Today my story about my car accident and recovery was published on Love What Matters, a media site that shares “extraordinary stories about kindness, compassion, hope, forgiveness and love.” An editor from the website reached out to me last week, after someone showed her my instagram post that mentioned my car accident. She asked me to write down the whole story, including details, my emotions- everything. I sat down to write it a few days ago and realized that I’ve mentioned bits and pieces via instagram captions and I talked about my lawsuit when I turned 22, but I’ve never shared the whole story- most of my friends don’t even know the entire thing from beginning, middle, and end. The truth is, it’s always been easier for me to gloss over the details than to dive right in, start to finish, and re-live the pain that I went through. Because even a few years later, it still hurts.
Well, I sat down on our little balcony the other evening and started in the beginning and kept typing until I got to the end. Love What Matters shrared a shortened version (it turns out the whole story was rather lengthy), but on here I’ve decided to share all 2600 words of the story.
I almost changed my mind a few times about publishing, but my hope is that my story can help just one person that reads it. It’s scary, sharing this much about something so personal and painful- but I truly believe that our vulnerabilities make us stronger. Some parts are edited for privacy (especially the medical parts- most my treatment was invasive and a bit traumatic) and I left out the lawsuit as I wanted to follow my story of recovery, but here you are. The whole thing. I hope it brings you hope.
My entire life came crashing to a halt, literally, when I was seventeen years old. It was a warm Wednesday afternoon in May, six days before graduation, and my second-to-last day of high school. Without warning, it ended up being my last day of high school- I never went back, abruptly ending my adolescent education without so much as a goodbye to my favorite teachers and classmates.
I distinctly remember thinking to myself just seconds before it happened how lucky I was. I had gone to prom the week before with a cute boyfriend and all of my friends, and I was finishing high school with great grades and a bright future at college where I had been accepted on an academic scholarship. I had everything that a seventeen year old girl could ask for.
It was a perfect seventy degree, late spring day with a blue sky uninterrupted by clouds, the kind that makes you think about how summer is right around the corner. And as I continued reflecting on the end of high school on my drive home, it occurred to me that everything in my life was about to change. If only I had realized how much. If only I had left school just a little bit later, or perhaps a few minutes before, maybe everything would be different. But I’ll never know. Because at the exact moment I was thinking about how wonderful life was, she hit me.
Traffic came to a halt after a wind in the road as a school bus took a right turn, and I stopped behind a line of cars. The next thing I knew, my head slammed into the steering wheel, my body was thrown about in the car as I was rear ended, and my entire life changed.
I ended up in the hospital, with spine, neck, head, and back injuries and a traumatic brain injury. Six days later I went to high school graduation, quickly taking off my neck brace to walk the stage and get my diploma. The next day the doctor’s appointments began, and I realized that my final childhood summer was gone before it had even started, replaced by daily physical therapy, pain management, neurologists, and chiropractor appointments.
I wore my neck brace all summer, mortified every time I had to go out in public. My sister took me to a movie in July and it was the first time I wore it where I might see someone I knew. I cried in the AMC bathroom as she bought the popcorn, hiding from anyone from high school that might see. And that was summer, me at doctors every day, babysitting when I could after leaving my job at the local library because I couldn’t physically shelve books.
My head throbbed every single day, feeling like the worst hangover in the world combined with someone pounding a hammer on my skull and back. Every day, I had to rate my pain for my doctor, 1-10. Every day, it was an 8, unchanging.
I started college at the warning from my neurologists that my brain function might not be the same. In fact, I had already noticed what she had warned me about- my memory was struggling, and in the strangest of situations I couldn’t quite remember people’s names, or the word for certain things. I remember one specific moment when my mom walked into my bedroom as I wiped down my dresser, and she pointed out that I was using bathroom cleaner, rather than a dusting spray. We laughed it off and blamed it on my medication, but it wasn’t the last time that something like that would happen and I would end up embarrassed and unsure of myself.
In hindsight, going to college that year was bold considering my health. But how would I have known better? The doctors said I would get better, just give it time, they repeated every week, and I believed them. So I went off, memory and brain a little murky, neck brace on and with a doctor’s note that I was unable to carry a backpack.
I started classes on a reduced schedule, balancing six doctor appointments a week and ten medications, and quickly realized that even a reduced schedule was nearly impossible. After acing high school and the SATs with minimal effort, I was shocked to realize that my neurologist and I had both underestimated the intensity of my brain injury. My memory continually betrayed me, forgetting the notes from class along with everything else- class times, professor’s names, locations on campus, the names of the girls who lived down the hall. It felt like no matter how hard I worked, I was failing.
I continued to push myself, unwilling to let my accident take away the one thing that I valued most- my education. I had not one, not two, but seven calculus tutors, and yet I barely scraped by. The worse I felt, the harder I worked. I would study in doctor’s waiting rooms, while waiting for my prescriptions to get filled. For the most part, my hard work paid off.
But it wasn’t all successful- my lowest point was when I got a 17% on my first midterm and had to drop the class, which resulted in me losing my academic scholarship and honors status, which I had to go to the Dean to appeal. Luckily, he was sympathetic, and directed me to Disability Support Services, which proved to be the saving grace I needed to get by. They offered me accommodations, helped me coordinate professors carrying my textbooks to class for me because I physically couldn’t (how embarrassing!) and helped me get special note formats as reading would trigger my migraines. With the help of them, a few very supportive professors, my tutors, and my persistent determination, I got by.
Even with all that support, school was nearly impossible. My daily routine consisted of class, rushing off to the doctor, tutor sessions, and studying. I had a hard time making friends as I was the “girl with the neck brace”, and I couldn’t relate to anyone else in college- my situation was just so different. I envied the students that had fun, studied abroad, partied, and were just so carefree. I was just focused on making it through each day and hopefully graduating- all my doctors warned me that graduating was unlikely, and to assume it would take me five to six years, minimum.
The one constant in my life was church. I found the campus ministry, and through it I found a home and a group of people that didn’t judge me for being “Hannah who had the car accident”- in fact, it was the only place on campus where I just felt like “Hannah.” The ministry helped me stay grounded, keep my faith, and offered me something that felt so far away- hope.
Through everything, I kept my faith. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened to me, and I don’t think I ever will. But every day I woke up, prayed to God, and focused on finding something good. And every day when I wasn’t better, I prayed more.
I went back home after my freshman year unsure of if I was going to go back, deciding to let my recovery that summer dictate the decision. After a year of minimal recovery, my parents found a clinic that offered holistic healing- chiropractic care, physical therapy, a psychologist that specialized in trauma, medical massage, and acupuncture. I went almost every day that summer, suddenly finding slow, steady improvement in my physical and mental health. It was an uphill battle, but I suddenly felt like I was climbing the hill, after being stuck on the ground in immense pain for over a year.
That summer was the first time that I felt like “me” in over a year- my mom later recounted that it was the first time she saw me truly smile since the accident. In all of the physical pain and changes, I had lost my identity- how do you recognize yourself when your body and brain don’t work like they used to? Everything I had prided myself on- my physical abilities (I had been a ballet dancer, avid skier, heck, I just enjoyed the occasional walk around the neighborhood) had been destroyed in a single moment with no warning. And my cognition- I had always been proud of my intelligence- felt completely depleted, like my brain was stuck in a murky fog that wouldn’t dissipate. And on top of everything, the throbbing wouldn’t stop. Every day, I woke up with a headache and a back that felt like it had gotten run over by a truck. Every. Single. Day. I hadn’t slept through the night in over a year.
On July 30th, my summer had a turning point. I had begun slowly “doing things” again that month- little things, baby steps back into life, in between my daily appointments. I would visit friends at the pool, and one of those friends set me up on a date with an older boy that my family knew from church. We went on a date on July 30, and it was one of the first days that I had felt almost normal in over a year- almost completely distracted from my symptoms as my mom and I looked up his family in the church directory before he picked me up for dinner.
We went to dinner and a movie, and on the way back I told him a relationship wasn’t likely, considering my medical situation. He persisted, taking me out to get custard the next day after my doctor’s appointment. I remember rushing home to cover the bruises and pricks that the needles from my treatment had left so he wouldn’t see. He left the next day for a vacation with the promise to bring me a seashell. I asked him for pictures, as well- I hadn’t been able to go on vacation since the accident, as long car rides exacerbated my symptoms and I was unable to physically go on flights.
The next week marked August, and I turned eighteen. I spent the day before at the clinic, after asking if I could switch my appointments so I didn’t have to go on my birthday. They obliged, and they surprised me with a birthday card that all the doctors had signed. It was the epitome of bittersweet- a gesture of kindness that simultaneously reminded me that my 18th birthday was hallmarked by a visit at the doctor’s office.
The morning of my birthday, I woke up to flowers delivered- the boy, Ryan, had them sent while he was on vacation. He returned the following day, offering to take me to the fair. It was a birthday tradition of mine, to go on the rides with my friends and spend the day at the fair as it always fell on my summer birthday. I couldn’t ride any of the rides at the warning from my doctors, but he took me anyway, and we got deep fried oreos and danced to the live band that was playing. We rode one ride- the ferris wheel. He asked me out in line (I remember blushing because the people in front of us heard), and I said yes.
We spent the rest of the summer together when I wasn’t at the doctor. He would find things that I was physically able to do, pick me up from appointments with snowballs, and listen to me when I cried about my pain. At a time when I felt broken, he loved me anyway. He turned the summer of my recovery into something more, something special- it was the summer I fell in love.
I ended up going back to school that year, after the summer continually improved my recovery. I was still juggling doctor’s appointments and medication, but I managed with the help of the disability support services. Every week, slowly but steadily, I got better. I began to make friends, join clubs, and noticed that my cognitive function was slightly improving. The year was still nearly impossible- but my improvements gave me hope, and that was enough to keep me going.
By junior year, I had turned a corner and was up to a full schedule. By senior year, I was taking extra credits so I could graduate on time (I also took summer classes to catch up), and served as president of the disability honor society, and a student ambassador for disability studies. My situation had opened my eyes to so many others like me that had to work twice as hard as everyone else, and I took any extra time I had to be an advocate. I took something so awful, so unfair, and I didn’t just overcome it- I used my recovery as an opportunity to help others.
On June 1, 2019 I graduated against all odds and overcame the prediction of my team of doctors. I graduated on time, with an honors degree, and on Dean’s List. I had a full time job offer in finance in a new city, and moved to Atlanta the next day. Through persistence, hard work, faith, and a team of friends, family, and doctors to support me, I ultimately found success despite my circumstances.
Today, in September of 2020, my car accident was just over five years ago, and my life has continued to change in ways I didn’t expect. I’m still working at that job in finance, and I’m still dating the boy that asked me out in line for the ferris wheel. We just celebrated our four year anniversary, and he moved down to Atlanta to follow me here the spring. I still face certain challenges as a result of my accident, but I’ve also begun to realize the good that has come out of it. I will never be grateful for what happened to me- it robbed me of so much- but I do see the positive in everything.
In the moment when you’re in physical pain, it’s hard to realize how lucky you are- I go back to that moment as the car hit me when I was thinking about how grateful I am, and I realize that right now I have so many more things to add to the list. I am living on my own, doing what was once impossible- five years ago I couldn’t carry a backpack or remember my own teacher’s name. Now I live in an apartment in the city of my dreams, work a high powered job, and even started a blog about things to do in Atlanta on the side. I’ve also had the chance to share my story- on my blog, via Instagram, and now on love what matters. My health will never go back to 100%- some of my injuries are permanent and that comes with a cost.
But recovering from my car accident has shaped who I am today. I’ll admit that I lost myself during the height of my medical issues- but I found myself along the way, too. I found someone with unrelenting faith, a fierce tenacity to follow her dreams despite the obstacles, someone that can overcome anything.
As you’re reading this, overcoming your own obstacles, I hope you know that you’re not alone. Don’t listen when everyone tells you that your dreams aren’t possible.Don’t lose your faith or positive light. Find your support system, and hug them tight. Keep working hard, keep pushing yourself, be your biggest cheerleader, and above all, have hope.
Nothing is impossible with God. Luke 1:37
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