by Coertney Vanderhill
My sisters and I walked into the hospital room just after 4 am. My mom lay still and flat with tubes coming out of her chest, draining blood from her lungs into bags that were hung around her hospital bed.
Despite all the serious injuries my mom sustained, I most vividly remember that image of her blood just pouring into those bags.
My mom and dad were driving home after an evening playing golf. They were on the highway when traffic started to slow. A car was on fire on the shoulder of the road and fire fighters were working to put out the fire.
Naturally, people had stopped to gawk at the scene.
A driver in the next lane failed to notice he was approaching the stopped traffic too quickly. He slammed on his brakes and swerved to the left, crushing the rear right side of my dad’s car.
My mom, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat, received the worst of the injuries.
Relatively uninjured, my dad saw that my mom wasn’t breathing. He summoned the firefighters, who immediately came to my mom’s aid.
Dad was sent to Holland Hospital while my mom was airlifted to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.
The worst of my mom’s injuries was her rotated and broken T9 vertebrae. The broken vertebrae came within a millimeter of hitting my mom’s spinal cord. Also injured were four of the ligaments that support the vertebrae.
Additionally, Mom had a fractured pelvis on both sides, broken ribs and was bleeding internally between her lungs and chest wall.
Later that day, Mom underwent surgery to fuse the broken vertebrae and have titanium rods inserted in her back.
The doctors were astonished my mom wasn’t paralyzed – the millimeter of bone left protecting her spinal cord is all that saved her.
A week after the accident, my mom was transferred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. For the next 3 months she wore a full body brace and used a wheelchair while she recovered.
“I couldn’t bend at the waist so there were so many things I had to learn to do a different way, like taking a shower and getting dressed,” she remembers. “They taught me how to take care of myself and to be as independent as possible.”
Therapy helped my mom to learn to transfer herself to and from the wheelchair as well as practice getting around.
My mom said, “One of the most memorable times at Mary Free Bed for me was practicing shopping in a market (in the therapy gym). There’s a heavy door at the entrance you have to open and then navigate the wheelchair around to get inside. I never realized how difficult that could be.”
She also walked with a walker to regain muscle use. The intense therapy helped my mom to walk before her doctors had expected. She healed fast. After two and a half weeks she was able to go home.
“I always felt encouraged because the therapists were cheerful and made me feel confident that I would heal in time,” Mom said. “They were great at tailoring my therapy to my injury and to my needs. They wanted me to leave as independent as possible.”
The only consequence of the accident Mom faces today is injury-induced arthritis in her back and hips, which hinders her from doing certain physical activities, such as cross-country skiing.
Six years later, it’s still unbelievable to think that one millimeter is all that separated my mom from a few months of recovery to dealing a life-changing spinal cord injury.
My family and I are thankful not just that my mom is alive, but that she also gets to continue doing the things she loves (with golfing at the top of the list!).