Forced Introspection (Part 2)

If you missed Forced Introspection (Part 1) and you want to read it first, click here.

After my impromptu 3 mile run, my mind felt more calm. I jumped in the shower and tried not to give the accident I just witnessed any more thought. I still needed to drop off the folder, and get to school to pick up the kids. I got dressed and hopped in the car. I debated going the long way so I could skip driving by the accident scene, but told myself, “I can’t just not drive that way the rest of my life!” So I turned left out of my road. All the emergency responders were gone and the truck had been towed away. All that was left were the broken branches and muddy tire tracks. Unless a passer-by knew where to look, he would never have known that there was a bad car accident, that closed down the road, only an hour earlier. It was no longer an accident scene, it was back to being a 55 MPH undivided highway. Life had moved on, at least for most people. Life certainly hadn’t moved on for the man who was in the accident. He was in the emergency room of some hospital. I am sure the police officer left with the responsibility of writing up the paperwork was still working on getting it finished. Maybe the other witnesses of the accident were still thinking about it like me? Well, probably not like me. All I could think about was how it effected me to see it. To experience it from my perspective…

As I pulled into the pick-up line at the kid’s school my cell phone range thru my car Bluetooth. I didn’t recognize the number but answered it. It was a woman who went to high school with Tonia and me. I had seen her a few weeks earlier when I gave a talk at my parent’s church, back in our home town. That was the first time I had seen her in almost four years. The last time we talked I was a patient on her floor at Pinnacle Rehab. I had asked her if she still worked at the rehab? She was still there. We talked a few more minutes and before we parted company I told her that if there was ever anyone at Pinnacle whom she felt would benefit from meeting me and talking, she should just reach out to me. Today she was reaching out.

I tried to focus on her words as she told me about a patient who had just arrived at the rehab a few days ago. “He is about the same age as you… He’s married with one kid… He was in really good shape when the accident happened… He had a side business removing trees… A tree fell on him… Broke his back… Both his ankles and feet were shattered… He’s really depressed about his condition… Do you think you can talk to him?”

I think the first thing out of my mouth was “yes”. I know the rehab route so my question was “What time does he go to rehab in the morning?” When you are in rehab, going to rehab is your job. When you are not actually in rehab, you are resting so you can go back to rehab. His started at 10:30 AM. Wednesday morning wasn’t going to work, but Thursday would. I asked her to email his name and room number to me, and to let him know that I would stop by at 9:30 in the morning on Thursday, if that was OK with him? We said our good-byes and hung up.

Just like that my mind-set had changed. Just then I realized that I was so caught up in how witnessing the accident affected me that I lost sight of what really mattered… the injured man. What I have lived through makes me uniquely suited to talk to people just like this guy. It is one of the major blessings to come from our accident and my recovery. This is what I do. Now all I had to worry about was walking thru the front doors of Pinnacle Rehab for the first time since being wheeled out of them just under 4 years ago….

It took me almost 3 years to walk back into Manor Care nursing home, which is located in my town. Not because I didn’t want to see my nurses, aides and therapists, but because I couldn’t get over my fear of being back there. The ironic part was that my office moved across the street two years after the accident. For a year I stared out my office window and looked into the window of my old nursing home room. One rainy day, about a year ago, I decided I would get up, walk across the street, and go into the nursing home. I made it to the front door and then turned around and walked back. I couldn’t do it. I sat back down at my desk and looked out the window. Two hours later I got up and tried again. It was raining even harder. This time I made it into the lobby. I was about to turn around and walk out. Just then one of my old therapists walked into the lobby pushing a patient in a wheelchair. She noticed me right away and that was it, I was sucked in. I stayed in the therapy room and people came to see me. I didn’t walk back to my old room. I didn’t want to visit the halls and rooms. I wanted to see the people. I wanted to say thank you… I didn’t have as many “difficult” memories from Pinnacle to overcome, so I felt like I could at least get in the door…

Thursday morning I got up at 6 AM to exercise. I needed to clear my mind from a rough night of not sleeping. A little hardcore cardio work did the job. I dropped the kids off at school, took a shower and headed to Pinnacle. Ironically, it was raining. I pulled up out front, took a deep breath and got out of my car. I had told myself on the 45 min ride over that I wasn’t going to stand there and over analyze my feelings about the whole thing. “Just get out of the car, walk to the elevator and push the button for the 2nd floor. Don’t wuss out, someone is counting on you!” I told myself. As I got off the elevator and walked toward the room, I realized he was in my old room! The number didn’t ring a bell when I read it in the email, but I knew where my old room was located. (There aren’t that many private rooms.) “OK this is a little more pressure” I said out loud. When I walked into the room he was being transferred to his wheelchair. The first thing I noticed was that he had a Boston Clam Shell brace for his back, just like I wore. He also had a high back wheel chair that allowed him to be laid back a little, just like my old ride. He still looked strong, even though it had been almost a month since his accident. I sat down on the edge of his bed and he sat in his wheel chair. We talked about his accident and the things I went through with mine. I shared some of the things I learned throughout my recovery and what he might be able to take from it. In many ways he was ahead of where I was when I arrived at Pinnacle Rehab. He wasn’t going to have as much time to lose muscle and strength before therapist started trying to put it back on. I had spent 10 weeks in the hospital and nursing home before ever arriving there. Because I couldn’t be upright, I had time to heal, but I also lost a lot of weight. Most of it muscle. He on the other hand, was healing as he was rehabbing. He was frustrated with his progress, but his left foot and ankle were filled with metal rods and pins and his right foot was crushed so badly that there wasn’t enough good bone to put in pins. He had a long battle ahead of him and I told him so. I also told him that just like exercising, you don’t get instant gratification. “Daily hard work now, builds the base that leads to long-term gains.” We talked until it was time for his physical therapy. I gave him my contact information and told him use it. “There is no reason to learn things the hard way. You might as well get used to relying on help from others, because the reality is that for the forseeable future, you will need it. I made mistakes, but I also figured a few things out along the way. Call me when you have questions.” We shook hands and he left for rehab. I hung out for a few minutes longer to talk to a few of the nurses who heard I was there and wanted to hear my story.

I got in my car and just sat there for a few minutes. I said a little prayer thanking God for getting me through the past few days. Four years after the accident I still battle surgeries and frightening memories, yet I feel incredibly blessed to be alive to fight for the great things I have been given.

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6 Responses to Forced Introspection (Part 2)

  1. Sharon O says:

    wow incredible story. God will continue to use it for His glory.

  2. fitinfaith says:

    I felt my chest tighten up reading both parts of this post. Thanks for sharing so honestly. I witnessed a terrifying accident that happened to my sister-in-law up close, and that particular movie still plays over in my mind’s eye 2 1/2 years later. Sometimes it’s the sound of squeeling brakes that transports me back to the moment, other times the story of a similar accident will do it, still other times my mind just “goes” there for no apparent reason. I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life in the weeks and months following her accident. Actual panic attacks are far and few between now, thankfully. Emergency responders, local ambulance & fire and Life Lion, were certainly God’s agents in saving my sister-in-laws life that day. I am so thankful to them all. Flashing lights and sirens are now and forever will be, my cue to say a prayer for the families on the receiving end of their aid. Your recovery definately has you taking new steps all the time, whether literal “steps” or figurative. Your strength is inspiring!

    • John Ulsh says:

      Thanks! My strength comes from God and my family and it is a great gift.

      Four years later, I still have flashbacks every day. Some days they are just a product of living with chronic pain or simply because of my choice to share my story. Other times it is a tingle up my spine when I am driving on a 55 MPH undivided road. The Life Lion helicopter that helped save my life is stationed here in Carlisle. I can recognize the sound of it’s turbo engines even when inside a building. My heart beats very fast and I always stop and say a prayer because I know why it is flying. I have spent some time at the hanger with the crew and every time I leave I tell them that I hope they have a slow, uneventful day. However, I don’t mind the flashbacks to much. They help me keep things in perspective.

  3. Janet Seagrist says:

    what an amazing story, John, and you are an amazing man to have had to reenter the same buildings you were in after your accident. you are a great encouragement to many

  4. John Ulsh says:

    Thanks Janet! Sometimes facing your fears is the only way to manage them. It isn’t pleasant when it’s happening, but afterward it makes you stronger.

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