By Katie Sullivan ’12
They call it trauma blackout. When your body undergoes something so shocking your brain retains little-to-no information, and you’re left with just a few snapshots in your memory. From that February night three years ago, I remember the sound of the scissors cutting through my shirt in the ambulance after they lifted me from the pavement of 23rd Street in Manhattan. I remember my dad whispering, “You’re a warrior, Katie, and you’re my girl.” My brother Matt’s shaky hand as he touched my arm at the hospital the next morning. Waking up from a seven-hour surgery, learning that the plastic surgeon had used bone from my skull to reconstruct my nose and cheek. The warning that if I sneezed, it would all be undone. The uncontrollable spasm in my shoulder when the nurse lifted me from my bed to the gurney for yet another X-ray. The sound of my mom breathing as she slept on the cot next to me night after night. The smell of dried blood on my neck brace. The moment my lawyer told me that the street camera that would have captured the impact between the cab and my body was blocked by scaffolding, so we’d really never know why the driver hadn’t seen me crossing the road, as he cruised 30 miles per hour down Lexington Ave.
In those moments, when I was completely helpless in the hospital, with a shattered face, wired jaw, broken neck, destroyed shoulder, and torn-up knee, I didn’t have the brainpower to process anything more than the present. When my body hurt, I clicked my morphine drip. When they told me I needed food, I let my mom spoon Ensure shakes between my teeth. When the tech approached me with a sponge and bucket, I watched him clean my body. It was primal, and it was raw.
Being at the will of my body’s most basic needs while also being completely dependent on others was the polar opposite of the life I had been living before my accident. Before I crossed the street that night, I was an active 22-year-old girl. An athlete my whole life, I played Division I lacrosse in college and continued working out regularly postgrad. In 2012, I moved to New York City and was working at a start-up in Brooklyn. I was living the independent, young-adult life I thought I “should” be.
In the months following my accident, I was living day by day. I was in a wheelchair, back home in Baltimore, living with my parents. My stamina barely got me through one episode of Friends. Physically exhausted, I seldom reflected on the reality of my situation — or the future. I didn’t think about the fact that no one had told me whether I would ever be able to run again. I didn’t think about how I’d feel when people from my past didn’t recognize me with my reconstructed face.
I took for granted that there would be a new normal and that I might never have the opportunities I had had in my pre-accident life. In my mind, a complete recovery was just as possible as spending the rest of my life parking in handicapped spots and watching 60 Minutes with my parents. So I proceeded with a lighthearted “we’ll see” attitude — for a while. But after a few months, comments like “You look great” and “You’re just so strong” had lost their meaning. Had I really done anything worth praise? It wasn’t like I chose to survive this horrific accident; I just got lucky. And I look great? Sure, compared to the Picasso painting that was my face after a cab shattered my eye socket, destroyed my nose, and displaced my six front teeth.
When I moved back to New York several months after the accident, reality set in, and I made a promise to myself: I had been given a very real reminder of how short and precious life is, and I wasn’t going to forget it. Although I knew I had years of surgery ahead, I wasn’t going to settle for a life that would be qualified with a “given all she’s been through.”
The first thing I did when I got out of my wheelchair: I registered for a half-marathon. After months confined to a chair, I committed to my body and said to myself, “If you’re lucky enough to be able to walk, you should be able to run. And if you’re lucky enough to run, you might as well run a lot.” So I built up my strength, and one year after getting out of my wheelchair, I completed my first half-marathon.
From there, my determination to up my fitness game only grew stronger. I soon committed to daily 6 a.m. workouts that challenged me in new ways, mentally and physically. Soon that perpetual challenge became a habit. I surrounded myself with people who had the same desire to push their limits and reach new goals, and I fell into a lifestyle that gave me a new reason to be proud of myself and others every day.
When a friend invited me to register for a triathlon, I couldn’t think of a legitimate reason not to. So on Aug. 27, 2015, I completed a sprint triathlon on Long Island. Aside from lingering knee pain, I felt strong every step (and stroke) of the way. Today, I’m lucky enough to be training for my fifth triathlon to date.
My next challenge was my career. Although I was fortunate to have worked for a company I loved with amazing people, I knew I had more to give. I just needed to find my passion. Since I attributed so much of my physical and mental recovery to the nurses at New York Presbyterian, I entertained a path in medicine, but quickly remembered there was nothing about science that I liked or was good at.
Thanks to patience, relationship building, and a bit of chance, I ended up with an opportunity to combine my love of fitness with my desire to positively impact people. I joined the team at Swerve Fitness, an indoor cycling studio with team-based rides, as director of marketing.
After my accident, fitness had been a way to gain confidence in myself and set goals that I thought I’d never be able to achieve. It was a way to connect with people on a level that was hard to find in any other setting. At work, I get to see people experience these exact same things every day. After a hard ride and a good sweat, people have a confidence that translates to everything they do — whether it’s talking to someone new, making moves professionally, or being a better partner in a relationship.
While I can confidently say that I’m now living my happiest and healthiest life — in large part due to my mental shift after the accident — I genuinely believe that many people in my situation would have done the same.
Being a 22-year-old who is completely dependent on her parents for an indefinite amount of time is an incredibly humbling experience. Once you’ve felt that feeling and thought those thoughts, there’s no turning back. There’s no moment in life that you take for granted, and there are no people in your life you undervalue. Once you’ve been in the position of can’t, you’re grateful for every day that you can.
— Originally published on Greatist.com