Anniversary of Accident Makes Me Appreciate My Children

July 2 was the one-year anniversary of my younger daughter's serious car accident. I didn't want to dwell on it yesterday—and possibly increase my anxiety—but I feel some reflection is still needed, as part of my healing process. Early on the morning of July 2, 2011, my daughter was riding in a van with five other teenagers and an adult driver traveling up the Eastern Shore of Virginia on their way to a religious camp in New York. About an hour from home, the van driver stopped at a red light. An old converted school bus behind them never braked, slamming into the back of their van going about 55 miles per hour.

Thankfully, two health care professionals immediately stopped to help. One, an OB/GYN who was traveling along the highway, cleared the airway of the girl in the backseat, who was closest to the point of impact. The other, a nurse who had just gotten off duty at the nearby hospital, attended to the rest of the passengers, including my daughter, until more help arrived.

The most seriously injured girl was airlifted to the nearest trauma center, which happened to be in our city, Norfolk, Virginia. The rest were examined at the community hospital. Meanwhile, parents were called, and I arrived at my daughter's emergency room stretcher about an hour after the accident.

She was conscious, but delirious, frequently crying out in pain and throwing up, then drifting into semiconsciousness. She was also bleeding from her right ear. Her X-rays had not revealed any problems, and the doctor and nurses on call told me they thought she had a ruptured eardrum. However, when it came time to release the kids about two hours later, she was still moaning in pain and seemed to be losing consciousness rather than regaining it. She fought with me to not hold the throw-up bag under her mouth, and she screamed at the doctor to shut-up. (She later told me that she doesn't remember being in that hospital at all, even though she gave the intake person information to fill out her forms upon entry—probably trauma-induced memory loss.)

Instead of releasing her, the doctor wisely called an ambulance to transport her to the Norfolk trauma center for further testing. Many hours and many tests later, doctors there determined that she had a fractured skull and cerebral spinal fluid leakage. The day had played out in such a blur—information coming in bits and pieces throughout the day—that my husband and I hardly realized how serious her condition was until we talked to the doctors the next morning.

They told us that she must remain still until the cerebral spinal fluid stopped leaking, and, if that occurred, she could heal normally over time, though there was the possibility of some hearing loss and facial paralysis. If the CFS fluid continued leaking … well, we didn't want to go there. After five days in the hospital, she came home to recuperate, and after three months, she resumed normal activities. Thankfully, she healed well, with only some slight permanent hearing loss.

Still, it was a life-changing summer for her—and likely for all of us who had children in the van that day. We realize that the accident could easily have killed our children—and we are very grateful that they are alive and well today.

But, how will it affect them and us in the long-term? I know my daughter's view on life changed. She had always wanted to play college soccer and was headed in that direction, but as those doors slammed shut after the accident, she realized how quickly things could change—often out of our control. She accepted this and focused, instead, on going to a good college to study medicine, something she'd thought about before the accident, but seemed more focused on after the accident. She also became more deeply involved with the religious group that she was with when the accident occurred—partly, I think, because of the shared experience, and partly because of the spiritual support.

She doesn't talk much about the accident. The only thing she remembers from that day is the van load of kids singing Billy Joel's "Piano Man" right before they got hit. One night about three months ago, we were finishing dinner in a restaurant when the piano player began performing that song. My daughter cried and sobbed uncontrollably until we left. She couldn't pinpoint exactly why she was crying, other than the overwhelming sadness of the accident.

How has the accident changed me? I feel a little more vulnerable, a little less in control. I appreciate my family a little more, and I value our good health. I feel fortunate to be alive—and fortunate that my family is still alive with me.

Sadly, many parents annually observe the anniversary of the loss of a child. I can't begin to understand their pain. Just thinking about what could've happened terrifies me. Now, every time one of my daughters leaves the house, I try to remember to tell her I love her and silently pray for her safe return.

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