bridge. The impact flipped the car into the air. It rolled end-over-end down a hill in the median, landing right-side up just feet from the creek bed. At some point the rear hatchback window was ejected. It was found, undamaged, several yards from the crash site. Not buckled in, I was thrown from the rear window. Blood and hair found on the broken metal frame indicated that my head injury was a result of impact with the car upon exit. I was thrown far enough that I landed in the muddy creek bed. By some miracle, I did not hit any of the sharp rocks that surrounded me.This view from the eastbound side of I-70 shows the steep incline of the hill. It’s actually a lot steeper than it appears! The accident report measured the incline at a 60º angle. It is a 100 foot drop from the bridge to the creek. Arrows show the estimated path of the car. It was winter and the terrain was muddy without live vegetation. The creek bed was dried up with rocks and mud exposed. This is a current aerial map of the accident site. The X is approximately where I landed after being thrown from the car. That location is currently under 7-10 feet of water.
After a few days, we were allowed to retrieve our belongings from the totaled car. The shock of seeing its condition sent my head reeling in pain. Vomiting soon followed. Picking up the accident report was even more traumatic. The report included a sketch detailing the path our car took on its descent down the hill. A return to the crash site the several months later prompted an even more sobering discovery. In warmer weather, that creek bed had filled with rushing water. At any other time of the year, I would have been thrown unconscious into a fast-moving current and drowned within seconds.
I spent the next year on limited duty with lots of physical therapy. I never marched or ran again and have been unable to stand still for more than a few minutes at a time. That 3-inch scar left me with a painful bald spot. Eight years later I began experiencing excruciating pain near the site of this injury that was later diagnosed as Cluster Headache. My doctors now believe this TBI was not properly treated and is the cause of my cluster headaches.
Although not as seriously injured, my husband also sustained permanent damage. His disorientation at the crash site would seem to suggest that he also suffered a TBI. We now believe he was unconscious for most of the accident. Because he was walking and talking when the paramedics arrived, he was never screened for concussion. The ER doctor didn’t even do a basic neurological exam! This incident was the beginning of his experience with migraine which he still experiences today.
Our survival is truly miraculous. I thank God every day for all the unlikely coincidences that protected us.
Am I grateful to have survived? Of course.
Yet I relive the trauma of that night every time my head explodes from a cluster attack.