NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The most vivid memory Leah John has of an accident that sent her Jeep up in flames was not her burning skin and broken ribs.
It was the sensation in her mouth. It was a sharp taste - metallic maybe? - along with a tingling feeling.
Much of the rest is a blur - until she woke three weeks later from a drug-induced coma, wrapped from head to toe in bandages, her face so swollen she couldn’t open her eyes. She could hear her parents’ voices: her mother upset, her father trying to be the calming influence.
We see headlines every day of people in traumatic events - shootings, car accidents, life-changing missteps that unfold in an instant - that cause physical injuries and emotional ones that last far past a hospital stay.
We often turn our eyes from the headlines just as they’re regaining consciousness. It’s a moment the people in this conference room at Sentara Heart Hospital can relate to in some form or fashion: The awakening that starts a long trek of recovery.
This is a support group for people who have experienced traumatic injuries, many of whom have spent time just a few steps away at the region’s only adult Level I trauma center at Sentara Norfolk General. The things that led them here span a range: Fires. Car accidents. Rare syndromes.
In the past, they’ve had gunshot and electric shock victims, people who have fallen from trees.
Members of the Tidewater Burn and Trauma Survivors Support Group detail emotional injuries more than physical ones: The fear of crossing the street where one was hit by a car. The sadness of another over two young boys who died in a fire she survived. The guilt of yet another when a man went to jail for causing an accident by driving too fast.
“I’m over my injuries. And my scars, they really don’t bother me,” said John, who is a 22-year-old student at Old Dominion University.
But there is this unexpected emotion: “This summer, the guy who caused the accident went to jail. I’m dealing with guilt because he has four small children. And, obviously. it wasn’t their fault.”
“I was left to die”
Byron Harris leads the group on a recent night. He is an executive pastor at New Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk and used to be a staff chaplain for Sentara’s Level I trauma unit, which is how he came to run the group.
“We are all in different stages of the journey, whatever that is,” he tells the group of about a dozen people. “It’s not linear; there’s an ebb and flow, no matter where we are in that continuum.
“How do you handle this? Sometimes people say, ‘You just handle it.’ That doesn’t help me if I am going through it. I need a physical tool to help me tomorrow when I go home. How do you handle the ebbs and flows? How can others help you?”
One member, Noreen Washington, 65, of Norfolk, said what works for her is to have an agenda every day. A detailed plan, even if it’s something as simple as: balance her checkbook, watch a favorite TV show, call a friend, set up an appointment.
Washington’s life changed at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 19. She was taking her daily 3-mile walk, and just as she crossed the intersection of Cromwell Road and Tait Terrace, she heard a driver rev the motor.
She didn’t see the car, much less the person driving it. But the vehicle knocked her from the crosswalk into a lane of traffic.
“I was left to die,” she said.
She spent the next three weeks in the hospital with a broken pelvis. Since then, she’s worked her way from wheelchair to walker to cane through physical therapy.
“People say you look good. But it’s the trauma. The noise crossing the street. The feeling of hurry up and get across. They don’t know what is going on internally. I am thankful to be here. I came in April for the first time. I am thankful to be alive and to be here.”
She struggled a long time, wondering about the person who left the scene. But there’s a phrase she repeats, almost as a mantra: “I am a survivor.”
John, too, is a survivor, and that has changed her life. She had gone from Norfolk to her home near Coopersburg, Pennsylvania to visit family and friends.
She got in her Jeep on May 26, 2016, to go shopping, and out of her peripheral vision she saw a car barreling down the hill as she was making a turn. Roger Counterman was traveling in the car behind the one that hit her. He came to the rescue, along with a volunteer firefighter and an off-duty state trooper. Counterman unbuckled her seat belt and the others disentangled her before carrying her away from the Jeep, which burst into flames.
John remembers coming to a few minutes later. A woman was comforting her and asking if there was someone she could call. An ambulance arrived and emergency medical technicians snipped off her clothes. It sounds insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but more than a year later she thinks: “I was lying there naked.”
The weeks and months after were a blur, but some memories stand out:
-The hallucinations when she regained consciousness at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
-Lying in a metal tray while they showered her.
-Fearing what she looked like: “Your face is fine,” her father said. She didn’t believe him. Weeks after the accident, a clinical social worker came in with a mirror to show her.
-The feeling of the scar tissue and not wanting to touch it.
-The sheer exhaustion of therapy: “I’d get done at 1 and then sleep until 5.”
-There was also the legal layer on top of it all. She remembers waking in the middle of the night in fear, after the other driver was charged with aggravated assault for driving 70 mph - 25 mph over the speed limit. Testifying against him in court. Feeling guilty about his prison sentence.
But through the pain of her injuries, the frustration of recovery, the guilt of the legal process, there’s also this: “You gain so much appreciation for your body and what it does for you that you want to treat it well.”
Before the accident, she had bouts of depression and body-image problems.
“I’m not bothered by my physical appearance. Now, I am so much more happy with how I look and how I treat my body. Now that I have these scars, I’m a 1,000 times more confident than I was before.”
She missed a semester of school recovering but returned with a new plan for the biology degree she is earning: To become a nurse.
“It’s not just physical care, but emotional support. I want to do that for someone else if I can.”
“I buried a lot of stuff for years”
Toward the end of the session, Harris sums up the group’s sentiments:
“Is there ever an end? Will it ever be over?”
“I buried a lot of stuff for years,” said Steve Joyner, 55, a Virginia Beach man who was burned in December 2010 after throwing gasoline on a barrel fire in Portsmouth. “You’re better but you always have the memory.”
He remembers opening a journal his family kept about his recovery:
“I read it, and it all came back. The room, the smell, all of it. You don’t ever get over it.”
“You don’t have to get past it for good,” said Christy Montoya, 44, who was burned in a 2016 house fire in which two young boys died. “It’s part of your history. Two boys were lost. The pain those parents go through . I can’t forget that. It’s built you into who you are to be. People say forget about it . I don’t want to forget about it. I reach out to the group, family, friends. And I am thankful for the burns.”
“Different doesn’t mean deficient,” Harris said, bringing the session to a close. “Different is what we celebrate.”
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