By Morgan Sweere Treece
Lights, bright lights, blurry lights, headlights, flashing ambulance lights, EMT flashlights, fluorescent hospital lights. That’s probably some of the only things I actually can recall about that night.
November 15, 2012. It was a chilly- Thursday evening, the time of year when all the leaves have just fallen on the straw-like, browned grass as everyone got ready to pull out their fuzzy, woolen scarves. It seemed no different from any other day. I got up, went to school, and everything was normal, but when I got home, I heard some of my favorite words leave my mom’s mouth: “Your cousins from Fayetteville are in town and headed out to the field.”
My cousins were on break from college and home for the week, which only happened once in a blue moon, so it was breaking news to me. What did this rare occurrence mean? Extreme night mudding!!! In mere seconds, I was hopped up in my car and sped on my way to the field where we took the four-wheelers each time the cousins visited town. It could actually be compared more so to an obstacle course instead of a field, the way the trees seemed to randomly spurt from the rocky soil, with large boulders and hills lining the moist, unmowed fields. We unloaded the four-wheelers, still caked with the old, dried mud and dust from our last night riding event. Soon enough, the four of us were zipping over the rough and ragged barriers toward our designated finish line, the dry, brown grass grazing our ankles and bitter wind gnawing at our cheeks.
One of the next memories I have of that momentous evening is waking up, confused, hardly able to see, completely unable to think, having been rolled over by multiple unidentified hands. In what seemed like hours but was actually seconds after that, I tried to understand what was happening. I recognized no one around me. My mind was unable to comprehend the situation. I heard shouting – in the back of my mind, a perceived distant memory. “HELP! She’s gushing blood! Morgan!”
EMTs, paramedics, cousins, and my mom all screeched in unnerving anxiety. They attempted to relieve the aching pain from my marred face and body soaked with blood. I couldn’t feel the pain, but I knew it was there somehow. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I had a major migraine, and I could feel the blood gushing from every pore of my body. The blood started to dry and left an amber stain all over due to the icy, winter-like wind. I had no idea what was happening and no one took the time to explain it to me. I could see the wrathful, crimson liquid encompass my line of vision in mere seconds, and I even tasted the iron soaking onto my tongue. Then all went black. The next 14 hours of reconstructive surgery and stabilization were marked by panic, worry, and God’s miraculous and loving work in the hands of many talented ER physicians and surgeons. The surgery was tedious but flawlessly executed in the end, soothing news to my anxiety-filled family in the waiting room. Then I woke up in a haze. The intense, sterile hospital room filled with dazzling yet blinding fluorescent lights and vaguely familiar faces left me still unable to comprehend just where I was, or even who I was. The copious amounts of drugs in my body overtook my mind, and the five or so hours after I awoke are mostly a fuzzy cloud in my memory.
Several days later, I regained complete alertness in a sober stage. Someone told me that in my first spoken words after I roused from my morphine-induced slumber of surgery, I solicited the immediate presence of my mother, my boyfriend, and (of course) a Sonic Coke — clearly, my priorities were pretty straight, even as a pain-filled, drugged-up girl. I knew exactly what I wanted and what I would have missed greatly had I never seen those three things again, however trivial the last is.
When I woke up in the hospital, the first things I actually remember were large dark black and blurry mounds blocking my view. I blamed this “tunnel vision” on my cheeks, which had risen to an insanely abnormal height due to the entire swelling of my face. However, now that I think about it, symbolically this block in my sight may have actually been my seeing less temporarily so that I could see more now. It took a full six months – in what I called “puffy girl problems” — for all the inflammation to disappear, but after I finished being the metal chipmunk I was and began to regain the feeling in my face, I realized how important the experience was to me, however awful it may have been. And trust me, it was really awful.
The best and worst experiences in the lives of people always are the most important memories because those experiences have the greatest impact on the way people live. I consider my ordeal as one of the most painful and grueling experiences I have had at this point in life in which I utterly shattered every possible bone in my face into 23 pieces, including both jaws. I had a concussion and practically became The Terminator with four metal plates, four metal screws, and large wires and bands that starved me for six weeks. However, I also realized it was one of the greatest blessings in my life because I realized the most important things in life: God, family, and friendships.
Even almost a year later, I often get caught up in the almost regular conversations imbued by questions like “You broke your…face?” “Did it hurt?” “Can I touch it?” “You have metal in there?” “What happens when you go through airport security? Or if you get slapped?”, and the most frequently asked “Do you look different?” or “Do you like it?”. Those last words of blunt inquiry always seem to strike me the most, although it is only a frivolous query to others. The words seem to stop me dead in my tracks more than anything anyone could probably ever say to me. I’m not different. I’m still me. I still feel like me. But I’m not. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror for almost three months after my surgery because, in truth, I am different—on the outside and the inside. Not only did my (still groundbreaking) stupidity and recklessness teach me not to attempt ramping a rocky slope at top speed on a four-wheeler in the autumn dusk just because I was dared to. It taught me that I — as much as I want to be or think I feel most of the time — am not Superman. I shouldn’t live like it either. I can’t live like I’m invincible, like I can’t get hurt or suffer any consequences, like I’ll never get caught doing anything bad, like I can save everyone around me from everything. It might be an insane joyride in the air to feel so immortal, flying even, but the ending sensation of cracks, snaps, stinging, and wearing a warm, sticky sweater of blood sure did crack my thick skull as I hit the ground. I learned from all that.
However cliché it may be to say that the lesson learned here is carpe diem or “YOLO,” it isn’t to say the latter — that life isn’t forever and high school isn’t forever, and I learned to no longer treat those periods in such a way.Waking up in that uncomfortable hospital bed, drugged to the maximum, looking like a hideous, Botox-gone-wrong patient, but still surrounded by tons of worried, sympathetic faces of loved ones, along with various flowers, cards, and balloons — I couldn’t help but feel more like a puffy little princess than the monstrosity of a monster I was then portraying. It’s a medical miracle that doctors were able to piece back together a face shattered into 23 pieces, much less to make the end result even remotely close to my previous appearance. I learned to appreciate the precious jewel of life and the irreplaceable emeralds and rubies surrounding my bed 24/7 until I was released to go home. The sudden realization I had when awaking in that bed was not the normal “blinding light” that near-death experiences often produce, but more a recognition that I should live my life better, treat those I love better, and graciously accept the undeniable truth that I hadn’t been doing these things before. I often ponder, what if I hadn’t woken up? Had I told my family I loved them before I left? Did my friends know how much I cared about them? Was there any doubt that I lived my life for God? Was my time here enough? I never wanted to question it again. I was never afraid of dying — just, not really living, and not living the right way. I truly believe that God has given me another chance in this life; it just took a quick slap in the face (or rather face plant) to realize how I’m supposed to be living my life. Don’t wait to get your life together or to go for your goals — the time is now. My accident was a traumatic eye-opener, although it seemed quite the opposite through the six months of swelling. The genuine truth about “forever” is that it is happening in the present moment. Living life to the fullest is an understatement for me; I want to live life to the point of super saturation, to the point that I am constantly overflowing with unparalleled joy, kindness, and gratitude. It is vitally important to live each day as if it is my last, to tell people I love them while I have the chance, and to never leave any words unspoken. The lesson learned? Don’t put off things until tomorrow. What if there is no tomorrow? Live your dreams now. Say it. Do it. Appreciate it. Love it. And whatever you do: Always, always, ALWAYS wear a helmet.
Morgan Sweere Treece is an M.D./Ph.D. student at UAMS.