The Accident – How it all Began

For my newest readers, this journal entry is from my Caring Bridge site.  It will give you some background into how my journey as a TBI survivor began.

Does God speak through tattoos?

Journal entry by Brenda Johnson — 5/24/2015

Sunday 5/24/15

Yesterday, some dear friends of ours stopped by for a visit.  It was so wonderful to see them and to share in their fellowship.  As the conversation played out through the typical, “how are you” and “how are you feeling” questions, it eventually turned to the often asked question, “So what happened?”.  I know that many of you already know the story, but some don’t, so through this entry I’m going to talk about the accident as well as talk about tattoos which I recognize seems totally bizarre and unrelated, but after reading this entry, you’ll understand why.  I’ve been told by my psychologist that talking about the accident is therapeutic, and so writing this entry is more for me than it is for you, however, I’ve also been told that I need to be more selfish right now so, there you go :).

On Friday, May 1st, seven of us (math teachers from Eden Prairie High School) headed to Duluth for the Minnesota Council for Teachers of Mathematics annual conference (I know – how much geekier can you get?!).  As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the teachers was in his own car because he had to drop his daughter off at daycare and the timing wasn’t going to quite fit with the time the rest of us wanted to leave, but as it turns out, that was a huge blessing.  We left Eden Prairie a little after 6:00 am and were on our way for what we anticipated would be a fun weekend of math conversations (I know, gross!) and camaraderie.  We played Catch Phrase in the car (which incidentally my team rocked at) and ate bacon (a part of my morning ritual – yes, I’m sure my arteries are clogging up as I write this).  We were headed up I-35, having a wonderful time and the car was full of laughter.

At around 8:00 am, we were in the left lane with another vehicle to our right, and we heard a large “explosion” like sound.  I think all of us thought that the back right tire had blown.  As it turns out, we were later told that the tire had actually fallen off.  As you can imagine, the car started to swerve and the driver tried to correct the path, however, with no tire on the back right side, the back of the car completely fish-tailed and we ended up facing south as we flew into the median (a large ditch) separating the north and south bound traffic.  The vehicle went slightly airborne and the last thing I remember is thinking, “Lord, this isn’t going to be good.”  I have no recollection of what transpired after that, but as best as I can piece together, what happened next is the vehicle entered the ditch backwards and the back landed on a large piece of concrete that was sitting in the ditch and basically collapsed the entire back end of the car (the location where Rachel and I were sitting).  The car then rolled three or four times and stopped when it landed next to a tree.

Thankfully, I do not remember any of this, however, this is when the question, “Does God speak through tattoos?” begins to play out.  After the car stopped rolling, four of the people in the car who were obviously all in shock, were able to get out of the vehicle.  The driver and front passenger did a quick head count and realized that my friend, Rachel, and I were still trapped in the back part of the truck because with the roof collapsing, there was no way to get out.  The front passenger noticed that the car was starting to smoke and so, worried that it was going to start on fire, the driver and passenger quickly tried to figure out how to get Rachel and me out.  Rachel was somewhat awake and was unable to get her seat belt unclasped.  I have no idea how, but somehow the passenger was able to assist her and she was able to crawl forward and get out of the vehicle.  Rachel suffered a fracture of her T-12 as well, which is not surprising as the roof of the car basically compressed both of us down into a fetal-like position.

I have called the driver my hero throughout this entire ordeal and I’ll explain why in a minute, but what you first need to know about him is that his arms are covered with tattoos (I told you I’d get there eventually).  At school, the kids are mesmerized by all of his tattoos, and his co-workers frequently talk about getting those arm coverings that are covered with fake tattoos so that we can be as “cool” as him.  Anyway, back to the accident.  Immediately after Rachel was out of the vehicle, the driver went to work trying to get me out.  He and I have spoken about this and due to the shock factor, he’s not sure how he did it either, but somehow, he was able to get through all of the compressed material, get my seatbelt unfastened, and pull me from the vehicle.  At that point, there were other bystanders who were now trying to assist in getting everyone the care they needed and I believe a few people then assisted him in carrying me to a location a little further away and laid me down on the ground.  He was my first tattooed angel.

Fast forward a few minutes, because as I said, I was unconscious through all of this, and my next memory from the accident is waking up looking at some hay-like grass and hearing someone calling my name, “Brenda, Brenda, can you hear me?”  As I turned my head, I saw a gentleman with a green t-shirt, and a brown beard, with arms covered in tattoos.  My second tattooed angel.  He must have had some medical training although he wasn’t one of the actual EMT’s that were on the site because he kept asking me certain questions and was calling out orders to people as though he had some medical knowledge.  I wish I knew who this man was because I’d like to thank him for keeping me calm and assuring me that everything was going to be alright.

From this point on, I’m going to fast forward to the Sandstone hospital because I don’t remember much, but what I do remember is the love and support that I got from my friends as we all went through our various health assessments and the decision to evacuate both Rachel and me to the cities.  While Rachel and I were laying in adjoining beds in the Sandstone ER, we kept trying to comfort each other and we both continuously stated how happy we were to be alive.  Rachel clearly stated that this was an opportunity given to us by God as a way to spread the good news that Jesus Christ was our Lord and Savior – and that we did.  At every chance we were given, we clearly stated that God saved us and that it was not by chance that we had survived that crash.

Rachel and I underwent multiple tests and at that point, it was determined that we would both need to be evacuated to Level 1 trauma centers – Rachel to North Memorial and me to HCMC.  Originally, the plan was to air-lift us, but due to whether conditions, it was determined that it would be best to transport us by ambulance.  I don’t remember much of the ride other than it was really bumpy and Thomas, the EMT that was in the back with me, was amazing.  He did everything possible to keep me comfortable and engaged in conversation.  At one point, my blood pressure dropped to 60/30 and he decided to run a quick EKG.  When he pulled the strip of paper off to show me how good my heart was doing, I exclaimed, “that’s a sine curve – I teach about those in my math classes”.  He laughed and said he knew I was going to be alright if I could remember that.  We then had a 5-10 minute conversation about sine curves and he asked if I wanted a longer printout to put up in my classroom and of course I did, so he printed one off and somehow got it to my family members.  It is sitting on my dresser at home waiting to be put up in my classroom this fall :).

Now, back to the tattoo piece.  After arriving at HCMC, I have almost no recollection of the first week or so of my hospital stay as I was on some pretty major drugs.  I have brief memories of people coming in to see me, but most of it has, thankfully, been wiped from my memory as I understand that I was in significant pain during that time.  What I do remember, very clearly though, is that one of my nurses that I had a few different days had a tattoo of the rosary on her inside forearm and every time she came in to check my vitals, administer pain meds, or just see how I was doing, I saw that rosary and I remember thinking over and over, this was God’s way of telling me that everything was going to be ok – that I was going to make it through all of the pain and anxiety I was experiencing.  This was my third tattooed angel.

Finally, I’m going to fast forward to the end of my stay at HCMC when I was at the Knapp Rehabilitation Center.  One of the things that the rehab center has in place for patients, if they so desire, is to have a peer mentor.  Someone who has been through a similar situation who can relate to everything that I, as a patient, have been through.  That’s when I met Tim.  Tim is a man who I would guess to be in his 30’s who owned his own construction company and had a steel beam fall on him at work.  He broke his back (and multiple other bones) and also suffered from a mild traumatic brain injury.  He came in to talk to me about his accident and how things have transpired for him since the accident.  He also simply offered to be a listening ear if I needed someone to talk to who really “understood” the feelings and anxiety that I was experiencing.  As Tim talked, I couldn’t help but notice the tattoo he had on his arm.  It was a band that went all the way around his arm and it reminded me of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head prior to his crucifixion.  Tim was my fourth tattooed angel providing me with the reassurance that what I was going through would only be temporary and that eventually, my life would get back to normal.

As I laid in bed last night, I thought about all of the things that had transpired since that first explosive sound we heard on I-35, and I knew that God had put so many amazing people in exactly the place that they needed to be throughout this entire experience.  Brian and I had a quiet moment this morning at the breakfast table and I cried because it’s so hard for me right now to not do any of the things that I want to or should be doing.  Things as silly as picking up decorations for Jordan’s 16th birthday party that we’re having tomorrow or being able to only walk a quarter of a mile before feeling absolutely exhausted.  I feel guilty about having those feelings because I am so blessed to be alive, but as Brian reminded me, I’m also human and am allowed to have these moments.  I know that the situation that I’m in will only be temporary, and so I reflect back on those tattooed angels and the reassurance that they provided me all along the way because I know that God had a plan and having me practice a serious amount of patience and relaxation was a part of that plan.

I will leave you with this verse:

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all of your ways – Psalm 91:11

Blessings,

Brenda (and the rest of the Johnson family)

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