• Survivor or Caregiver

TBI One Love Survivor Danielle Karst

Hello, my name is Danielle.

In 1997 there was this awful car accident with a Jeep Cherokee and another car driven by a young guy, speeding around a corner.  The girl in the Jeep was driving a friend home after a cheerleading performance when getting into that car accident on the first Saturday morning after the new school year had started.  The accident put the 16-year-old in a comatose state, ‘waking up’ 2 1/2 months later, right before Thanksgiving.  I’m the girl in the Jeep, the young traumatic brain injury survivor.

My car was turning left, past a lane of oncoming traffic when another car came around the corner and didn’t see me in time.  I was told the young driver’s car (the guy was only like 19 years old) slammed into the drivers (my) side and flipped my jeep over.  I had to be cut from the car by the “jaws of life”.  However, I don’t remember, I was unconscious upon impact.  It was only 1030 in the morning, but I do remember some things that happened that day. 

 I remember that the grass was wet with the early morning dew and the girls who were tops for the stunts had to have the bottoms of their shoes towel dried and be carried around by other cheerleaders.  I remember my friend Jade asking for a ride home and me saying that I wasn’t really allowed to drive with other people in the car yet, and still offering, almost insisting she let me drive her home.  I remember putting on my seatbelt.

After being in the ICU for nearly a month, I was transported to Kluge’s Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville, VA.  My parents did not know what to think, the doctors and specialists were telling them everything to I’d never wake up, if I did I’d be a vegetable to I’d be totally fine.  No one knows what to say with a brain injury; the brain is so complex.

Therapy at the hospital would go on all day. I would have physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Counseling with a social worker, School therapy, (where we would work on basic writing, and holding a pencil) and every day I would participate in water therapy.  Even while I was in my comatose state, I would lay on a raft and the movements of the water would be very helpful in regaining my equilibrium. After I regained consciousness and could stand in an upright position, every day I would get in the pool with therapy to try and get my balance. 

In water a person is weightless; just working on the mechanics and the structure of walking (butt in, lift the feet and push the chest forward), I started off holding onto two people, then progressed to one.  I was using a wheelchair to get around from therapy sessions in the hospital.  In physical therapy I was working on stepping at first, with my heels first, but that never worked, I would always tip toe around at first anyway.  A few months later I watched a video of my first attempt at walking and was amazed at how long it took me to walk down the hallway. 

 In physical therapy there would be a standing box, to get weight my weight spread more evenly onto my heels.  The standing box is a podium on a platform that was boxed in to stand on; there is a condition informally called ‘drop-toe’ or foot drop that happens to people that are unconscious so long and not walking or flexing their feet so the muscles relax and the foot points forward, almost on tiptoes. I wore casts on my feet/legs to try to keep the feet flexed and was working on shifting my weight to my heels after I “woke up”.

In Occupational Therapy, the therapist was working on my senses, like olfactory, (smell) by sticking strong smelling herbs in my face while I was in a coma, and I was said to have scrunched up my nose and made faces.  In my Speech therapy we would work on memory, the therapist held up pictures, she showed me a picture of the Washington monument, I answered ‘the big pencil’.  She shook her head no, and my Mom was cracking up in the background saying, “No, that’s what she’s always called it.”I was shown other pictures of common items, and got a lot of them correct, could describe them, but just not think of the word.

The Speech and Language Pathologist, Polly showed me a picture of Princess Diana soon after coming out of my coma.  I identified her correctly, and said, but isn’t she dead?  Her car accident had made news only a few weeks before mine.  My memory was very selective, remembering some events, but not others.Even though life was going on for all of my classmates, they hadn’t forgotten me. ALL my friends were at Fairfax Hospital when I was in the ICU, and a lot of my friends came to visit me in the Rehab hospital in Charlottesville. Friends from my cheerleading all-star squad, my closest friend and maid of honor (at my wedding 10 years later), the baseball boys, my hospital room was the place to be on the weekends!  Just kidding, but I did get a lot of visitors.  My room at the hospital was covered in cards, stuffed animals, my cheerleading squad made me a get well banner.

I “woke up” one day while my Dad was helping me with dinner (I had a gastrointestinal tube in my stomach, to give me medication and food but the nurses were working on getting me to ingest food orally), my Dad must have looked another way or gotten up without putting up the gate on the side of my bed, and a split second later, I had rolled on the floor getting a bump on my head.  He hugged me close, and apologized again and again, but I think that fall must have knocked some sense into me, because I remember everything from that day forward.  That must have been a Saturday, because my Dad was with me, he switched off with my Mom who took a leave of absence from work to stay with me during the work week, while my Dad would be at home working and staying with my brother.

 On Sunday (I’m assuming), my brother must have traveled up with my mom to the hospital because when he walked in, I was just laughing and laughing.  I swore that it wasn’t really my brother, because he was so big and tall! I asked him what grade he was in (eighth), his age (13) and when he told me this, I started bursting out laughing again because I remembered him as being a short little blond (his hair had turned a golden brown as he had gotten older).  I believed he was my brother, I just found the whole situation hilarious!

I was allowed a home pass for Christmas, because I had been one of the patients with the longest stay.  It was great seeing being at home for Christmas that year.  Our family did what we always do- having a “German Weinachten” over at my grandmother’s, dinner and opening presents from Oma and Uncle Pat, and then doing the whole traditional Christmas at home with my parents and brother the next day.After Christmas at home, everything started to feel real. 

Right after I came out of my coma, I was afraid to go to sleep at night because I thought this would all turn into another long dream.  When I was unconscious in a coma, I wanted to wake up, I thought I had just been having a really long dream.  I would fall asleep early, trying to stay up until 9 p.m. when the hospital turned off the phones for the night (sometimes falling asleep before that), and then I’d wake up at a bizarre hour at night, like 3 or 4 am and talk to the nurses or just lay there until my mom came at 7am.  If she was like 2 or 3 minutes past 7, I’d tease her and say that she’s late, but after that Christmas break, I could sleep through the night. 

I knew it was all real then.  Life is real, life is happening.   Life goes on, and sometimes we can be very thankful for that life. C’est la Vie- That’s life and that’s how it’s going to be; it just matters what you do with that life.  No matter if it’s your first chance or second.  Let’s take that opportunity to do something important and worthwhile. 

My passion of helping others emerged from my accident, and I want to help others in similar situations.  I know how hard it is to be in the hospital, a rehab center or a nursing home with nothing fun to do but the free time activities.  I started looking into schools with Therapeutic Recreation programs and found Longwood University to have the best program in the state.  Close to home, but just far enough away to where I could feel independent, which is something that I definitely needed at that time in my life.

 I was in the process of growing up, yet I still needed support from just having recovered from a life-changing car accident.  The Academic Support Center at Longwood is wonderful, was located directly across the street from my dorm building and the staff almost felt like a second family.  I would spend many hours there getting help with my classes or just to have a safe haven in which to come and study.  When visiting campus, I fell in love with the size and friendly atmosphere, and I just knew that I had made the best decision of my life in attending!

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