How a Tragic Car Accident Made Writing the Cornerstone of My Career
(TLDR: Do the things you love and the things you dream of now. Don’t put them off.)
I was recently asked about the path I took to turn writing into a career. Talking about it makes me feel physically sick, so I decided to write about it instead.
Flashback to my undergrad at Penn State. I had to take an GenEd English class and wound up with a professor who was a classic hipster. He was also incredibly creative, and his writing was truly inspiring. I started the semester with meh grades. Midway through, I got into a groove and started to grow thanks to his feedback, and began to really enjoy our assignments. By the end of the semester I was totally into it, loving having the opportunity to write. I’d always enjoyed writing, even as a child, but for the first time I realized it brought me real joy.
When I went to pick up my final paper, my professor said, “Have you ever considered writing for a living?”
I had never even remotely considered turning writing into a job. I told him I’d considered submitting articles to magazines like Cosmo in the past, but that I’d chickened out and never mailed (yes, actual real mail, I’m that old) any pitches, and that writing for a living was a pipe dream since I had to support my daughter and myself on one income.
He rolled his eyes and explained that there were OTHER writing jobs outside of magazines and newspapers, like writing textbooks for schools, that paid well and had full benefits. I thanked him for the feedback and for having faith in my abilities, and then tried to dismiss the thought as soon as I left the room.
But that thought festered in the back of my mind. I loved writing. What if I COULD get paid to write?
Years went by, and I took on odd jobs to pay my bills, and told myself that someday when I retired I’d start writing.
I started working for a tiny startup in my hometown, doing software training. I started writing some of our training materials, and had a blast. That professor’s voice was whispering in the back of my mind that I was getting paid to write. But the writing was part time, I told that little voice that this didn’t count, and again that I’d start really writing when I retired.
Four years into my job as a trainer, my best friend in the entire world (who also happens to be my cousin, but is more like a sister) was in a terrible, terrible car accident.
She was in a coma. She had died in transit while being life flighted, but they were able to revive her. Her arm had been severed but was able to be reattached. They didn’t know if she’d make it through the day.
I got the call at work and fell to my knees sobbing hysterically. I had always thought that saying “I fell to my knees” was an overly dramatic way to write that you were deeply upset. That day I discovered that when you hit that level of fear and devastation, you literally lose control of your center of gravity.
My coworkers didn’t know what to do, I was typically a smiley, happy go lucky person in the office. I was a completely disastrous mess. I pulled it together enough to pick myself up off the floor and went into a meeting room and locked the door and completely lost it.
Our HR director eventually knocked on the door of the meeting room, peaked her head in and fearfully asked if I was ok. I told her I wasn’t ok at all, and that I needed to leave immediately. She asked if I was going to be ok to drive, and I told her I would. I gathered my stuff up, red faced and shuddering and got into my car.
I started driving, and was shocked to suddenly find myself in the drive-through at Chick-fila. I don’t remember driving there, I had blacked out. I was trapped in the lane and had to keep moving forward to get out of the parking lot.
A perky voice popped up through the speaker asking for my order. I mumbled something barely audible. She asked me to repeat it and I mumbled it again, feeling so guilty for buying food when the world was crashing down around me. When I got to the window to pay, the cashier looked at me, looked down and pulled out a stuffed cow.
“You look like you could use a smile,” she said, and handed me the stuffed animal. That random act of kindness snapped me out of my brain melt stupor. I thanked her and got back on the road, brain reactivated. I still think of that day every time I visit a Chik-fil-a.
I went home and packed up, got my mind straight and picked up my daughter from school. I told her we were going to visit our family, and that her Aunt was in the hospital so I’d be visiting her there. It was a 4 hour drive. The entire way, I kept wondering if I’d be too late, if she’d be gone. If she’d be awake. I dropped my daughter off with my mom, and headed to the ICU.
What I walked into was far, far worse than I had imagined. My Aunt and Uncle were gripping their chairs in the waiting room, white knuckled, faces red from crying all day. My Aunt was battling cancer, and popped her chemo therapy drugs with some water, the only thing she could keep down at the time. We’ve talked about the experience since, and she doesn’t remember who came to visit and say hello and check in. She was just in a daze. The nurses told me I could go back to see my cousin. Their tone came across as an invite to say my goodbyes. Her brain swelling was so severe that they didn’t know if she’d make it through he next 48 hours.
I used hand sanitizer at the nurses request (the smell still turns my stomach to this day) and walked into the room to find her hooked up to a ventilator, a trach sticking out the front of her neck, her arm covered in blood tinted gauze, draped in an ice blanket, since her body couldn’t regulate it’s own temperature. The silence in the room was horrifying—it was only interrupted by the hum of the oxygen machine forcing her lungs to inflate. I tried not to panic.
The nurse told me that the best thing I could do was talk to her, but to try not to sound scared or cry. She said if I needed to lose it that I should do that in the waiting room where she couldn’t hear it. I asked if I could hold her hand, and the nurse said it was fine.
I sat down and started talking to her like I would have if she could respond. I told her about the drive and the traffic, and that Kayla (my daughter) wanted me to tell her she said hi. I told her that it was great to see her, and that she could use a less intense way to get me to visit next time. I talked about the weather, I talked about how much we loved her, about her nieces sending her pictures and cards. About how I couldn’t wait to talk to her when she woke up.
My Aunt came in (we took turns spending time in the room, one at a time) and I went to the bathroom and sobbed. I stayed that day, into the evening. My Aunt and Uncle remained in the waiting room that night still dazed getting hourly updates from the medical team.
That night I got a hotel room for me and my daughter, and when I got up the next morning she went with my mom again, and I went back to the hospital. It had been touch and go through the night, but she kept fighting.
I stayed through the day and evening again, and the nurses encouraged my Aunt and Uncle to get some sleep. They had found them a room in the hospital where they could get a few hours sleep. They’d been up for over 48 hours at that point.
I didn’t tell them it was happening, but I went to my car and slept in the parking garage.
Have you ever slept in a parking garage? This one in particular sent an ice cream truck through blaring Christmas music every 45 minutes, apparently to discourage people from sleeping in it. At first I thought I was hallucinating the music due to lack of sleep, but it was really actually happening. In retrospect it was an extremely dangerous, stupid thing to do, but I was so out of it at the time that it didn’t register.
I ran out of days off, and had to go back home. A week went by, and she was still in the coma, fighting for her life. I told my boss that I needed to go home to support my Aunt and Uncle, and that if they needed to fire me as a result I understood. In response our CEO enacted a new policy that permitted coworkers to donate days off to other coworkers. My incredible co-workers came together and donated 3 full weeks of leave. I’ll never, ever forget their kindness.
I headed back to the hospital immediately and my daughter went back to stay with Grandma.
Going into the second week my Aunt asked if I could go to my cousin’s house to get her iPod and one of her blankets. The nurses mentioned that familiar music can be soothing for coma patients.
She gave me the set of keys my cousin had given her in case of an emergency, like her locking herself out of her house. This was definitely not a use case that she’d considered.
I got to her house, unlocked the door, and felt sick. Everything was as it always was. It was the house I’d spent Christmas holidays and the 4th of July visiting for years. It was the house we laughed in, cried in, watched movies in, celebrated in… and it was empty. I went into her bedroom, looking for her iPod. A book I’d lent her was on the bookshelf. I ran to the bathroom and vomited. I cleaned up and ran out of the house, locking the door behind me. I got into the car gasping for breath and gripped the steering wheel hard. I knew that she might never see that house again, be in that house again, or even wake up again. I lost it. Again.
A week later back at the hospital, it was nearly closing time—visiting hours were nearly over. The nurse let me in, and told me she’d let me stay late that night, but that when the next shift started, I’d have to leave. She said that talking to her was still the best way to help her find her way back. She’d been in a coma for 13 days.
I held her hand and I talked about the vacations we went on as kids, reminded her of the time I felt into a ball pit and got tangled in a net and hung upside down. I talked about the time we went ice skating in an indoor ring and she fell, and we were sure she broke an elbow, the times we went go cart racing, to water parks, the time my Aunt chewed us out because we were boogie boarding and drifted down the beach and scared her to death. The time we went boating and got stuck on a sandbar for 3 hours until the coast guard came to rescue us.
And then I told her that when she woke up, as soon as she was well enough I was going to take her to Ocean City MD, to vacation in the condo we used to stay in when we were kids. I told her we’d see dolphins from the balcony and lay out in the sun, and eat funnel cakes on the boardwalk. I promised her that it was happening.
And she squeezed my hand.
I yelled for the nurse and told her what had happened. The nurse smiled and said she believed me but that it was time for the shift change and I’d have to leave.
I went to the hotel that night full of hope.
The next morning I got to the hospital and found her with her eyes open, propped in a chair. She couldn’t speak, she was glassy eyed and not functioning but her eyes were open. The only day I’ve ever had that compares to that level of happiness was the day my daughter was born.
They told us that due to her traumatic brain injury, she may not know who we were when she fully came out of the coma and she may never speak or walk again. But it didn’t matter to us. Her eyes were open. And she was alive.
2 months in an intense (amazing) rehab facility followed. My Aunt and Uncle stayed with her every minute of the way, supporting her and cheering her on. As I mentioned my Aunt was battling cancer at the time, and continued treatment throughout this time. She is one of the strongest people I’ve ever, ever known.
I went to visit her Thanksgiving weekend at the facility. I didn’t know what to expect. I walked in with phone in hand, to show her a photo album I’d put together of memories of us growing up. I didn’t know if she’d remember me or not, and the thought made me physically sick. As I flipped through the photos in the album she smiled. I got to a picture from Canada, and she said through her trach, “Oh, that was the day it rained! I was wearing your tie dye shirt, and we went on a trampoline and had to change because we got soaked!”
I teared up and tried not to bawl my eyes out. Not only did she remember me, she remembered tiny details from our lives. She had come back to us. I went home elated.
She had set a goal to come home from the rehab center by Christmas. She had to relearn how to sit up, stand, swallow, eat, speak, walk, and hold things in her hands. And SHE. DID. IT. She worked her tail off and made it happen. She fought every second, practiced every second, and didn’t let ANYTHING get in her way. Her doctors were absolutely stunned. Her recovery was a legitimate miracle, it shouldn’t have been possible due to the severity of the injuries she’d sustained.
Why did I just go into extreme detail about an absolutely horrible experience in my life?
After I returned home, a job opportunity opened up to help our development team write product copy during a product revamp. So I hopped in, and started writing for a living. That led to an opening for a Content Strategist and I jumped at the chance. Why? Because the experience with the accident made me realize that waiting for retirement to do something I’d wanted to do my whole life was ridiculous. Who knew if I’d ever even REACH retirement. No day is guaranteed.
Working as a Content Strategist with our design team was what made me fall in love with UX. I started blogging too. More writing for a living. Eventually I transitioned to UI design thanks to our team of amazing designers that mentored me every step of the way.
That led me to my job at InVision, the opportunity to be a full time UX & Content Strategist at a company I absolutely loved. And I kept blogging.
I also started writing a novel.
Fast forward to now. She is fully, 100% recovered. It’s a truly a miracle. Her doctors were baffled by the speed of her recovery due to the severity of her brain injury. She was always a fighter, someone who never gave up on her goals. But the entire medical team was stunned when she strolled back in to say hello, and thank them for saving her life.
Before the accident she had always dreamed of owning her own business. She’s now a full time beautician and owns her own extremely successful shop called “Dream Big Salon”. She returned to us, as herself, and immediately started working to make her dreams a reality. She’s just as brilliant, funny, kind, brave and caring as she always was. She inspires me every single day.
I’m currently in a role as Senior Manager of Design Community Partnerships at InVision that lets me combine all of the things I love most: Connecting with the design community I love so much every single day, writing about the things that inspire me, and learning from people I’ve idolized my entire career. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect role if I tried.
So there you go. That’s how writing became the corner stone of my career. In closing, a quick thought:
You need to live your life. Do the things you love, and the things you dream of… right now.
How a Tragic Car Accident Made Writing the Cornerstone of My Career
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