’I woke up hanging from my seat belt. ‘Can you move your legs?’ They hung like dead meat.’: Woman paralyzed from car accident, ‘My mind, soul, and spirit remained untouched’

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“Looking back on my life, I am very thankful to have had the childhood that I did. Not only was it full of love, but I also got to experience many things – travel, vacations, large family gatherings, and many varied activities. Since I was injured at eighteen, I was fortunate to not have been robbed of a full childhood and had enough life experience and maturity to cope with what was an unexpected and dramatic change to the trajectory of my life.

Partway through my senior year of high school, I turned eighteen and was looking forward to heading off to college, as an intended pre-med student. Following my birthday, my mother, sisters, and two of my cousins took a short road trip from the Seattle area to visit my uncle, who was living near Palm Springs.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

On the return trip home, ten short days after turning eighteen and thinking I had my whole life before me, I sustained a spinal cord injury when our car was involved in a rollover accident. As the driver, my last thought before losing consciousness was that I had killed the car full of people, and those people were my family.

Sometime later, I really cannot say how much, I woke up hanging from my seat belt to a man asking me, ‘Can you move your legs?’ I was positioned in such a way that my head hung so I was looking at my legs. When I tried to move them, they simply hung there like dead meat, something completely disembodied. As illogical as it may seem in that instant, my instinct was to escape and I began struggling in vain to extract myself from the vehicle. Naturally, these efforts were futile, and the man, whom I wish I could thank for saving our lives, told me I needed to remain very still. Fortunately, I lost consciousness once again and did not regain it until I was in the trauma center of Fresno County General Hospital.

Over the course of the next several days, I went from being an active ballerina to being mostly paralyzed — there were a few things I could still move — to losing that limited movement and finally, to losing the ability to breathe on my own. Yet, as dire as things may have been, I knew they could have been so much worse. Thankfully, despite the fact others had suffered serious injuries, none were as catastrophic as mine, and everyone survived. Additionally, even though my body had been irreparably damaged, my mind, soul, and spirit remained untouched. The severity of my injuries could have easily been accompanied by a traumatic brain injury or left me in a coma. Yet, everything that made me Loa was still alive and well. Fighting for my life, because yes, my condition was initially fragile and unstable, would have been much harder without my stubborn refusal to admit defeat.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

My will alone was not responsible for my success – first in fighting for survival, and later to live a full and quality life. I was motivated and sustained by incredible support from my family, both immediate and extended, friends and acquaintances, the community, and the incredible people taking care of me. Love is very powerful, it can give people strength when it seems as though they may have none left, and it was bestowed upon me in abundance. Eventually, I was brought back to Seattle, after spending roughly three weeks in Fresno, on a medical Learjet where I commenced inpatient rehab in order to learn the necessary skills to live with my new circumstances. While there, I managed to not only acclimate to an extremely different life than the one I had previously led, I also graduated from high school, spoke at commencement, and was able to attend my senior prom. Throughout this time, I continued to receive a flood of love and support from our local community and friends and family. Some even traveled from across the country and internationally to ensure I knew I remained in their thoughts, hearts, and prayers.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

As the time drew near for me to be discharged as an inpatient from the hospital, they wanted to send me home with a large ventilator called the PLV, which was so large cumbersome and heavy that it tipped my wheelchair on small inclines. Clearly, this would have been a safety hazard if I intended to use my wheelchair anywhere other than indoors. Fortunately, there was a smaller portable ventilator new to the market called the LTV. This ventilator was streamlined into its trademark laptop shape from the large bulky ventilators in order to improve mobility. However, despite the fact it fit my needs for portability much better, it was a huge battle to get approval for one because it was new, but eventually, we succeeded. I am very thankful for that, as I cannot imagine how restrictive my life would have been without it. The other PLV ventilator would not have made it possible for me to live the active life I achieved with the LTV. Despite the fact it was far superior to existing technology, there were still daily challenges with battery life and all of the other equipment that was necessary to bring along each time I left the home. Nevertheless, despite these challenges, the LTV still made it possible for me to enroll at Seattle Pacific University in the autumn quarter following my injury.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach
Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

Over the years, my health and strength improved. As we learned more and my endurance improved, we were able to streamline my care so going out became easier. Eventually, we even ventured into the realm of air travel in 2005, three years after my spinal cord injury. Our initial foray was inspired by the desire to say goodbye to my grandfather who was dying of cancer. My family and I did a lot of planning and were able to make the trip happen, discovering that travel was not as difficult as we believed. We then continued on to further adventures across the United States and even foreign countries. With each trip, we learned more and grew braver with regards to the scope of what we were prepared to undertake. In addition to attending the weddings of various friends and family members across the country, we have taken multiple trips to Hawaii and Iceland, Mexico, New York City, and Southern California. Hence, with the support of an ever-growing group of loving friends and family, I was living a pretty good life and truly had little to complain about.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach
Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

Though I was quite content with my life, it would forever be changed on the day I was introduced to Ventec Life Systems and VOCSN. I was asked by my pulmonologist if I would be willing to meet with members of a local biotech company and trial their ‘new ventilator design,’ providing critical feedback. Given the fact that I had heard rumors my beloved LTV ventilator, that had been not only keeping me alive but giving a fantastic quality of life, was going to be retired, I had attempted to try some of the other ventilators on the market. These attempts had ended quite dismally. The trend in ventilator technology at that time was producing devices that were not able to support me without disrupting my cognitive abilities. Imagine living the rest of your life with a brain cloud, to borrow from Joe Versus the Volcano. Needless to say, I worried that I would soon be forced into a situation where my life lost the precious quality my family and I had fought so hard to build. This left me both eager and excited for the opportunity to tell ventilator makers what patients like me needed and wanted from a ventilator.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

My fear that I was going to have to tell a group of people something they had been working on for years was substandard quickly dissipated when I learned that this new multifunction ventilator called VOCSN, which included not only a Ventilator, but also an Oxygen concentrator, Cough assist, Suction, and Nebulizer was created by the same Doug DeVries who had developed the LTV ventilator I was using at that time. However, these fears were not entirely laid to rest until I received my first breath from VOCSN. Instantly I knew that the future of ventilation was no longer dismal, I also knew the horizon was brighter than it had been before. By integrating all of these devices into a single streamlined piece of equipment, getting out of the house for the ventilator-dependent was now going to become even easier.

The team had done remarkable work, but there was definitely room for improvement. Somehow, my combination of enthusiasm and candid criticism meshed with the Ventec team, leading them to invite me to become a part of their mission, as the VOCSN Ambassador. As an ambassador, I work with the engineers on improving VOCSN and thereby improving the quality of life for the ventilator dependent. Additionally, I write a blog about living life on a ventilator, where I share stories of my adventures and tips from what I have learned in my eighteen years as a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

Even though I had attended university and earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and Bachelor of Science in Physiology, I was still uncertain of my place in this world. I wanted to do something meaningful but had not yet found the right way to do so, which is why I continued to go to school, accruing further education until I found the right fit. I truly cannot express my gratitude to Ventec, for finding me and providing me with that opportunity. My role as an ambassador has given my life incredible purpose and meaning. I know the impact I am making is even greater than it would have been had I gone to medical school, as I intended in my youth. The irony of life is sometimes via unforeseen circumstances, it works out far better than the original plans we make.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

I recently celebrated the eighteen-year anniversary of my accident. It felt monumental, as it would be the threshold for more of my life being spent in a wheelchair than outside of it. While contemplating how I would cope with this transition, a very wise friend told me I ought to make it a celebration. I quickly realized she was absolutely right, so my family and I planned a vacation in Hawaii and we spent the day making memories rather than mourning what was lost. My brother-in-law decided the big day ought to be celebrated with a poolside cocktail. He suddenly appeared from the bar with four pink, delicious, rum concoctions. Keep in mind, none of those adjectives describe anything he would ever willingly drink, but he was determined to get me to drink a cocktail, something I rarely do, so we could toast to family, life, and VOCSN.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach
Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

I am truly thankful we were able to enjoy this trip just before the horrors of COVID-19 descended and changed our world. I have attempted to view my time at home as an opportunity to focus on other things but look forward to the day when I am able to get out into the world and continue living an active life.

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

My life and story do not really set me apart from others. I am truly just a girl. Sure, someone can make the argument that having a spinal cord injury is rather atypical, particularly one resulting in ventilator dependency. However, I would make the argument that everyone has struggles in their life. Just because mine are a little bit different and more obvious at a glance than the struggles many others may face, does not make them more important. Please keep in mind I am quite simply just a girl who has had the good fortune of being blessed with an incredible family who has helped me build a meaningful life out of the ashes of what could have been a devastating tragedy, which is why I am still here, going strong.”

Courtesy of Loa Griesbach

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Loa Griesbach from Seattle, WA. 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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