The Day That CHANGED MY LIFE
JUNE HOO was 34 and a mum of two young children, when a horrific road accident in the US left her a quadriplegic. She recounts the details of the crash and how she fought for her life in hospital.
I t was 1996 when a car accident in the United States, where I was based, changed my life forever. Within a few moments, I went from being a fiercely independent woman with a promising career in corporate communications at a multinational company to a broken, incontinent body reliant on the people around me for my every need.
I was married at the time with two children aged three and one. For six months following the accident, I quietly endured the pain of not seeing and holding my precious kids – except on two brief occasions – while undergoing rehabilitation in hospital.
A Day Not So Ordinary
My recollection of the car accident is patchy after spending most of that dreadful day drifting in and out of consciousness. But I remember vividly my brief time with my family before driving off in the rental car that ended up overturned on the highway.
I was covering the duties of a colleague who was going on maternity leave and was driving to my employer’s manufacturing plant in Sarnia, Canada, to begin the handover. Here’s how the nightmare began. “Mum, wait!” screamed my threeyear-old daughter as she bounded down the stairs after me. I remember that she was wearing her navy blue sailor top paired with white pedal pushers I had picked up recently on a working visit to Hong Kong. “I thought we were going to make pancakes,” she wailed.
“Not today, Samantha,” I said as I stopped to hug her. “We’ll make pancakes tomorrow.”
“Promise?” asked my daughter as she loosened her grip around my neck. “Yes, promise,” I said, not knowing at the time that I was making a commitment I could not keep.
I headed out of the house to the rental car I had parked overnight on the driveway. It was end-June, the start of summer in Michigan when days are warm and nights cool. I
noticed that the warmth from the early-morning sun had caused beads of condensation to form on the cold windshield. So I went back inside the house for paper towels to wipe it off.
By then, my husband Sam was in the kitchen preparing formula milk for our one-year-old son, Jonathan. After finding what I needed, I said goodbye to the family and walked back out to the car.
That was the very last time I walked.
The drive from our home across the US-Canadian border to Sarnia would take about two hours. I was eager to get the trip over with so I could spend the weekend with my family.
A Life Forever Changed
Traffic was light as I cruised along the highway. But about 40 minutes into the drive, I heard a loud bang from the back of the car – but no one had hit me from behind.
It was then I realised the steering wheel was no longer responding; it felt like it had become disconnected. Instinctively, I tried to bring the car to a stop. I remember frantically stepping on the brakes. That, investigators said later, probably caused the car to somersault across three or four lanes. Eyewitnesses said the car flipped three times before landing upside down on a field to the right of the highway.
I was knocked unconscious during those few moments. I’m thankful that I passed out, because it spared me the horror and helplessness of being trapped in a runaway car hurtling through the air. There was no time for panic or fear.
I came to when the car was in its last flip just before crashing to the ground – roof first. I heard the sound of shattering glass, then silence. I felt blood running down my nose.
I can’t die – that was my first thought. I have two young children waiting for me at home, I said to myself.
I wasn’t in pain, but I couldn’t move and stayed strapped into the driver’s seat, hanging upside down.
To this day, no one knows for sure what caused the accident. I did not lose control of the car. Neither was I drink-driving nor speeding.
Investigators suspected a tyre blowout but decided there was possibly something wrong with the vehicle. They told me that the customer who had the rental car before me had returned the car early, complaining that it did not drive well. Soon after the car landed on its roof, a good Samaritan passing the scene of the accident was by my side, talking to me: “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where do you live? Don’t go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep.” I am grateful for his keeping me talking and awake – that, apparently, is crucial in keeping the seriously injured alive.
A short while later, I heard the sound of rescue workers smashing glass. “We’ve got you,” someone shouted. I felt myself being pulled from the car seat, but something was holding me in place. “Cut the seat belt! She is still strapped in!”
After that, I was pulled from the wreckage and placed on a stretcher. I felt someone place a splint around my neck. But why did my legs feel like they were suspended in the air? I wondered.
I passed out after that. When I came to, I was in the emergency department at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, about an hour’s drive from our home. I heard somebody asking for a social worker to help my husband. Then I felt someone snipping the top of my pantsuit before placing the cold blades of the scissors between my breasts and cutting my bra in half.
I blacked out again, and the next time I woke up, I was in the radiology department. “Can you lift your arms above your head?” I could barely move so the radiographer helped to position my limbs to do an X-ray. I felt such excruciating pain that I let out a cry, and passed out again.
I woke up next in a dimly lit room in the intensive-care unit. I noticed that my left arm was in a plaster cast. I tried to turn and realised I could not move any part of my body.
Making Sense, Making Plans
My mind blank, I lay there until a doctor walked in with my husband. He explained that I had fractured my spine, which was causing the paralysis in my arms and legs. He also told me my pelvic bone was broken. My husband asked if I would be able to stand. The doctor said that depended on whether I could bear weight.
It struck me then that I was going to be in the hospital for a while and I began to worry about my children. My husband assured me they were being taken care of. I then asked if he had informed my parents, who live in Malaysia, of the accident. Nervously, he answered: “No.”
“Please call my parents,” I beseeched him. My mum flew in with my brother and sister-in-law; Sam’s parents also came. My aunt and uncle, who live in Canada, drove to Michigan too. The doctors huddled with my family and recommended surgery to stabilise my fractured spine.
To help me hold up my head as well as prevent further neurological damage, they fitted me temporarily with a halo – a metal ring attached to the head with pins drilled into the skull and held in place by four vertical bars fastened to a vest.
My breathing was shallow as a result of the spinal injury, and the doctors recommended a tracheostomy. This involved creating an opening through my neck into the windpipe and inserting a catheter hooked up to a respirator to help me breathe.
I was eager for the surgery to proceed. I was hopeful that by letting the doctors do what they recommended, I would soon be going home to my children and resuming my life.
My mum had urged me from the day she arrived to get better and get up. I knew how much it hurt her to see my mangled body, lying immobile in that hospital room. Yet, she kept her spirits up throughout her month-long stay in Michigan and cheered me on daily when she visited me.
I was determined not to disappoint her. I told myself to take it a day at a time. My immediate goal was setting aside the huge unknown ahead of me and letting the doctors fix my neck so they could put me on the road to recovery.
Coping with More Trials
After what I had been through, I lulled myself into thinking I would be spared more of life’s trials, but that was not to be.
Some people who know me have described my life as a tragedy. I agree it has been far from rosy, but I’m not giving up the fight any time soon.
Look out for the next instalment of June’s personal story of survival in Simply Her’s February issue, where she shares more about her extraordinary struggle.