The Next Page: How I got back to life

Shattered by a car accident, Clare Ann Dumm had to learn to live all over again. Twenty-five years later, she recounts the journey.

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When Clare Ann Dumm graduated from Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg on May 23, 1984, her future seemed set: College followed by work as a foreign language teacher. A horrible car accident the very next day dramatically altered those plans.

The doctors who assessed her condition at Allegheny General Hospital found traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung, a massive facial scar, double vision, a cracked pelvis, right-side paralysis and a damaged liver.

Clare credits exceptional medical care and rehabilitation for restoring so much of what she had lost. She jokes about writing with her left hand and regrets that her former rapid-fire wit takes longer these days, but few signs of her injuries are visible.

Since her 1990 graduation from Saint Francis University in Loretto, she has talked with her former English professor, Kirk Weixel, about writing of her experiences. This summer, she said, "It's been 25 years. I'm ready." This is that story:

My awareness began with the sound of birds and sparks of light beyond the window. Someone moaned across the room. I heard a deep male voice singing "Good morning, ladies" and a curtain being drawn back. All of these things were merely impressions. I didn't know where I was or how I had gotten there. I was just taking it all in. Soon he was standing beside me.

"Good morning, beautiful," he boomed. He told me he would go into my closet and get my clothes for the day. My closet? What clothes? I don't remember seeing any of these items. I've never been here before. Who is this guy?

"Which of these two shirts would you like to wear?" he asked.

I stared at him blankly.

"How about the navy blue one? It'll look good with your dark hair."

With a few quick movements, like a magician, he had me dressed and into my wheelchair. My wheelchair? When did I get a wheelchair?

As he had supported my right side to lift me from the bed, he explained that it was because that side "didn't work so well anymore." He then pushed my chair toward the nurses' station, stopped before the mirror above the sink in our room, and asked if I wanted "to check [my] look." Reflected back to me was a mere child -- hair removed, long red scar that ran from the crown of my head to my chin, and my big blue eyes.

Seeing that I was disturbed, the muscular man guiding my wheelchair sped me away.

Pffft -- the scene was forgotten.

The last time I had looked in a mirror, the face I saw was very different.

It was the night before my high school graduation party, the night I chose to go to a movie with three girlfriends instead of staying to help my mother bake cookies for the party. My father was taking me to the driver's house, and, before we left, I glanced in the bedroom mirror and ran a comb through my hair. My Irish-German skin was sprinkled lightly with freckles.

The accident that changed that face in the mirror happened later that night as we made a left turn on a busy highway -- and into an oncoming coal truck.

I was treated immediately by an Ebensburg doctor and Emergency Medical Team and was placed in the helicopter that lifted off from the Ebensburg Airport for Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh's North Side. I was in a coma for five weeks, and the next week, still oblivious to what had happened, was transferred to Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital (now owned by HealthSouth), where I would spend the next 41/2 months.

At first, everything was new. I didn't know what anything was -- food, for instance, or the utensils to eat it with. I was certain, though, that the people around me, the people who enabled me to do anything, were on my side, had my interests at heart.

One of those people, for instance, awakened me for a bathroom run at 3 a.m. This nurse, giving me privacy, told me that she had to check on another patient and would be right back. She left me with a buzzer that I was to press when I had finished. Before she could return, I attempted to get up. Forgetting that my right leg was useless, I dropped like a stone. The nurse found me curled on the floor with a scraped eye and reddened cheek.

What I remember from all of this was that she had told me to use the buzzer and I had forgotten. I will never forget her look of concern for me.

I'm going to get hurt, I thought, if I don't remember to follow directions. I knew that someday I would be able to think for myself. But until then, I had complete confidence in those who were caring for me.

As I tried to regain my memory, I was frequently reminded of things by my parents:

"You are here at Harmarville Rehab Hospital. Approximately a month ago, you and some friends went to a movie. Do you remember the movie?"

I pointed my thumb down.

"After the movie, you left the drive-in and intended to visit a friend who was having a party. The car you were in and a truck collided. You were life-flighted to Allegheny General Hospital and then you came here."

I sat on my bed and showed no emotion. I didn't remember the accident or the movie.

I was trying to piece together a life that had been shattered like glass. As my mother, father, brothers, uncles and friends tried to comfort me and help me remember the life I once had, my deficiencies challenged me. I followed a daily routine written on a card hung from my wheelchair.

Suffering from double vision, I saw everything in duplicate and had little hand-eye coordination. I'd reach for a glass of water and knock it over. When I tried to feed myself, I'd end up with a face covered in food. I'd attempt to drop yellow rings on a white cone, but the cone appeared to move. If I lifted my finger to touch my nose, I touched my cheek instead.

My physiatrist, Dr. Amayo, said to my parents, "It's a shame that she has to learn to do this all at once. But she has to learn to do this all at once." He also explained that my brain was like a blackboard that had been filled with information and, in an instant, wiped clean.

The message of his remarks was clear: I had to learn to eat, think, talk, walk, write and remember -- and I wanted to do it as quickly as I could. The neurological team at Allegheny General had wanted rehab to begin without any lapse. What came naturally to me was doing what I was told -- pick this up, lift this, point to this. I was 17 years old and used to being directed by family and teachers.

From the start, I was determined to be the best I could possibly be. With the help of dedicated therapists, I learned to perform a variety of tasks. At first, though, what I learned had little or no context that I could recognize. I had no idea how important any of these things would be to my recovery. I regained my skills in small, steady steps. Like an infant, I was being taught the names of things and people and I was absorbing all of it -- the information, how I was being taught and who was teaching me. The information I retained was now being organized and filed in a new format, often delaying retrieval.

On one occasion, I was pushed to the closest round table and wrapped in a bib that covered my body in green and white plaid. I looked around the room to get a grasp of my new surroundings when I heard a voice that I should have recognized but didn't. Approaching quickly came a handsome, tall, dark-haired fellow smiling broadly, saying,

"Hey, dude, I'm your brother Tom."

Did I feel familiarity? Affection? I wasn't sure. He bent down and kissed me on the cheek, and behind him were two other boys that I didn't know, one dark-haired, one blond.

"This is Vince and this is Tom," my brother said. "You remember them from school."

School? That was far from my mind. If I concentrated, I could remember being in school. I felt numb.

After I regained the ability to talk, the communication didn't flow as it once had. Even when there were people present, I remained silent unless I was spoken to. Even then I spoke in brief polite, sincere sentences.

I had no memory problems in some instances, but I had severe problems in others. I apparently had no inhibitions either. Only when the outside world intruded was I aware that this new world that I was in was different and that I was different, too. I knew that I was accepted at the rehab, but would I be accepted in the world beyond Harmarville Hospital? When friends and family members visited, they were entering my world. Why did I have to go back to their world? Why couldn't I be accepted for the person I'd become?

I knew that there was more to life than I was allowing myself to encounter. Was I ready for more?

Rehabilitation hospitals, though, are meant to help people return to their previous lives to the best of their abilities. I wanted to be better each day than I was the day before: to work harder, to try harder, and to care more. I wanted others who were hurting more than I was -- and they were all around me -- to stop hurting. What I didn't want was to enter a life of limitations.

When I did leave for a day trip home, I was excited because my mother was enthusiastic. It wasn't until my father cursed the wheelchair that wouldn't fit easily it into the trunk of the car that I became anxious. What would have been an understandable frustration for anyone else was a matter of considerable concern to me. Will they quit coming to get me? Will they leave me here? When Dad got in the car, I was the one who apologized. My parents, who had visited me day after day and showered me with love, had no sense of my anxiety.

How appropriate that my anxiety left when the three of us started singing "Country Roads" along with John Denver on the radio. We were traveling our own country roads through the Alleghenies. I felt my parents were glad to have me back.

I knew that I was ready for the transition when visiting with my brother Paul, who had picked me up and taken me out to Wendy's for chili and then on to his house in Mt. Lebanon. This reminded me of when he and I had shared Wendy's chili before a movie when I was in high school. It was different now, though: Paul had to hold my arm and guide me through the restaurant, but at the same time I was getting back to being the person that I was before.

I completed 41/2 months with the highly skilled therapists at Harmarville and continued my rehabilitation at Mercy Hospital, now Altoona Regional Health System, determined to regain normalcy, whatever that is.

After 18 months of additional progress, I enrolled at Saint Francis College (now University). I really was ready to move on. And I did. I never would have guessed that the silent girl in the wheelchair in Harmarville would, five years later, graduate with a bachelor's degree, be chosen for a Courage to Come Back Award from the St. Francis Health Foundation in Pittsburgh, and be shaking hands with Rocky Bleier.

By then I had learned something: Acceptance by others is determined by the level of acceptance of yourself.

Clare Ann Dumm lives in Altoona. She works as a classroom aide in the Hollidaysburg School District through Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. Kirk Weixel is a professor of English at Saint Francis University ( ). The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, , 412-263-1915


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