Amber s Story

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“Here’s the story of my (not so) invisible illness…

March 13, 2016. The last day of spring break. I don’t remember anything about my actual accident, but I remember pieces of the day. I remember my grandpa and mom being at my horseshow to watch me go in the classic, hoping I would win the $500 cash prize. I remember that my grandpa bought a milkshake and a glass of wine right before I got on my horse. I remember I rode well in the first round, and made it on to the second.

I had a few hours before I needed to come back, so I got off my horse. My next memories are from the two months that I was in the hospital, following my horrific fall in that second round.

Bilateral broken collarbones. Massive basilar skull fractures. Right facial palsy, completely obliterated hearing and vestibular system on my right side. Fractured spinous process of C7 vertebrae. Fully occluded right internal carotid artery. Subdural hematoma of the cerebellum. Ischemic stroke, right Middle Cerebral Artery. Respiratory failure.

That is not even a full list of everything that happened to me. I was heavily sedated for nearly two weeks following the accident, but there are really about 3 weeks that I will never remember. I wouldn’t want to. I woke up completely paralyzed on the left side of my body as a result of the stroke.

The first thing that I remember thinking about after my mom told me what happened was whether or not my horse, Vern, was ok. I was so worried when my mom told me that we both fell. She was filming my round when it happened, and I wish I could make her forget the day too…

After nearly two months in the hospital, I moved to an inpatient rehabilitation facility for just two weeks. I went from not walking to being able to walk (mostly) on my own in those two weeks, then continued working with the amazing therapist so that by June, only 3 months after my stroke, I was able to waltz around in heels, albeit with a lot of effort and concentration. I spent the summer working with a neurological PT, balance PT, and athletic trainer.

I could help my body with hard work, but my face was on its own schedule, impervious to my will.  I think noticing that my face was completely numb on one side was one of the last things I realized. Doctors (later) sewed my eye shut because I couldn’t even blink and they didn’t want my eye to be permanently damaged. The fractures at the base of my skull interrupted my facial and trigeminal nerves, cranial nerves that control facial feeling and movement.

My doctors were concerned that fractured bone had either severed my nerve or was severely irritating it, but they had no way of knowing. It wasn’t until a month after my accident that my doctors felt that I was stable enough to undergo this surgery. Luckily, the nerve was intact and not severed (which could have meant permanent paralysis), it was just very irritated- a piece of bone was poking it. They removed the piece and replaced it with a titanium plate. I joke that I’m like the bionic woman from the shoulders up; they put plates and screws in my collarbones as well.

I have never been vain; I like to feel beautiful, but I’m much more concerned with being a smart, decent human. That’s why I came back to school. I have always loved science and was a biology/neuroscience minor even before the accident, but now I want to go to medical school. I can walk and I can think; my face is temporarily a little weird looking, but I know it will get better.  Luckily, being pretty isn’t a requirement for being a great (future) doctor. Even more luckily, this isn’t permanent. But, it is still my face, and I don’t like pictures, or really thinking about it.

In some ways, maybe its easier – part of my struggle is literally all over my face, and people realize how hard this must be, maybe because they know how hard it would be for them.  I have people say, ‘My life would be over if that happened to me.‘ And, I wonder for a minute, ‘Do I look that bad….or, are you just really superficial?‘  I know I am so much more than my face, but I do miss seeing the true me in the mirror.

The part that people don’t see is the struggle in dealing with a compromised vestibular and hearing system and my continued recovery from a massive concussion. I can’t have another one – there isn’t a lot of reserve now – so staying upright and alert is essential, as is the more simple things, like hearing in class.  Short-term memory and attention are challenges.  The effort involved with managing these things is enormous.

I’m currently only 8 months out from having the surgery, and 9 months after the accident. All my doctors have told me that I should absolutely not expect ANYTHING for at least a year. I have surpassed every other limitation they have given me, but I guess I can’t break all the records. All of my friends know that I’m still me and that this isn’t permanent; it’s facing all the acquaintances and strangers that is so challenging.

‘Everything happens for a reason.’ I hate when people tell me that. What happened to me was a total freak accident. Have I done anything to deserve this? No. And there is no freaking reason it happened. I have learned so much about the people around me based on the way they react to my story. Some of my friends that I was close with before have kept their distance. And some of the friends that I would have never expected have been the most valuable support. I can’t help but imagine that anyone that doesn’t know me must be thinking ‘what a shame’ or ‘that girl used to be so pretty.‘ (I actually have heard that.)

I am very open about what has happened to me, so please just ask, don’t write me off. If you know, it explains why I am the way I am. That’s why I wanted to be a part of this incredible project. I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I am struck with intense gratitude that I’m alive at all, and that I have such incredible family and friends. Other days, I am crippled with my desire for things to be different.

I wish I looked like I used to. I wish none of this had happened. But it did. So, now I can drive with one eye. And people have to speak into my left ear. And I sip my drinks through a straw. And I will be damned if I let this get in my way of achieving my goals. This accident does not define me, but it is the reason I (half) smile a little wider, study a little harder, and hug my loves ones a little tighter.”

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