MY DARKEST DAYS
JUNE HOO’s life changed forever after a horrific car accident in the U.S. She recounts how she pulled through the difficult time in intensive care
In 1996, I was living and working in the United States when the car I was driving somersaulted three times before landing on its roof. The serious injuries I sustained in that incident turned me into a quadriplegic. I was 34 at the time and married with two children aged three and one. In the Michigan hospital where the paramedics sent my broken body, I almost died – twice – but was revived by the medical team.
The four weeks I spent in intensive care were the darkest period in my life. I had fractured my neck vertebrae, resulting in paralysis – initially, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, but later recovered the use of my arms and right hand. (I now have sensation in my torso and limbs, but cannot tell the difference between hot and cold in my lower extremities.)
To stabilise my spine and prevent further neurological damage, my doctors fitted me with a halo – a black graphite ring attached to my head with pins drilled into the skull, and held up by four vertical graphite rods fastened to a body vest. They also used some fragments from my broken pelvic bone to support my fractured neck vertebrae.
I had no idea what lay ahead. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to return to work or whether the job would even be there for me. I wasn’t sure how I was going to care for my children when I myself needed others to care for me. But I knew that fretting about my condition wouldn’t help.
Struggling to Breathe
During my first week in hospital, doctors created an opening in the front of my neck and inserted a tracheostomy tube into my windpipe to help me breathe. The
“I couldn’t swallow with a tube in my
neck, and this caused fluid to build up in my throat. I constantly felt like I
was drowning in my own saliva.”
tube was connected to a respirator. I couldn’t swallow with the tube in my neck, and this caused fluid to build up in my throat and windpipe. I constantly felt like I was drowning in my own saliva.
I found temporary relief whenever nurses drained the fluid build-up with a suction pump. I wished they would stop by more often as the fluid pooled quickly, causing me immense misery.
The tube in my windpipe prevented me from speaking and calling out to the nurses to let them know I needed another suction. My paralysis meant I could not even move my arms – let alone wave them – to flag their attention.
I relied on members of my family to call for a nurse when they were with me. They could tell from the expression on my face when the fluid build-up became unbearable. When I was on my own, I had no choice but to bear with the extreme discomfort in my chest – sometimes for hours! – until someone stopped by my room
Day after day, my waking hours were consumed with getting relief from the next suction. I desperately wanted to be rid of the tracheostomy tube and the respirator. I prayed every morning to pass the test that my doctors did to gauge the depth and strength of my breaths. Again and again, I was disappointed.
About two weeks after my tracheostomy surgery, I was overjoyed to be freed from the tube and the respirator. But my newfound freedom was short-lived.
Another Close Shave
Early one morning, a few days after I was taken off the respirator, I was roused from what I thought was a deep slumber by a roomful of medical staff working feverishly to revive me. They had to use the opening in my neck to reconnect me to the respirator after my blood pressure dipped and my heart rate slowed. The night nurse who had raised the alarm told me later that the medical team had nearly lost me that morning.
In addition to being tethered to the respirator again, I also had to contend with being weighed down by the halo attached to my head. I ended up spending most of my time confined to the bed although I couldn’t lie down properly. Poor blood circulation from my injury and the lack of mobility resulted in multiple pressure sores in my buttocks that became badly infected – a common condition among people who are immobile.
The infection manifested itself in the form of shivers and chills. Every afternoon, I would shiver for hours until my body warmed up under the bedsheet and blankets piled atop me by the nurses.
I was given morphine shots daily for pain management. But I didn’t need the shots as I had less sensation due to my injuries. The drug made me restless and anxious, compounding my discomfort from the heavy halo around my head and being hooked up to the respirator.
I began to hallucinate as a side effect of the morphine. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw myself continuously zipping around among bouncing red cubes. I begged the doctors to stop the morphine.
I made it through that long, dark period by taking it a day at a time and focusing on the highlights of each day – visits by family members, the leg massages my brother and sisterin-law gave me during their two-week stay, the hour-long sessions with the physical therapist on alternate days, and the shampoo and bed bath I got twice a week. Surprise visits by friends and cards from well-wishers were bonuses.
Three weeks after the accident, my condition stabilised, and the doctors began discussing my rehabilitation. They recommended a facility in Michigan, as well as the renowned Craig Hospital in Colorado. I pondered over it with my husband and finally decided on Colorado, which was a two-hour drive away for him.
First Step towards Independence
I was then moved to another room in the intensive-care unit that was not within sight of the nurses’ station. They arranged for me to have a calling device in the shape of a small rubber ball that was suspended 15cm above my face. By then, I had recovered movement in my arms and was able to hit the ball to call for help. This was my first step towards independence from roundthe-clock care.
I hadn’t seen my two kids since the day of the accident, although I had been asking for them. The weekend before my transfer to Colorado, they came to see me in the hospital – I hadn’t set eyes on them for four weeks.
My husband lifted them into my bed. They were both scared to see their strange-looking mum with a halo and asked to be carried off the bed. After much prodding, my one-yearold son Jonathan finally planted a wet kiss on my cheek. I was so happy to see them, but sad that I could no longer pick them up and hug them like I used to.
The Next Chapter
Finally, the day of my discharge arrived. Arrangements had been made for an air ambulance to fly me to Colorado. Early that morning, a doctor removed the staples that closed the incision down my neck and back when the medical team worked to stabilise my fractured spine. The pain from having the staples pulled out from my flesh banished all thoughts of sleep.
As I lay awake waiting for daybreak, I applauded myself for having succeeded in staying alive for my children’s sake. I was relieved that those dark days in intensive care were behind me. I realised I had a long way to go before I could be home with my children, but moving on to rehabilitation was a huge step forward. It saddened me that I wouldn’t be seeing my family for an extended period, but I steeled myself to focus on the next step of my recovery. Look out for the next instalment of June’s story of survival in Simply Her’s March issue, where she shares more about her extraordinary struggle.