by Amanda Sullivan
I was an aid worker for the better part of ten years. I worked with orphans, refugees and abused women and children. I lived in Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Jamaica and for about four years in Mexico. I worked with indigenous refugees in Guatemala and with people with Hansen’s Disease (also known as “Leprosy”) in Ecuador. I was a first responder during Hurricane Katrina (I arrived down to NOLA before the Red Cross did & even planned a wedding between two beautiful evacuees from The 9th Ward of New Orleans. The wedding was held in our Coliseum). I am very blessed to have followed my heart to distant villages and lands. I was taught how to shine in the face of adversity by some of the most spiritually-wealthy & courageous souls on the planet. While in Mexico, I ran an orphanage for little girls ages 6-14 and taught Spanish classes to children who speak Mayan in the villages.
I have been an athlete all my life. I was on a summer swim & tennis team from the ages of 5-17 and was the Captain of my Varsity Field Hockey, Basketball and Lacrosse teams in high school & was named as The Female Athlete of The Year when I graduated. I played club/intramural sports in college. I am trained in leading camping trips & teaching people how to white water raft and rock climb.
My story after this point is very bizarre and the only way I have been able to understand it, is that God must have a very big plan in mind for me. I was actually in two different accidents within a 6-week period. I came home to the NYC area from Mexico for Christmas of 2008. I was setting up a new shelter which was scheduled to open on March 1, 2009.
I was at a complete stop on a main street, waiting to turn into the gym’s parking lot. There was a woman exiting the parking lot in a large Suburban and taking up both the exit and entrance. So I motioned to her that she could pull out first. She waited and was looking past me. I looked into my rear view mirror & saw a car, pretty far back, in my lane. But, since no one was in the lane next to me, I just assumed he would switch lanes & this woman could exit. I waited for what seemed like a really long time & looked back up at the woman in the SUV, as if to say, “Yo lady, are you gonna go or what?” I just remember seeing a look of complete horror on her face. She had a few children in the car and I saw little faces in the windows looking at me, and they too were looking at me in sheer terror. I looked into my rear view mirror, almost right at the point of impact. I saw a man with his face lit up from his cellphone, looking down at his phone, with one hand on the wheel and no idea that he was about to drill right into me. Luckily, I somehow thought quickly enough to cut my wheel to right and step on the gas as I was struck. This shot my car off at a different angle and I avoided getting crushed into the SUV. Even though it wouldn’t have been my fault, had any of those children been injured, I would never have forgiven myself.
Needless to say, I was struck from behind by a man who was texting and speeding. He admitted in the deposition to looking away from the road for thirty seconds, while speeding, after seeing me stopped way ahead of him. I am very fortunate to have many witnesses who all saw the same thing and were there to help me before the police and paramedics arrived. Even though I was wearing my seat belt, this man who I will just call “Dave”, crushed my car from behind and, in turn, me into my steering wheel. I fractured my skull, broke my nose/sinus, suffered traumatic brain injuries, severely sprained and strained my neck and back and tore the muscles in my arms.
I was bed-ridden for about five weeks after that accident. I had (and still have) daily post-traumatic migraines and had been rushed to the Emergency Room a few times in those first weeks, due to blood & Cerebrospinal fluid leaking from my ears & nose. I was finally cleared to begin physical therapy and was excited to start healing, so I could head back to beloved Mexico again.
On my way into my first physical therapy session, an elderly man was leaving a Cardiologist appointment in the medical building (where my PT was held). He had a heart condition and promised his doctors that his wife, who was with him, would drive them both home. Apparently, he didn’t even know his own name when he left the office. Needless to say, his wife let him get behind the wheel. This man, who I will call “Alek”, later told the police that he must have put his car in reverse and stepped on the GAS instead of the brake. “Alek’s” car shot up towards a walkway, in reverse, to where I was walking. This happened around 3pm. It was the first nice day in a really long time, so there were a bunch of people sitting in the sunshine outside. The back of the building is also all windows. Unfortunately for them, but good for me, a lot of people witnessed me get hit.
I was struck on my right side and was tossed up onto the back of the car, cracking the right side of my head on his back windshield. “Alek” told the cops in the police report that he didn’t know anyone was even on his car and only slammed on the brakes because he heard people screaming. I got shot off the car and cracked my head a few times on my left side. I ended up pretty much injuring everything from my skull to my toes. More traumatic brain injuries, pretty much tore/ripped/injured every muscle, ligament and tendon in my body. My right leg ended-up dangerously atrophied (from being in bed for so many months). My doctor’s told me if my leg atrophied any more, it would become a “peg leg” and I would need it amputated. That scary news turned my Beast Mode switch “ON” and I began doing double sessions of physical therapy the next day.
I am about 5’7 and the police said I should have gotten sucked under the car, instead of being able to lock my arms and go on top of the trunk (witnesses say I started off with my ankles/feet dragging and was able to push myself up as I was struck.) I wouldn’t have survived if I went under that car. It was going at the perfect speed for this to happen. Any slower or faster and I would have gone right under.
“Alek” passed away nine months after we “met”. I have no anger towards this man and feel sorry for him. I know he didn’t mean to hit me and had no idea where he was or what he was doing that day. I put everything into God’s hands and also let go of my feelings about everything his wife did to hurt me. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO FEEL LIKE A VICTIM OR TO FOCUS ON ALL OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HURT ME. I have recently forgiven “Dave” as well. I realize that he must live a miserable life, based on the little I know/have seen of him. I hope that someday he can feel the love, hope and light that engulfs my soul on a daily basis. I guarantee he doesn’t have incredible people loving and supporting him, the way I have! I have handed everything over to G-O-D. Ultimately, he is the only one who can judge us. I need to just focus on being my best, healthiest and happiest self.
I know that I will eventually fully recover from these debacles. I consider myself extremely fortunate to count on the love, prayers and support of my amazing friends and family. In the meanwhile, I have been keeping my heart and mind opened to all of the lessons that the Universe is trying to teach me right now. Inspiration is my motivation! This way, as I recover, I can emerge a more spiritually-beautiful version of my pre-accident self.
Finding Hope When all seems hopeless
I had two back-to-back surgeries in the fall of 2009. My doctors had just informed that I would be permanently disabled & were convinced that the extreme atrophy in my body was irreversible. Having traumatic brain injuries sets people up for being severely depressed, as well. I started isolating myself and fell into a deep depression. It was difficult to think clearly while being in constant pain. I felt like I couldn’t really open up to anyone because no one understood what I was going through.
My body was deformed and I didn’t know the face that was looking back at me in the mirror. I started questioning every decision I had made in my life that lead up to my accidents. I felt scared. Meeting new people & having them see me as someone who was “disabled” scared me, because I didn’t know who the person they were seeing in front of them was. I realized that I needed to focus on what made me happy and simply avoid anything that could hurt me. I went into survival mode & thought about all the things I would do when I was better.
I made a HOPE BOARD- A poster board filled with post-it notes. Each note has a dream or goal of mine written on it. The point of this was to ALWAYS see what I am working towards, to always remember THE BIGGER PICTURE, and keep my eyes on the prize. I started doing random acts of kindness for people, even from my bedside, and INSTANTLY FELT BETTER!! I realized that even though my body was broken, my soul was intact. Doing nice things for other people removed me from my own situation & made me feel like the old me. After awhile, I realized that if I start learning lessons every day, even if it’s a bad day, then I am blessed. I started to thank the Universe for both the good and the bad. I started to tap into the warrior inside of me. I started to fight as hard for my own recovery as I would for someone else’s. I started to love myself again.
I’m still recovering from numerous traumatic brain injuries, have herniated and bulged discs poking my spinal cord, extensive nerve damage throughout my body and my right leg doesn’t work. I have many surgeries left. I spent close to 3 years bed-ridden (if you add it all up) and have been in and out of the hospital for most of these 4.5 years. However, I REFUSE TO GIVE UP. I’m using this experience as a unique opportunity to learn life lessons from adversity. I do at least four to six hours of physical therapy six days a week. I use forearm crutches and a wheelchair to get around. Miraculously, my teeth were not injured in either accident. I took this as a direct sign from The Universe to KEEP SMILING NO MATTER WHAT!
I’ve learned that I don’t need to be “who I was” before my accident in order to love this new life I was given. I decided that it was time to take my health to a new level, so I began playing adaptive sports and joined a regular (able-bodied) gym in June of 2012. The most incredible experiences of my life have occurred since I began loving this “new me”. With each goal accomplished, a wave of inspiration, hope, love, confidence, strength and motivation engulfs my soul. I realize that I am way more today than I was before. I am braver, more positive, more loving, more motivated, more hugging, more spiritually-beautiful, more compassionate and more “me” than I could have ever been otherwise.
In the last few months, I’ve crutched through four 5k races, a mini-Go Ruck Challenge in the woods and a Spartan Race! At first, I was extremely nervous about placing myself in a large group of able-bodied athletes. I thought I may be trampled in the crowd. I didn’t know if people would make fun of me. When I did “The Tunnel To Towers Race” last September, a bunch of my Wounded Warrior friends came up from Walter Reed Hospital to wheel, crutch and run the race with me. Even though I finished last out of over 30,000 people, the memories I made that day and the friendships forged will last a lifetime. Two of my friends are triple amputees and had just been fitted with their legs in the days before the race. Watching them walk along side of me, as thousands of firemen, military, civilians and onlookers cheered us on, ignited a fire within my heart that will never be snuffed. I was walking amongst Giants. Their vibrant spirits, courage and smiles were contagious.
I wasn’t sure if I could finish those races. But, with each step I took, I learned that it’s not about being in first place, or last place, or looking a certain way or having a certain body. These races are about encouragement, friendship, celebrating life, shining in the face of adversity and overcoming odds TOGETHER.
My disabled veteran friends scuba-dive, rock-climb, handcycle, crutch/walk/run/wheel as far as they can, sky-dive, participate in “extreme obstacle challenges,” have wrestled alligators on “Gator Boys” and love the lives they were given. They practice an attitude of gratitude. Watching my friends smile through tears has taught me how I want to handle my own circumstances. They know no limits & accept no excuses. They are making the most of every day, no matter what.
I’ve learned that we don’t need to wait to be “better” in order to start living the lives we’re meant to live. The day I played wheelchair basketball for the first time, a part of my soul that I thought was gone was reborn. When I started going out and doing fun things again, I began making new memories with this new body of mine. Sometimes our bodies need to break in order for our souls to be healed. I’m doing the Super Spartan in Virginia on August 24th, a “Spartan Sprint” & “Tunnel To Towers 5k” in September, and I’m going to handcycle “The Army Ten Miler” & “The Marine Corps Marathon” in October, all with Team Operation Enduring Warrior. Inspiration is my motivation!! Watching my body become stronger and healthier every day is amazing. I’m taking my vitamins, eating healthy foods, surrounding myself with positive, empowered people and I feel unstoppable! Life. Is. Beautiful.
I’m really happy to be writing this chapter of my story, after having the pen taken from me for so long. I bet that your story can be just as awesome. It’s time you picked up the pen and started writing it.
“The only one who can tell you ‘you can’t’ is you. And, you don’t have to listen…”