My Passion for Work Helped Me Heal and Amazed My Doctors
September 30, 2015
The following is a guest post from Stacy Esterline, patient and Diplomat employee.
On Thursday, May 23, 2013, I woke up a happy, healthy 28-year-old. I had my dream job. Worked for a highly recognized specialty pharmacy. Happily married. Great family. Some of the best friends a person could ask for. I had the world on a string.
And then, my life changed.
The evening commute I’ll never forget.
That day, I left work on time—something I rarely did. As a lead over the Medicare B team, I would often stay to make sure my team and the patients we served were supported. Though I was in a management position, I still jumped at the opportunity to hop on the phone to help a patient. I never wanted a patient to wait. I wanted to provide them peace of mind knowing we were there for them, going above and beyond.
I drove home the same way I’d driven for a year.
It had rained on and off that day, but to my surprise the roads seemed reasonably clear and rush-hour traffic was moving at its usual pace. I was enjoying some quality time with my mom. We like to carpool, and so we were talking about our day. I will never forget what happened next.
I saw a white car that was coming up behind us hit the median, spin around and hit the median again. The driver did not stop. He continued driving erratically behind us. My first thought was that something was medically wrong with the driver, and I told my mom I was worried about him. Our exit was coming up. She told me to just get off the freeway, and if the driver got off too, we would check on him.
I was in the right lane preparing to turn when my mom told me that the white car had also exited. It was behind us and wasn’t going to stop. I was sitting at a red light, and could not go anywhere, as there was a lot of traffic.
We were going to be hit.
The first impact jolted my car forward. My body lunged toward the steering wheel until the seatbelt locked me in place. Being hit from behind felt like being on a plane during touchdown, when the landing gear hits the tarmac for the first time and the plane begins to brake. I remember cranking the wheel to the right as far as I could, hoping that would keep us out of the intersection ahead.
The second time he hit my car, I hit my head on the driver-side window and we were pushed into oncoming traffic. Thankfully, the other drivers were paying attention, and swerved around us.
My mom and I both seemed to be fine. Our main concern was for the driver of the other vehicle. I threw off my high heels and we ran toward the man in the white car.
His windshield was busted, he had lost the rubber off a couple of tires and we could see he was bleeding. The closer we got, the more we could smell alcohol. When we asked him if he was all right, he said his brakes had gone out. We reassured him that help was on the way.
And to our surprise, he proceeded to drive off.
The unthinkable had just happened: We were hit by a careless drunk driver and he’d fled the scene. When he was found, he had no idea he had been in an accident.
As we waited for police to arrive, traffic was still moving all around us. I was afraid to get back in the car in case it was going to be hit again. So we waited outside in the rain with my feet in a puddle.
In the half-hour it took to file the police report, I started feeling pain in my neck. My head had been hurting since the accident. My mom insisted that I be checked at the emergency room. The physicians ran a few tests. Everything came back fine. They discharged me with some pain meds, saying that I would probably be sore for a few days.
Little did we know that in 72 hours, my life would change.
I began one of the most difficult journeys of my life.
The first signs that something was really wrong came when symptoms began that were more than simple pain or soreness. I could not make out the words on a letter. I stood there staring at the page not understanding what the words meant. I’d lost the ability to read—all at once. I called to my husband, who didn’t understand what I was saying. With tears running down my face, I told him I could see the letters but had no idea what they meant. And I had no idea what was going on. At the time, the unknown was terrifying.
I had trouble walking. I was not steady on my feet. It was as if I was trying to ride a bike for the first time, having to distribute your weight just right so you don’t end up falling to either side. I had to have someone walk with me to keep me upright and someone to sit in the bathroom to make sure I didn’t fall while taking a shower. I was like a toddler just learning to walk as I stumbled around not sure if my feet were actually on steady ground. Thankfully, I never fell. If I had to walk on my own, I used something—even a hallway bookshelf—to hold onto.
I attended a funeral and didn’t recognize family members I had known for years. My speech was slurred, and I seemed at a loss for words, using hand gestures to try and pull the words out of my mouth. My mind worked. I knew what I wanted to say but the words never came. I had the worst head pain I had ever experienced.
Before the accident, I was an active person. After, I felt helpless. I couldn’t clean the house, manage the bills, drive to my appointments or read a book. I couldn’t even watch a movie; the movement and changes in light from scene to scene were too much for my head to handle.
What in the world was wrong with me?
The long road back to me.
I was on a mission to find answers. Doctor appointments. Admission to the hospital. Diagnostic tests. Medications. More appointments. Trying to explain what I couldn’t find the words to say.
My husband and everyone else could only say, “This isn’t Stacy; something is wrong.” But each appointment, each hospital visit and every test indicated nothing was wrong. Just a concussion maybe. I knew I wasn’t crazy, but after all the professionals said there was nothing wrong, what was I to do? I became depressed, angry and withdrawn.
A coworker recommended I see a neurologist who had treated her husband. Within minutes of him reviewing my records, and having me walk and speak and perform a few tasks, I was diagnosed with a severe brain injury. I cried, not because of the diagnosis, but because finally someone believed me.
Before I knew it, I was in speech therapy, cognitive therapy and physical therapy for my balance issues as well as for a shoulder injury I sustained in the accident. Each doctor and each therapist wanted to know what my goal was.
What did I want to achieve during the visits? My answer was always the same.
I wanted to go back to work.
I wanted to work with the patients who made me rush to get up in the morning. I wanted to get back to work to celebrate little victories with my patients. I wanted to be there to console family members of patients who lost their fight. I wanted to get back to my team to encourage them. I just wanted to be me again.
My passion for my patients, their caregivers, the physicians, the insurance companies and my team gave me the strength and the willpower to continue therapy even on my bad days. I wasn’t just going through this fight for myself, I had to do it for my patients. I had to do it for the people who were not lucky enough to walk away from an accident with a drunk driver. I had to get back to work. I had to do it for the number of people who were cheering me on. I wasn’t going to let this accident take my dreams away from me.
Therapy was long, it was hard and there were days I was ready to throw in the towel. After a year of therapy, my cognitive issues didn’t seem to be getting better.
I was doing the work at home. I downloaded every memory app my therapist recommended and completed all the homework exercises.
I had almost given up the dream of ever returning to work. It was around that time that I was invited to dinner with one of my friends from work. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was greeted by members of my team.
Seeing them and reading their cards full of well wishes made me want to work that much harder to reach my goal. After 15 months of cognitive therapy I was cleared; my cognitive function test had gone from roughly 15 percent to 80 percent. I was ready for vocational therapy. I knew I could not perform my previous job duties; my head was not capable of that yet. I was not in a place to work directly with patients at this time. I just needed to get back to that company.
Back to work—and not done yet.
After two years and 38 days, I was able to return to work. I was given a job that is perfect for me and my disability, one that meets all the physicians’ restrictions. While I am not talking to patients every day, I am still a part of their recovery. I am responsible for faxing the insurance documents and clinical information to the insurance companies to obtain approval for my patients’ medications.
My therapists and physicians say that I should not be
where I am today, that my recovery is more than amazing
and they credit my desire to return to work
for the strides I’ve made so far.
I am still working hard to overcome some of the obstacles that are a result of my accident. But, I achieved my goal: I am back to work. Maybe not in the same position, but I am back.
My next goal is to work directly with patients, and to eventually become a part of the management team again. But for now, I am a 30-year-old who is happy. I have walked away from an accident that could have been deadly. I am a person who has the most supportive family and friends. I have a husband who loves me enough to go through the storm with me, who still gives me butterflies after eight years. I have the support of so many people with whom I know I can overcome anything.
The information herein may not be construed as medical advice. The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. It should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. It is best to obtain medical recommendations from your physician.
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