JUNE HOO faced a long road to rehabilitation after a car accident in the US. Here, she recounts her battle with depression and how her caregivers gave her hope.
Ibecame a quadriplegic after fracturing my spine in a car accident in 1996. I was 34 at the time, married with two children aged three and one, and employed at the American headquarters of a multinational corporation. After rescuers pulled me from the wreckage, I spent three weeks fighting for my life in a Michigan hospital.
In the fourth week following the horrific crash, the medical team deemed my condition stable enough for stepped-down care, and I was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, a renowned rehabilitation facility dedicated to helping patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries regain functional independence.
The morning of the transfer, I was upbeat when the air ambulance crew arrived. I was to fly on a Learjet to Denver, three hours away. But the cheeriness dissipated when my stretcher was slid into place on top of a platform flush with one side of the jet. My face and body were within 5cm of the overhead bin. I stiffened, and felt unable to breathe. I closed my eyes and kept them tightly shut to deny the reality of being confined in that tight space.
My husband accompanied me on the flight, which felt like forever to me. He and the crew kept up a banter that I refused to join. They thought I was sound asleep. I was in fact trying to keep completely still so I wouldn’t succumb to a panic attack.
A Rocky Start
The effect of the claustrophobia-inducing flight manifested itself at Craig. I was delivered to a two-bedder room, where a curtain separated the beds – mine was closer to the door. All was fine when I faced the door. But when the nursing team turned me to face the curtain that hung several centimetres from my bed, I hyperventilated.
They turned patients every two hours to prevent pressure sores – and I hyperventilated each time I faced the curtain.
That was when the nursing team’s ingenuity came into play and I got my first taste of their can-do spirit, which the hospital calls “redefining possible”. It influenced my subsequent outlook on all aspects of life.
The nurses and technicians took to turning my bed 180 degrees each time they turned my body so I always faced away from the curtain. They also placed me at the top of the wait list for a single room with a window, to break my cycle of hyperventilating.
The day I arrived at Craig, the nursing team discovered pressure sores on my buttocks that were very badly infected. They summoned a specialist who decided that the first course of action – before I could even begin the rehabilitation programme – was to treat the sores by surgically removing the damaged tissues.
During surgery, the doctor discovered that the sores were deep and had reached into muscle and bone, with some infection in the latter. He ordered an aggressive antibiotic treatment and six weeks of bed rest that further set back my rehabilitation.
More bad news followed. Within days of my arrival, I developed a blood clot in my left calf. The deepvein thrombosis may have resulted from my staying immobile in a tight space while I was transferred by air to Denver. The doctor ordered the use of compression stockings, a drug regimen to treat the clot and bed rest.
An orthopaedic surgeon from an area hospital was also engaged by the Craig team to assess my neurological condition. He believed that fusing my fractured vertebrae with a titanium plate could help me regain more function in my limbs.
But I was reluctant to go under the knife again. I was most worried about having to be hooked up to a respirator and requiring frequent suction of fluid build-up in the chest – something traumatic that I had experienced in intensive care in Michigan.
The orthopaedic surgeon eventually convinced me to undergo the surgery on my spine. By this time, I could move some of the fingers on my left hand and a few of my toes.
I transferred to another hospital in Denver for the surgery. My husband and daughter were with me. I remember watching my little girl jump out the back of the ambulance that ferried us to chase after the stretcher, desperately trying to catch up with me. It pained me to put her through the experience of coping with a parent’s serious injury at the tender age of three.
When I came to after the surgery, I was relieved that I was not tethered to the dreaded respirator. I remember begging the nurse for water in the recovery room. Although I was not allowed to drink, she wet my parched lips with an ice cube, allowing me to swallow the liquid from the melting ice.
It was way past my daughter’s bedtime when I was wheeled out of the recovery room. I saw my husband rouse her from sleep on a bench outside the operating theatre. After settling into my room, I entreated my husband to leave with our little girl and get some rest at the hotel.
Plunging into Depression
With hindsight, how I responded to my sudden loss of mobility was just as depicted in the Change Curve – a model developed by Elisabeth KublerRoss in the 1960s to explain people’s reactions to significant change.
During the month I was in intensive care in the Michigan hospital, I was in denial and expected to return to how things were before the accident. Fear crept in during the last week of intensive care when I protested about being moved out of sight of the nurses at their station.
I descended into depression in the six weeks I was on bed rest at Craig, following the surgeries to treat my pressure sores and further secure my spine.
I spent hour after hour, day after day, and week after week alone most of the time – and a long way from home, family and friends – in a hospital room.
That it happened was hardly surprising. After all, I spent hour after hour, day after day, and week after week alone most of the time – and a long way from home, family and friends – in a hospital room with the radio permanently tuned to the classical music station in Denver.
It was 1996, when the Internet was a new phenomenon and there were no smartphones and mobile devices to keep one occupied. Even if those gadgets had been available at the time, I would not have been able to use them, as the injury from the car crash had caused me to lose my fine motor skills.
That meant I could not open mail from well-wishers. I also had to be fed although I ate no more than three mouthfuls of every meal. The antibiotics made me nauseous whenever the smell of food wafted down the corridor to my room. Before long, I had dropped two clothing sizes, from US12 to 8.
My nurses and techs thought it would help my mental state to get out of my room and attend the church service offered every Sunday at the hospital. They faithfully transferred me every week in my bed. Invariably, the sermon would bring me to tears. I’d sob uncontrollably and ask over and over again, “Why me?”.
A Lift from the Abyss
It was around this time that I was introduced to Lisa Payne, a psychiatrist at Craig. I saw her three times a week. While I was on bed rest, she saw me in my room. After I began my rehabilitation programme, our chats evolved into regular jaunts across the sky bridge to a trendy coffee place for flavoured lattes. Our interaction helped to lift me from the abyss of sadness I had fallen into.
Interacting with the volunteers who took on feeding duties at Craig was also a boon for my mental health. Many of these volunteers – from high school students to retirees – visited me regularly and provided muchneeded fellowship that I believe played a significant role in helping to get me back on track.
It was hard not to feel sorry for myself when I spent so much time alone in bed in the hospital, but I soon realised from interacting with the people at Craig that I could still live a good life – despite my injury – by consciously choosing that option for myself.
Look out for the next instalment of June’s story of survival in Simply Her’s April issue, where she shares more about her extraordinary struggle.