Injuries Don't Define You
By, Mateja Lane
I was in a car accident. There is no other way to say it; no dramatic prologue, no cliche metaphors. It is something that happened that changed my life but in no way has defined it. And I think that’s the most important thing to take away from trauma. It may have been one of the most dramatic things to happen to me, but it was still just a single event. Life is made up of so many events, and that is just one of them, a chapter in my life’s novel.
I was on summer break from my Master’s Program at Mills College in Oakland helping my mom run her business, Tahoe Teas. It was a nice pause from my studies and gave me the freedom to take a road trip across the country with a few of my oldest friends. I had just spent the month driving in a car from Sacramento to Charleston. I had really only been back in Tahoe for a week, running the Tahoe Teas booth at farmer’s markets and attending events. It was a bit ironic that I had just traveled 2,774 miles, and yet, got in a car accident a mile from my childhood home.
I was driving back from the farmer’s market in Truckee on Highway 89, which has seen its share of tragedies. Maybe people drive too fast, maybe it’s the mist from the river, but that road has seen some things. I stopped to see a friend in Squaw and was heading home. It was summer; the weather was perfect. I was driving my stepdad’s 1957 Chevrolet pickup truck that was beautifully restored. It wasn’t the easiest car to drive with no power steering, but I loved it. The truck’s vintage look made a great display for Tahoe Teas.
The rest of this part of the story is hard for me to tell because I really don’t have memory of it. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone will ever know exactly what happened. The investigation concluded that a utility van heading back to Squaw Valley came over the double yellow line right at the curve at the bottom of Alpine Meadows, and hit my truck head on. The truck was crushed, with no safety features. We had seatbelts installed just the week before. A driver behind me was one of the first on the scene and apparently crawled through the back window to drag me out of a pool of my own blood.
A helicopter care flight took me straight to Reno, straight into surgery for a broken femur. I don’t remember anything until I was out of the ICU two weeks later. That was just the start of my recovery. I had broken my femur, a few ribs, my ulna, and my nose. My right lung was punctured and had to be re-inflated, I damaged the meniscus under my kneecap; I also suffered from brain shearing, which is essentially shaken baby syndrome. I was soon transferred to UC Davis to monitor my head trauma and start rehabilitation. There, we found out I had multiple broken bones in both feet. I had to go into surgery again to restructure my talus bone, the bone between your heel and ankle. Six screws and a plate hold my heel together today.
I spent the next two months in the hospital. Looking back on it now, I don’t even know how I spent the time. I do remember my days filled with different therapies: physical, psychological, speech. Once I returned home, I stayed in a wheel chair for another couple months.
It was a long road back to my physical body feeling strong again. I think getting back to a stable mental state was actually easier. I returned to Mills College a year after my accident to finish my program. I earned a Master’s Degree in Literature. That spring I met my boyfriend, someone new who didn’t know about my accident. It was a good way to move forward with a clean slate. We moved to Austin, Texas together and it was a place where I could write my own story. I got a good job at a startup and we had a lot of fun. The car accident, my injuries, my pain and trauma were part of a story I could choose to tell. People who met me couldn’t define me by what happened to me.
I love my home, and I am so grateful that I was raised in a tight-knit, connected community. But I think small towns also come with certain prejudices. Everyone knows each other; everyone knows each other’s stories, families, drama. I would come home to visit and would run into someone at the grocery store, maybe a parent’s friend or an acquaintance that didn’t really follow my recovery. They would give me that smile made up of pity and pride, so amazed at how I survived and maybe even thrived after something so terrible, so horrible, so crippling.
People who know me know I was in a car accident. An accident that didn’t destroy my life. An accident that didn’t kill me. I could say all kinds of cliche things now. That it only made me stronger. That it made me appreciate the little things in life. But really, it was an accident that happened. I’ve moved on. There are so many more things in my life that I look to, that make me happy. I honestly think that trauma is harder for family members. I look back on my accident and feel more for my family. They almost lost someone they love. I was in a hospital bed, broken and not myself. The only thing I had to do was heal; they had to watch.
In conclusion, I am proof that injuries don’t define you. A traumatic event doesn’t dictate your personality or outlook on life if you don’t let it. That doesn’t mean to bury it, ignore it, and move on. It just means that there is a way to move forward. I talk about my accident when I want. I tell new friends or coworkers when I want. Everyone is surprised I still do everything that I do. But why should they be? You shouldn’t use trauma as a crutch. Use it to learn, use it to love, use it to live. Something so terrible can lead to something beautiful.
How my body will feel by the time I’m 60 is something I don’t want to necessarily think about. I still have a rod in my femur that is now starting to give me trouble. I think I will forever live with a crunchy knee. My ankle gets sore and achy after strenuous activity. I’m hoping orthopedics will be so advanced when I’m old that I’ll just get a new leg that works great. As far as my head injury goes, it was an invisible recovery. People who know me say they don’t notice any difference. Sometimes I have trouble recalling descriptive words, tip-of-the tongue phenomenon. Sometimes I forget names. Is that just normal aging or is it from the brain shearing?
These are questions that I honestly don’t lose sleep over. There are some things in life we will never be able to answer. I live day to day. I make plans, but am spontaneous as well. I am kind, and I do things that bring me joy. I am living, and I know better than anyone that anything can happen at any time. It just matters how you move forward from it.