"I Wouldn't Trade How I Am Now For How I Used To Be"

by Barbara Spear

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - May 2000

It took an almost fatal, crippling accident to make Barbara Spear realize that she had an important purpose in life. Here, in her own words, is how she was transformed by a life experience that devastates many others. Barbara says:

The day that my fiancee and I signed the final papers to purchase 40 acres of undeveloped land, we drove up to the property in his 18 wheeler truck. The drive took over an hour because we had to drive up 5 miles of dirt road after leaving the paved county road.

We were both really excited; especially Bill who had wanted to buy this lot for years. We walked the entire 40 acres deciding where the best view was, where we would put the mobile home, the sheds, the water tanks. It was getting to be late afternoon and he had taken the truck to pick up some iron from his friend's property below us and I was getting the BBQ ready to cook some steaks. Bill dropped the load he had gotten but told me that he had to go back because some of the iron had fallen off the truck and was in the middle of the dirt road. I decided to go with him since the coals had to get hot first.

As we left our property, the truck lost its brakes. The truck gathered up speed because of a steep hill. Bill made it around a curve only to find his friend Ron in the middle of the road picking up the iron. He swerved to miss Ron, hit an embankment, and went airborne for approximately 50 feet. The truck crashed into a small canyon going 60 miles an hour.

It took one and half hours before the ambulance got to us and then another two hours to get me and my boyfriend free from the cab. On the way to the hospital they had to revive me three times and then another two times in the emergency room. The hospital called my family and told them that they needed to get there ASAP because I didn't have long to live. I went into a coma that they couldn't revive me from.

After several weeks my mother was told (by one of the treating pulmonary doctors "Barbara has a snowball's chance in HELL of surviving" and that she should consider taking me off life support. But my mother wouldn't authorize pulling the plug. (After I woke I asked her why and she said " I told you that if you wanted to die then you would have to do it yourself " She also said that she just couldn't lose another child.

After three months in a coma, numerous operations, and one million dollar hospital bill, I woke up. At that time the prognosis was that I would have some brain damage. My vocal cords were paralyzed, my lungs only had a 10% capacity, and my left leg was numb.

When I woke up from the coma in the hospital, I remember thinking how strange that was that it was December not September. Especially because I had such vivid memories during that time. I had an ongoing life and it took some processing to understand that it was just in my mind. Thinking back now I, myself, am surprised that I accomplished what I have. I was not, how would you say it, a "Happy Camper" that I was still alive. A couple of years before my accident I lost my youngest sister when she was hit by a drunk driver. She left behind a 9 year old precious little girl who I loved almost as much as I loved her mother. It was the hardest thing I have ever done to tell her daughter that her mother, my baby sister, was dead. Even now in writing it tears are falling and I want to scream with the unfairness and the pain. I went into a major depression and was still battling it when my accident happened.

So my thoughts when I discovered that I was alive, but just barely, were not happy ones. I was angry, very very angry, that I had not been allowed to die. Not only was I alive I was scarred badly, I couldn't, and might never, breathe again without the support of a machine, my vocal cords were paralyzed and did not know if I would ever talk again or if I did it would be with that device in your throat that sounds so awful. I could not sit up, feed myself, or even write what I wanted to say.

I remember thinking that in movies they never show what it was really like to come out of a coma, how incredibly weak you are, how hard it is to regain the use of your body again. My doctors and nurses were all so pleased, my family was telling me what they have been through the last 3 months but was feeling "I hate you all for making me be alive and live like this!"

My one doctor that gave me a 5% chance, was more supportive to my family than all the other doctors. He had encouraged my mother not to pull the plug because there was still a chance. He worked very hard trying to explain what my physical problems were. I thought "how can I be dying with this disease which I had never heard of before?" The doctor, Dr. Struve, brought in other patients that had survived to prove to me that it was possible. My respiratory therapist told me that she had had ARDS (Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome) in the 70's and that was why she became a respiratory therapist.

Somewhere in that process I made the decision that if I survived, I would go do something to give back to the world what was given to me. In one way it was the only thing that made sense. Why I was still alive against all the odds of medical science. Dr. Struve spent a great deal of time nursing my spirit once I was conscious, telling me it was a situational depression and I would get over it. My thoughts were "Right, like I did my sister." My minister, my ongoing therapist I had at the time of my wreck, the Sisters in the hospital all came and talked to me many times. Did I feel sorry for myself? You bet I did! Somewhere I began to accept that if I didn't get to die, then I must be here for a reason and I better go do it. Helping me to fight the odds is a trait I have always had-tell me something can't be done and I would have to do it. Adding to that the thought of being dependent and having to ask for help did not fit my personality. My minister's comments still bring a chuckle when he said "Well I guess you will have to learn how to receive now won't you?"

My explanation of why I recovered and others don't has to do with many reasons: my stubbornness, my anger that I was forced to live, and I was damned if I would be a cripple, the thoughts that I could not do this to my "Krisstie Bug," my niece, since I had taken the role of her mother, the support and love I was given by numerous hospital staff, my realization of how bad my fiancee must feel since it was his truck, and not wanting anyone to feel the pain I had felt when my sister died. I thought of all the things I "should have done" different that might have prevented it (even though there was nothing in reality that I could have done).

The biggest personal explanation comes from years of struggling with the idea "Is there a God, why am I here, is there a purpose to life?" When I was about eight years told I told my mother that if all there was to life is that you are born, you live and you die, then the winner of the game wasn't who lives longest, but who got out first. From that point on I began to look for ways to get out, I thought of it on and off all my life. I have had a lot of close calls- illnesses, accidents, but always with the same result-people telling me how lucky I am to be alive. Many times I was suicidal and yet couldn't do it. I always wondered what is keeping me here when I want to leave.

After waking up from the coma and hearing again that it was a miracle for me to be alive and even a bigger one that I had no brain damage, I finally decided that there must be more to life than living and dying. I remember saying "Okay God, if you want me alive this bad then I better go do what I'm suppose to do." I finally got off the fence and made the decision that it wasn't a question of IF but WHEN, and I never wanted to do these lessons over again.

My fiancé brought me an engagement and wedding ring set soon after I woke from my coma. We said our vows there in the hospital and later did them in an official ceremony. It took awhile for me to feel happy to be alive, but with the help of some great people I decided that must be a reason for me to be alive. I felt like I needed to go do something.

All my life I knew that I was suppose to help people, because I had a "knack" for it. I had worked on my BA in Social Work at USC in the early 70's until I got sick and had to quit. Checking groceries paid more than a college degree would and I guess I took the easy way out. Every so often I felt like I needed to do something worthwhile and would work within that field, but could not make myself return to school. I even went to the university campus a year before the wreck, but never finished the application.

The accident didn't completely influence the direction I took, but it did make it impossible to go back to checking groceries. The idea I had after waking up and hearing the other stories played a significant part in my final choice. The need to return to the universe for what had been given to me was vitally important and made me realize that I had decided to live instead of getting through life.

After a year of rehabilitation, I returned to school. After an absence of over twenty years, I finished my BA program and then went on to earn a Master's degree in Social Work. I am currently working in the mental health field and preparing for my licensure exam to be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

The way that I am different comes from that last explanation. I no longer sit on the fence being angry about life and too chicken to get out. I have finally accepted that there is a purpose to our lives and even though I might not know exactly what it is or why, I know there is one. When I look back on who I was before the accident-no scars, slim, active, no handicaps, able to sing and dance, but with such emotional and spiritual confusion-and compare that with how I am now-heavy, scarred, not able to be active, difficulty walking, using oxygen to do anything but sit, no dancing or singing-if given the choice to be who I am now or who I was before, I choose me now without hesitation!

When working on my thesis for my master's, I created a guide to help people who were faced with similar circumstances by exploring the idea of taking what appears to be a negative and transforming it into a positive and emphasized the power that gives an individual. As a clinical social worker doing psychotherapy, it is one of my most useful tools to empower people.

Bill and I are still together today, living out on our property. He was never able to return to being an iron worker and has become a mechanic.

I would like to include my e-mail address with the story. I would be interested in all feedback: besw@earthlink.net

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