A former model talks about coming to terms with her injuries and finding love after a freak accident.
As Christmas music filled the air, it felt like the perfect evening. My mum Cheryl and I were at our friends, Mike and Shannon, for dinner on December 3, 2011 and, as always, it was great fun. Their home is built close to a private airstrip in McKinney, Texas, US, and when one of the guests, Mike’s friend Curt Richmond, asked after dinner, “Who wants to go flying and see the Christmas lights?’’ I jumped at the chance. I love adventure and as Curt is an experienced flyer I didn’t give it a second thought.
But as I climbed into the tiny two-seater plane that belonged to Mike and Curt, I suddenly felt cold.
The heater was on, but it didn’t help as what I felt wasn’t that kind of cold. As I looked into the dark, rainy, starless sky, an inexplicable fear took hold of me. “This is stupid, get a grip,” I thought to myself as I desperately tried to relax and enjoy the flight.
Curt and I put on our headphones so we could talk to each other and I listened as Curt went through his checklist and taxied the plane out on to the runway. “Nice lights,” he said as we soared into the dark night sky, but I was already so frightened all I could respond was “Uh-huh”.
I’m sure the Christmas lights were pretty that night, but for some reason I was too nervous to concentrate on them and I can’t even remember anything in particular that Curt must have pointed out to me.
I kept feeling an overwhelming sense that something was about to go very, very wrong.
My body grew tense and my breathing became shallow as my heart began pounding in my chest.
I gripped both sides of my seat tighter and tighter and I didn’t dare say a word, let alone look down and appreciate the twinkling Christmas lights beneath me. Instead all I could think was, “This plane is going down and I am going to die.’’
I have no idea how long we were up in the sky, but it felt like a lifetime.
Finally we landed and I breathed a huge sigh of relief while chastising myself for having such stupid irrational thoughts.
We were safe and I couldn’t wait to step on to solid ground.
Climbing down from the plane I don’t remember if I even spoke to Curt. I remember my feet touching the ground and the sky being black, and then nothing else.
S ome reports that followed the accident claimed that I must have been stupid or drunk to do what I did, but I was neither. I don’t remember what happened, but I later learnt that because of the wind’s direction that night, the plane was parked facing a different direction than I had expected it to be. If it had been parked to the south, I would have got out and walked in a straight line to the hangar.
But because the plane was parked north, it meant that when I exited I needed to walk in a semicircle around the plane to return to the hangar. For reasons I still don’t know, maybe because I had been so nervous that night and because it was dark, instead of turning to the right and walking round the back of the plane, I turned to the left... and straight into the propeller.
Even at moderate wind speeds if you look at a propeller when it is moving, it is almost invisible; so on a dark drizzly night like it was, when I got down the wrong way, I didn’t stand a chance.
My mum’s friend Shannon was the person who first told my mum. Running into their home she was screaming and said: “I think Lauren lost her left hand.’’ And then pandemonium ensued as my mum raced on to the tarmac and found me lying in a pool of blood. Apparently my poor mum just kept saying, “Lauren it’s me. Can you hear me?” It was 8.54pm when Shannon called for an ambulance and minutes later paramedics arrived at the scene and battled to save me.
It was minutes later as they shone a flashlight around 12 metres from the accident site that they found my severed hand.
Paramedics said the extent of my injuries “took their breath away”.
My hand had been severed, my left collarbone was completely shattered and my left eye had been sliced in two. Surgeons had to install plates under the skin above and below my eye where my facial bones had been smashed.
Later, they also had to amputate my arm high up so I could wear a prosthetic. Thankfully I remember little of the next three weeks that I spent in hospital. Meanwhile, doctors prepared my family for the worst. The doctors were unsure I would survive and if I did, they were worried I would never be the same again. They said I might never utter a sentence again and could be reduced to the mental age of a child. Bone from my skull had broken off and lodged into my brain and they were unsure just how much damage this had caused.
When I was taken to hospital I was unconscious and was rushed straight in the operating room, where I stayed for hours that night while they battled to save me.
My mum, dad, Jeff, a marriage counsellor and twin sister Brittany
kept a constant vigil at my bedside when they were allowed in and were relieved when the next morning my dad said to me, “Lauren, just please give a sign you are OK,’’ and I softly squeezed his hand.
Later that day I also opened my eyes and said, “hi”.
But I remember none of this. I was out of it on pain medication, but I know at some point I kept saying to my sister, “Brittany uncurl my fingers.” She had to sit me down and say, “I can’t Lauren, your hand feels like it is there, but it isn’t.’’
Slowly as they began to wean me off my pain medication, I began to realise the full impact of what had happened to me. With my brain injuries the doctors told my parents it could be weeks, if not months, before they knew the extent of the damage the propeller had done.
But my family had faith I was going to recover 100 per cent and were pleased that day by day my speech got stronger.
While I was improving physically, once I understood the extent of my injuries, mentally I crumbled. It might have appeared to other people that I was functioning, but inside I was falling apart and it would take months for me to even begin to process all I had lost.
The things I once took for granted like brushing my hair, putting on my make-up and dressing myself, I could no longer do. As a small-time model and fashion writer my entire life had been focused on how I looked and now I felt so disgusting I could not even face looking in the mirror.
After coming home from hospital as they reduced my medication I began to finally get a better sense of what had happened to me.
My arm was hurting constantly and I felt permanently exhausted.
It was a couple of days into the new year, when I first plucked up the courage to look at myself in the mirror.
I went into the bathroom by myself, turned on the water of the shower so there would be cover noise and locked the door.
Standing in front of the mirror, for the first time since the accident, I examined my body.
My head was shaved on top and there were two long scars. The
Inside, I was falling apart and it would takemonths for me to even begin to process all that I had lost
propeller blade must have sliced me twice before I jerked away. On the left side of my upper forehead my skull was dented and where one of the scars ended just above my mouth, my lip sagged slightly on one side.
My left eye was entirely missing and the upper and lower lids were cut through. My left hand was missing and four teeth were cracked.
I must have stood there for at least 10 minutes and then from deep within me a storm of mourning brewed and broke forth.
I climbed into the shower and as the water rained down, I crumpled to the floor and sobbed.
The following weeks were very, very dark and the happy-go-lucky girl I had once been was a thing of the past. My family was amazing at trying to lift my spirits and there were days full of sunshine, but they were few and far between. Often I would break down in tears for no reason, but more often than not because I was in pain.
Rehab was tough as I learnt to do all the things I once took for granted.
Sleep became almost impossible for me as I twitched with pain and most nights Mum slept next to me to make sure I stayed calm. I was absolutely drained and my once fun-filled life attending fashion shows for my lifestyle blog, Lolo, seemed a distant memory. “What am I going to do, who will love me?” I would ask my devastated family. And night after night my mum would hold me and reassure me I was still beautiful.
I would be OK for a few minutes then would be overcome by what had happened to me.
Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed and on January 17, when I was off all medication, that’s when my depression hit hard. I was no longer the upbeat girl my family knew and loved.
One night we sat watching a mindless TV show called The Bachelor, where beautiful girls vied for a single guy’s attention and I remember thinking, “I’m never going to be normal. I’m just ugly.’’
From out of nowhere a rage took hold and I started screaming, “My life is ruined. No one will ever love me. I am so ugly.’’ My parents jumped up and tried to help me, but I was inconsolable and that was just one time when anger gripped me.
I knew I was hurting people with my behaviour and that broke my heart, but I just could not stop.
I worried constantly about all the things I was sure I would never be able to do again. I wondered how I would ever waterski, how I would surf or box with one glove, or even
dress myself with one hand. But gradually, with the love of my family, things slowly got better.
I began to find an inner strength and grew more and more determined that what ever I needed to overcome, I would.
I began training with other athletes and after being fitted for six different prosthetic arms, which each performed different functions, I began to realise that I could and would do all the things I thought would not be possible again. My ‘summer arm’ is my prosthetic I like to wear in the summer, as it looks more tanned.
But it is the three different prosthetics I have been given to work out in that have changed everything for me.
They allow me to box and surf and as I got used to them, my body responded by getting stronger and stronger every day. When I first started rehab I could barely do one push-up, but now after working with weights I can manage plenty.
Instead of feeling depressed I began to feel empowered. Now I practise martial arts, box and am more active than I ever was, even before the accident.
My body is the same build, but it is stronger and fitter than ever before. I have been fitted with a false eye that is painted to match my good working right one. At first it felt weird, but as the muscles have grown attached to it, it has started working more like my regular right eye and while I still feel a little self-conscious it’s getting easier every day.
And now I can even tie my hair up by myself, too!
But it was in December 2012 that my life really began to look up – when I met my boyfriend Jason Kennedy.
Heworks for a US TV entertainment show that had been covering my accident and the attraction between us was instant.
‘Hi Lauren, it’s great to meet you’ he said and as our eyes locked I knew someone special had entered my life.
He never knew me with my hand or my eye, but fell in love with me anyway and his love has given me the strength and confidence to feel whole again.
He proposed to me recently and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
I have come so far that the other day I even said to Jason, “I actually feel grateful for the accident as if it had not of happened, I’d have never met you”, and I mean that.
It has taken me many dark months, but finally feel truly happy in my own skin.
I have an amazing man, have pledged to start a foundation for other people who have lost limbs and I don’t think life could get any better.
Jason didn’t know me before, but fell in love with me anyway – and his love’s givenme strength
I don’t remember much about my time in hospital
With my family, before the accident changed my life
The three different prosthesis I have for working out allow me to do all sorts of sports
The love of my parents and twin sister has always been a source of strength
My family and brother in law are so happy to have their positive Lauren back
I amnow stronger and fitter than I was even before my injuries
I met my fiancé, Jason Kennedy, when his TV show covered my accident
In this photo taken with a friend I am wearing my ‘summer arm’, which is the more tanned prosthetic