On July 4, 2007, I attended our town’s public fireworks show with my children, who were 3 and 7 years old. We sat with friends and watched the show. My oldest was standing with his friend and my youngest was laying down with his head in my lap so I could cover his ears.
There was a misfire during the finale and a three-inch shell flew over the heads of the people sitting in front of us. It hit my friend in the chest, burned my oldest on his backside, and landed and exploded on me and my youngest.
Stop. And think about what I just wrote. This was not a backyard firework. This was a commercial explosive. This was a firework that was intended to shoot high into the sky.
After the explosion, the first thing I remember is being on my hands and knees and the realization that I’m burning. People around me quickly came to my aid.
I was was lifted in a medevac to MedStar Washington Hospital Center. I remember someone from the Pastoral Care team offered to pray with me and I thought I must be dying.
To give you an idea of the force of the blast: the buttons on my button-fly shorts turned into projectiles and had to be surgically removed from my left thigh.
I had my first surgery that night. It was a very confusing time in the hospital. My physical injuries were numerous and severe. I had 2nd and 3rd degree burns from my scalp to my knees. My left arm took the brunt of the blast: I had a compound fracture and was missing a lot of skin and tissue. Both my eardrums ruptured and were more than 75% gone.
Doctors worked on different areas of my body and it all seemed disjointed. I was wheeled to and from surgery, x-rays, and hearing tests. I spent twelve days in the burn unit. I remember the day I went home. It seemed surreal when the nurse came in with a wheelchair. She wheeled me to the parking garage and it felt like she was wheeling me off a cliff.
It wasn’t until I returned home that I realized that the hospital’s job was to stabilize me. I was going to recover at home.
For six weeks I had a home nurse who arrived every morning to help me bathe and change my bandages. My parents, who lived two-hours away, took turns staying with us the entire summer. They would pass on the highway as they traded places. All of this in addition to multiple follow-up appointments and more surgeries was crucial to my physical wounds healing.
But in terms of recovering from the emotional trauma, I was struggling.
When I was in the car driving, I imagined driving into oncoming traffic. I saw no hope for my future and could not imagine things getting any better.
Desperate for help I was connected with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was also referred to a neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed me with a blast Traumatic Brain Injury. Getting these diagnoses was critical in getting the help and support that I needed.
I started volunteering with Trauma Survivors Network in December 2009. I’m so glad that I had the courage to call Brenda Lynn, the TSN coordinator at Inova Fairfax.
After going through the hospital’s volunteer training I was paired up with an experienced Peer Visitor to shadow on a patient visit. I remember feeling very nervous walking into the patient’s room. The volunteer introduced us and explained the Peer Visitor program to the patient. She explained to the patient that we were former trauma patients ourselves and we were there to offer support. The patient, who was initially guarded, visibly relaxed, and engaged in conversation with us.
I think back to my early peer visits and can now see that as much as I was there to help the current patients the visits were helping me, too.
I cringe when I think of my initial visits. I talked way too much about myself, my accident, and my recovery. We were taught in training the 80/20 rule: listen 80% of the time and talk 20%. I easily had my 80/20 rules reversed. However, with experience and time, my visits with patients finally gave me a way to put my accident and recovery in perspective. And I was able to flip the 80/20 rule and I became an active listener to the patient.
I participated in different support groups for several years. Having a brain injury left me feeling lost and misunderstood in everyday activities as a mom and wife. However, being in a room and sharing and learning with other survivors gave me a place to learn and helped me accept the new me.
I am so thankful for the Trauma Survivors Network. I am still a volunteer at Inova Fairfax as a Peer Visitor. I want to make a connection with trauma survivors and offer support and hope to new patients and their families.
Speaking to medical professionals as a trauma survivor is so important because the learning never stops. It is important to teach and remind medical professionals that it is not just a body in the Emergency Room or hospital bed, but a daughter and a mother, a son, and a father. And recovering from trauma is more than wounds healing and scars fading. Support and help have to go beyond the patient being discharged from the hospital.
Remember earlier when I described the moment my nurse wheeled me to the parking garage? I felt like she was pushing me off a cliff.
At the time, I did not know that being discharged meant only that I was stable. I did not know the recovery process, both physical and emotional, was just beginning.
I can only imagine how different — not easier — but different my recovery would have been if I had met with a Peer Visitor who might have assured me that things would get better but it was not going to happen quickly and I was going to have to work hard on my recovery.
TSN’s Peer Visitor program had the biggest impact on me as a survivor.
However, all of the programs are important. I always tell patients that Trauma Survivors Network and the hospital are there for them even after they are discharged.
These programs are vital to help survivors connect with others, find a purpose, and better themselves.
My name is Katy and I have been involved with Trauma Survivors Network as a Peer Visitor at Inova Fairfax Hospital outside of Washington, DC. I have been a Next Steps class leader and presenter several times.