Ellen is a 27 year-old woman who was born in Ohio. Nine years ago, she and two friends were driving home from Walmart after purchasing a can of compressed air, often used to dust computer keyboards. At the time, “huffing”–quickly inhaling the chemical, difluoroethane, present in products like this cleaning spray–was a popular method for bored teenagers to try to get high. Ellen’s friend tried huffing while driving their car. The chemicals immediately damaged her brain; she went into cardiac arrest and swerved off the road, hitting a tree. Ellen hit her head and neck during the crash, dislocating her hip, fracturing her pelvis, and injuring her brain. She was in a coma for 3 weeks. After she woke up from the coma, Ellen had to learn how to do everything again. Here is how Ellen described her earliest memories after her accident:
During the first six months of my recovery I have very little memories of anything, but was told on a Rancho’s Cognitive Function Scale . . . I was rated a 2 [where 1 is the worst]. Throughout the first year I made a miraculous recovery, gaining back cognition and memory with very slight double vision, but was still very weak and continued to do therapy for my broken neck.
Ellen moved from Ohio to Florida to become a client at NextStep Orlando, a unique paralysis recovery center with a therapeutic regimen designed to focus on spinal cord injuries.
Ellen is kind of an introvert, but once you know her she is really outgoing. Before her accident she was a really sporty girl; she played softball for several years. Now, she has been exploring new hobbies–including modeling. Ellen continues to be a really humble person and, if any, this accident has taught her to live her life to the fullest enjoying every little moment.
Ellen soon became aware of her paralysis and how people’s views and attitudes towards her had changed. She began to realize that these new aspects of her experience provided opportunities for her to re-imagine her own identity. Ellen explained:
“Some people realize you’re in a wheelchair and they treat you differently, you know? And I feel like that’s kind of something that I had to like go through and deal with “
“I think the accident just gave me the opportunity to think, to think or just really sit down and reassess myself and figure out like you don’t, you don’t have all these things that you had.”
“I feel like it did just kind of gave me this sense of humbleness and realizing who I was wasn’t really who I want to be because I feel like being paralyzed, has kind of stripped away everything that I was and it gave me an opportunity to really think about who I wanted to be as a person”
After she became aware of her paralysis, Ellen began to implement strategies in order to rebuild the things that were damage by the accident. These things were not just physical, but also emotional.
“Obviously with my brain injury and when I woke up from my brain injury I was not there. I couldn’t, I had to learn everything again. I had to learn how to talk again. I learned how to eat again. I had to learn how to write.”
“And especially when it first happens to you and you can’t, you have to build up your strength and you have to figure out again what you can and can’t do. “
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“I mean when you’re 18 years old, you’re invincible, like you don’t think about what’s going to happen or like the consequences in your life. You just think like, oh yeah, this is fine. Like I’m just going to go do this. And one of the girls just made a bad decision”
A class at Rollins College was able to reflect on Ellen’s story:
Ellen’s words, “I mean when you’re 18 years old, you’re invincible, like you don’t think about what’s going to happen or like the consequences in your life.” had an emotional impact on us because they were relatable to us. We are 19 and 20, only 1 or 2 years older than Ellen when she had her accident, and what she said is totally true. We usually go home after parties with someone who has drank during the night, but, for some reason, we think nothing is ever going to happen to us. We put ourselves in such dangerous situations because we think we are invincible, as Ellen said. In addition, we felt kind of guilty. We are out there irresponsibly risking our lives for no reason every weekend. We have been in a similar situation to Ellen, but nothing has happened to us, and this is what made us feel embarrassed and unappreciative. We don’t really appreciate our lives like we should. We are so lucky we haven’t gone through a traumatic experience that has taken something away from us even though we have done everything Ellen did at our age.