‘As I was thinking about how wonderful life was, my head slammed into the steering wheel. My final summer was gone.’: Teen suffers brain injury, graduates college, ‘Always have hope’

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“My entire life came crashing to a halt, literally, when I was seventeen years old. It was a warm Wednesday afternoon in May, six days before graduation. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, just seconds before it happened, how lucky I was. I had gone to prom the week before with a cute boyfriend and all of my friends, and I was finishing high school with great grades and a bright future at college where I had been accepted on an academic scholarship. I had everything that a seventeen-year-old girl could ask for. As I continued reflecting on the end of high school on my drive home, it occurred to me that everything in my life was about to change. If only I had realized how much. If only I had left school just a little bit later, or perhaps a few minutes before, maybe everything would be different. But I’ll never know. At the exact moment I was thinking about how wonderful life was, she hit me.

Traffic came to a halt after a wind in the road as a school bus took a right turn, and I stopped behind a line of cars. The next thing I knew, my head slammed into the steering wheel, my body was thrown about in the car as I was rear-ended, and my entire life changed.

I ended up in the hospital with spine, neck, head, and back injuries and a traumatic brain injury. Six days later, I went to high school graduation, quickly taking off my neck brace to walk the stage and get my diploma. The next day, the doctor’s appointments began and I realized my final childhood summer was gone before it had even started, replaced by daily physical therapy, pain management, neurologists, and chiropractor appointments.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

I wore my neck brace all summer, mortified every time I had to go out in public. My sister took me to a movie in July and it was the first time I wore it where I might see someone I knew. I cried in the AMC bathroom as she bought the popcorn, hiding from anyone from high school that might see. My head throbbed every single day, feeling like the worst hangover in the world combined with someone pounding a hammer on my skull and back. Every day, I had to rate my pain for my doctor, one to ten. Every day, it was an eight, unchanging.

I started college at the warning from my neurologists my brain function might not be the same. In fact, I had already noticed what she had warned me about — my memory was struggling, and in the strangest of situations I couldn’t quite remember people’s names or the word for certain things. I remember one specific moment when my mom walked into my bedroom as I wiped down my dresser, and she pointed out that I was using a bathroom cleaner, rather than a dusting spray. We laughed it off and blamed it on my medication, but it wasn’t the last time something like that would happen.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

In hindsight, going to college that year was bold considering my health. But how would I have known better? The doctors said I would get better. ‘Just give it time,’ they repeated every week, and I believed them. So I went off, memory and brain a little murky, neck brace on, and with a doctor’s note. I started classes on a reduced schedule, balancing six doctor appointments a week and ten medications, and quickly realized even a reduced schedule was nearly impossible. After acing high school and the SATs with minimal effort, I was shocked to realize my neurologist and I had both underestimated the intensity of my brain injury. My memory continually betrayed me, forgetting the notes from class along with everything else: class times, professor’s names, locations on campus, the names of the girls who lived down the hall. It felt like no matter how hard I worked, I was failing.

I continued to push myself, unwilling to let my accident take away the one thing I valued most — my education. I had not one, not two, but seven calculus tutors, and yet I barely scraped by. The worse I felt, the harder I worked. I would study in waiting rooms while waiting for my prescriptions to get filled. For the most part, my hard work paid off. But it wasn’t all successful. My lowest point was when I got a 17% on my first midterm and had to drop the class, which resulted in me losing my academic scholarship and honors status, which I had to go to the Dean to appeal. Luckily, he was sympathetic and directed me to Disability Support Services, which proved to be the saving grace I needed to get by. They offered me accommodations, helped me coordinate professors carrying my textbooks to class for me because I physically couldn’t, and helped me get special note formats.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

Even with all that support, school was nearly impossible. I had a hard time making friends as I was the ‘girl with the neck brace,’ and I couldn’t relate to anyone else in college. I envied the students that had fun, studied abroad, partied, and were just so carefree. I envied them. I was just focused on making it through each day and hopefully graduating. All my doctors warned me graduating was unlikely and to assume it would take me five to six years, minimum.

I went back home after my freshman year unsure of if I was going to go back, deciding to let my recovery that summer dictate the decision.  In all of the physical pain and changes, I had lost my identity. How do you recognize yourself when your body and brain don’t work like they used to? Everything I had prided myself on had been destroyed in a single moment with no warning. And my cognition felt completely depleted, like my brain was stuck in a murky fog that wouldn’t dissipate. On top of everything, the throbbing wouldn’t stop. Every day, I woke up with a headache and a back that felt like it had gotten run over by a truck. Every. Single. Day. I hadn’t slept through the night in over a year.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

On July 30th, my summer hit a turning point. I had begun slowly ‘doing things’ again that month. I would visit friends at the pool, and one of those friends set me up on a date with an older boy my family knew from church. We went on a date on July 30, and it was one of the first days I had felt almost normal in over a year. We went to dinner and a movie and on the way back, I told him a relationship wasn’t likely, considering my medical situation. He persisted, taking me out to get custard the next day after my doctor’s appointment. I remember rushing home to cover the bruises and pricks the needles had left so he wouldn’t see. He left the next day for a vacation with the promise to bring me a seashell.

The next week marked August, and I turned eighteen. On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to flowers delivered. The boy, Ryan, had them sent while he was on vacation. He returned the following day, offering to take me to the fair. It was a birthday tradition of mine, to go on the rides with my friends and spend the day at the fair as it always fell on my summer birthday. I couldn’t ride any of the rides at the warning from my doctors, but he took me anyway, and we got deep-fried Oreos and danced to the live band that was playing. We rode the Ferris wheel. He asked me out in line (I remember blushing because the people in front of us heard), and I said yes.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

We spent the rest of the summer together when I wasn’t at the doctor’s. He would find things I was physically able to do, pick me up from appointments with snowballs, and listen to me when I cried about my pain. At a time when I felt broken, he loved me anyway. He turned the summer of my recovery into something more, something special — it was the summer I fell in love.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

I ended up going back to school that year after the summer continually improved my recovery. I was still juggling doctor’s appointments and medication, but I managed with the help of the disability support services. Every week, slowly but steadily, I got better. I began to make friends, join clubs, and noticed my cognitive function was slightly improving. That was enough to keep me going.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

By junior year, I had turned a corner and was up to a full schedule. By senior year, I was taking extra credits so I could graduate on time, and served as president of the disability honor society, and a student ambassador for disability studies. My situation had opened my eyes to so many others like me that had to work twice as hard as everyone else, and I took any extra time I had to be an advocate. I took something so awful, so unfair, and used my recovery as an opportunity to help others.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

On June 1, 2019, I graduated against all odds and overcame the prediction of my team of doctors. I graduated on time, with an honors degree, and on the Dean’s List. I had a full-time job offer in finance in a new city and moved to Atlanta the next day. Through persistence, hard work, faith, and a team of friends, family, and doctors to support me, I ultimately found success despite my circumstances.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

Today, in September of 2020, my car accident was just over five years ago, and my life has continued to change in ways I didn’t expect. I’m still working at that job in finance, and I’m still dating the boy who asked me out in line for the Ferris wheel. We just celebrated our four year anniversary, and he moved down to Atlanta to follow me here the spring. I still face certain challenges as a result of my accident, but I’ve also begun to realize the good that has come out of it. I will never be grateful for what happened to me but I do the positive in everything. I am living on my own, doing what was once impossible. Five years ago, I couldn’t carry a backpack or remember my own teacher’s name. Now I live in an apartment in the city of my dreams, work a high powered job, and even started a blog about things to do in Atlanta on the side. My health will never go back to 100%, but recovering from my car accident has shaped who I am today. I’ll admit I lost myself during the height of my medical issues, but I found myself along the way, too. I found someone with unrelenting faith, a fierce tenacity to follow her dreams despite the obstacles, someone that can overcome anything.

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

If you’re reading this, overcoming your own health-related battles or not, I hope you know you’re not alone. Don’t listen when everyone tells you your dreams aren’t possible. Don’t lose your faith or positive light. Find your support system, and hug them tight. Keep working hard, keep pushing yourself, be your biggest cheerleader, and above all, have hope.”

Courtesy of Hannah Katherine

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Hannah Katherine from Atlanta, GA. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Twitter, and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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