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scars are souvenirs you don’t want but can't always avoid

Updated: May 15, 2023

Firstly, let me set the record straight…I did not extend my Brazil trip in order to undergo plastic surgery, but I am pleased that so many of you thought so!

In actuality, around 4am, on 6th May 2017, with only 13 hours remaining in my 16-day Peru/Brazil trip, one block from my hotel, my taxi driver advanced a red light. We were struck by a city bus, which spun us around into a metal gate...So, I'm told. I don't recall anything immediately before, during or just after the accident.

I came to in the hospital as my chin was being stitched up. Asking where I was seemed like a dumb question as I stared up at what were clearly flickering hospital lights, so I opted for ‘What happened?’ The doctor replied, ‘You don’t remember? Are you on drugs?’ No, but it would be greatly appreciated if you could give me some!!

In the hours following the accident I was in a semiconscious state and didn’t really have a sense of timing nor what exactly was going on around me. I did realize quite quickly that my purse/mobile did not make it with me on the ambulance journey to the hospital. Luckily, my passport was at the hotel, not on my person, but since I had no other identification, the hospital admitted me under the name Shirley Brchr. The loss of my possessions also meant that I had no way of getting in touch with anyone and no access to any money.

Initial cat scans and x-rays revealed a broken pelvis (in at least five places), which would require surgery, and a fractured right elbow. I also nearly bit through my tongue, chipped a tooth, had quite a bit of bruising and required about nine facial sutures.

I was whisked away to have my right arm set in a cast and then moved to a bed in a shared room, with seven other patients (and their families). I was pretty out of it, but I do recall hearing a lot of moaning and groaning. In fairness, most of it was probably coming from me.

My friend, who was with me in the taxi, Victoria, sustained some painful injuries, but was lucky enough to be released from the hospital a few hours after the accident. Her mobile had also been stolen, but she had her laptop at the hotel, which allowed her to get the game of telephone going.

By the time I got a hold of a doctor's phone and could ring my parents, they had already been informed. Thank goodness too, because with my tongue injury, I sounded a lot like I had sustained brain damage. It was a relief to make contact, hear familiar voices and to assure everyone that I was going to be okay.

The doctors asked me a lot of questions like ‘Do you want to have surgery here or at a private hospital?’ and ‘Do you have insurance?’ My alter ego, Shirley Brchr, was not cognoscente enough to make a well thought out decision regarding the surgery, but did have the good sense to remember my travel insurance plan, which included emergency medical coverage. THANK GOODNESS! And luckily, I had emailed my dad an electronic copy of the policy some months earlier.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad went into command center mode and was busying himself conversing with the Brazilian doctors via What’s App, obtaining second opinions from US surgeons, managing insurance claims, alerting my colleagues and cancelling my credit cards (which had all been maxed out). Meanwhile, my sister fielded endless queries from friends and family as the news spread. It’s worth mentioning that she was eight months pregnant and a superstar for handling all of that!

Victoria, bless her, really wanted to come back to the hospital that evening to see me but was in so much pain that she sent Brigitte, from our hotel, on her behalf. Brigitte had a hard time locating me in the hospital due to my incorrect name, but ultimately did find me.

I had never met Brigitte before, but she was truly a guardian angel. She was caring and selfless, despite not knowing me. Sadly for her, when she arrived, all I wanted assistance with was getting out of my strapless bra, which, let’s be honest, is uncomfortable at the best of times.

Brigitte came to visit me nearly every day that I was in the hospital. She got my name corrected, translated from Portuguese to English, helped me fill out paperwork and snuck in edible food. It takes a special woman to show this level of kindness to a stranger and I am forever indebted to her.

On the related note regarding guardian angels, there are two other woman who deserve this designation as well. My sister went to grad school with a guy who married a Brazilian. His wife was kind enough to reach out to two of her friends, Ana and Isabel, who lived in Rio. They came to visit me on numerous occasions, also provided translation services, fed me, picked glass out of my hair, entertained me and even paid for my private ambulance. This experience and these ladies taught me that compassion can be found in the most unexpected of places.

But I digress.

I spent the first night and the whole of the next day in that god awful public trauma hospital. I don’t really remember being attended to very much by the staff, but my roommates were quite interested in me. There was a small television in the room and apparently my accident was reported on the news. This was not the sort of 15 minutes of fame anyone ever hopes for, but I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Finally, around 10pm the day after the accident, after Isabel paid for a private ambulance (don’t worry, she was reimbursed), I was transferred to the next hospital. As I was leaving the public hospital, one of the doctors informed me that the driver of the taxi had been badly injured but was being kept alive.

Upon arrival at Clínica São Vicente, I was immediately met by my surgeon, Vincenzo Giordano. Blood and x-rays were taken. A chest x-ray unveiled a broken right clavicle, which made sense, because it did feel like I had a knife stuck in my shoulder. Both fractures on my arms were set as they were and did not require surgery, so the surgeon thought it would be best to cut the cast off on my right arm and just put me in a sling.

For those of you keeping track, that’s a shattered pelvis, a broken right elbow and a fractured left shoulder. I was running out of working limbs! Of course, all was fixable by surgery, rest and time, and helped by generous quantities of painkillers.

I was awoken around 4am the next morning, by the anesthesiologist, for some questions and explanations. I had to confirm medications I was taking, allergies I had and the like. I was then warned that a numbing agent would be utilized and that when I awoke, post-surgery, I would not be able to feel my legs. I was so grateful that he told me that in advance, because had he not, I might have had a meltdown!

I was brought into surgery in the wee hours of the morning. I’m told the whole thing, from anesthesia to final x-rays took one hour. The actual insertion of the screws took about 20 minutes and the two incisions are minuscule. Modern medicine is absolutely incredible!

Below is an image of my new pelvic accessories. Brazilian titanium, all the rage!

I thought I appreciated my body in the past, but sitting there, after my surgery, feeling groggy and itchy, I realized that there was a lot that I had taken for granted. Until you sustain serious injuries and lose abilities, you have no idea how precariously and perfectly your body actually works.

I had never had any real injuries previously – no broken bones/long-term hospital stays - so I had no idea what to expect nor what the recovery timeline would be like, but I remember thinking ‘I can do this, I can get through this…because I have to.’

I was very well cared for in the private hospital. The nurses were great, despite the language barrier. However, not being able to use a toilet on your own, wash yourself nor brush your own teeth was awful and doesn’t do much for your dignity. I can also confirm that sponge baths are not nearly as sexy as people make them out to be. Any humility/humanity/pride that I once had went out the window with that two weeks in the hospital.

Over the course of the days following the surgery, a few significant things occurred.

One, my new iPhone arrived (which my company was kind of enough to ship to me, from the UK). It was a relief to be connected again and to have a tool to help pass the long days.

Second, the physical therapist got me up out of bed! I was only able to take about two steps though, before I crumbled with exhaustion into the chair beside the bed. After being made as comfortable as possible, I was left to sit upright for a bit, presumably to keep me from getting bedsores.

Food had been delivered, but the tray was all the way across the room and I couldn’t feed myself with my dual broken arms. I started to feel dizzy and uncomfortable from being upright for so long and not having eaten. Additionally, my diaper was in need of changing. I pressed the nurse call button for assistance but it didn’t ring. I kept pressing it, but nothing happen. I panicked. My heart started racing, my vision went spotty, there was ringing in my ears, I began to sweat, my breathing became faulty and my fingertips became numb. In my hysteria, I dropped my mobile so I really had no way of contacting anyone, which created further feelings of dread and anxiety. I think I knew deep-down that I would be fine and that the nurses would come into my room to check on me at some point soon, but I was feeling a sense of terror that I just couldn’t shake, no matter how irrational it was. I started hyperventilating in between screams for help. It was absolutely terrifying. I later learned that this was a panic attack. I had never had one before and I really hope I never have one again.

Eventually, the nurses got me back into bed and tranquilized me. They moved my room that night, to one closer to the nurse’s station, that had a working call button. However, that new room didn’t have strong wifi and the air conditioning couldn’t be controlled by remote, so I was then moved to a third room, where I remained for the rest of my stay.

My mom arrived on the 13th May. I have never been so happy to see another human in my life! I had been on my own, in the hospital, for about five days at that point. I craved a good hug/cry, to hear some English and to have someone file my nails!

Thanks to my mom and the São Vicente physio team, I made great strides in getting out of bed, beginning to use my legs again and being able to use the bathroom facilities (even though assistance was still required).

As the days went on, I became strong enough to utilize the outdoor sitting area down the hall from my room. It was lovely, all jungle-y and Amazon-like, with very pleasant weather and I even spotted a monkey on one occasion. The fresh air did wonders for my psyche as well. Although, I could only sit comfortably for about an hour before I would get dizzy and tired and needed to retire to my bed for more sleep and drugs!

I have never been able to swallow pills. My dad always told me that one day the time would come where I would have to learn, but this was not that time. After consulting Google translate, I was able to instruct the nurses to crush all my pills for me. I know I was being pumped full of iron because I was anemic after losing a lot of blood during surgery and I also know that there were some pain killers and antibiotics involved, but aside from those, the other meds I was fed were a mystery.

On 19th May, I learned that whatever they were giving me in the hospital was magic! About six hours after I had been discharged, when the medication wore off, I was in a world of hurt and the prescription pain killers given to me did next to nothing to ease the pain. The first night out of the hospital was torture. The next morning, between tears, I managed to text my surgeon and he recommended I supplement the prescription pain killers with something that I could obtain over-the-counter, which turned out to be a winning concoction!

The combination of trauma, anesthesia and all the medications left me with some odd bodily side effects including a distended abdomen, atrophy, baby/broken hair, dandruff, peeling/scaly skin, loss of eyebrows and dented/discolored nails. Pretty hot, huh?

By the time the 23rd of May rolled around, I was finally deemed fit to leave Brazil. My mom and I flew 9.5 hours, in Business Class, to New York City. I was fairly uncomfortable but managed to get through it (what other choice did I have?). In NY, a car service had been organized by my dad to take us to my parents’ house in Connecticut. That journey took a few hours. I was absolutely knackered by the time I arrived at my family home, but it was so great to see my dad and be in comfortable/familiar surroundings.

Being back at my folks’ home was exactly what I needed. I had lots of visitors and my parents provided full time assistance with everything from meals and laundry to help washing my hair and getting dressed to rides to doctor appointments/physical therapy.

I started to get a little stronger with my crutches and, with a spotter, could even go up/down a few stairs. I thought I was making great progress until 30th May when I suffered a bit of a setback. I finally got an appointment to see the Orthopedic Surgeon in Connecticut. He did an examination, which included x-rays. He was concerned that the screw on my left side of my pelvis had shifted slightly. Any further movement/breakage of the screw could result in another, more invasive surgery so he wanted me non-weight bearing for three more weeks. I was able to do some physio, but it was to be minimal and only to focus on my core and range of motion of my arms. I was also prescribed aqua therapy…Or as I called it water walking.

Two days later, I had received even more somber news. My grandmother had passed away at the ripe age of 102 years. Although she had lived a long life and died peacefully, it was heart-breaking to learn that she was not actually immortal.

After the funeral, I decided a perspective adjustment was needed on my end. Although the bed-rest was disappointing, three weeks was a short amount of time in the overall timeline of life and much better than having to undergo another surgery.

Needing something to occupy my time, I went online and ordered a new Apple TV and a gift card for a year of Netflix. Although secretly for me, these items would officially serve as a combined birthday/Father’s Day gift for my dad. Although the holidays weren't for about 3.5 more weeks, I presented dad with the presents early and then forced him to set it all up immediately, which actually ended up costing him money in the end because he had to upgrade the router and buy some sort of adapter/connector. It was pretty much the worst gift of all time, but an absolute necessity for me. I must have watched hundreds of hours of Netflix. In fact, I’m pretty sure I came to the end of Netflix. And there is a now permanent Sherry-shaped indent on my parents' couch.

On the 15th June, the family finally had a reason to celebrate. My niece Natalie Belle was born. She was named after my maternal grandmother (first name) and one of guardian angels (middle name) which was very special to me.

Even more good news followed on 19th June, after a second appointment with my Orthopedic Surgeon. I was upgraded from 0% weight bearing on my left leg to 50%, which meant I could ditch the wheelchair and get back to walking with the assistance of crutches.

Over the course of the next six weeks or so, I started to experience many small milestones. I could get in and out of bed on my own, wash my own hair, get myself dressed, cross my legs, roll over and go up/downstairs. The rented hospital bed was sent back and the wheelchair retired. I was also doing a good job of weaning myself off the pain killers (mostly because I was ready to start drinking again). I still had pain, walked really slow and was uncomfortable sitting or standing for too long, but I was making real progress with the help of a positive attitude and my amazing physical therapist.

About 12 weeks after the accident, on 31st July, I saw the doctor for the third and final time. The not-so-great news was that my right elbow had not yet healed, but the good news was that my left shoulder and my pelvis were looking good and I was cleared to get off crutches!! I promptly threw the walking sticks in trash and started doing about six hours of physio a week. I was sick of being useless and was determined to get back to being a normal human who could do normal human things.

At this point I was off the pain killers entirely and just taking Ibuprofen a few times per day. I felt like I was about 198 years old when I would get out of bed or when it rained. My lower back ached, my neck was stiff and I still would get uncomfortable sitting for longer than a few consecutive hours, but I was happy to be alive, making progress and gaining some independence.

By this point, it had now been over three months since I left London and all I had with me was the carry-on bag that I had packed for my Peru/Brazil trip. I was excited at the prospect of getting back to London and having a whole wardrobe of clothes that I hadn't seen in ages.

As September rolled around, I was finally strong enough, mentally and physically, to return to London. I had a lot of admin to do in order to re-acclimate to life in London…Four months of mail to go through, doctor’s appointments to set up and attend, hours of physical therapy, osteopath appointments, x-rays, getting myself back in shape, catching up with friends and getting back to work.

Shortly after I got back to London, I received an email from the Rio police indicating that the taxi driver was still in hospital. That email really gave me a new frame of mind. As bad as I thought my experience was, his was still ongoing and seemed much worse. I realized how easy it is to get caught up in your own problems and focus on what is lacking rather than counting your blessings.

As I wrap this up, I'll leave you with the following two of my final thoughts on this matter...

1) The win for the best £48.99 I spent in 2016 goes to my 2017 travel insurance policy! Please let this be a cautionary tale to all of you out there who ‘risk it’ when you go on holiday. These sorts of things are unpredictable and can happen to anyone, anywhere. In my case, $45k had to be prepaid before the I could even be admitted into the private hospital, ahead of my surgery. And lord knows how much the total bill came to after two weeks there. Do yourself, and your family, a favor and get a travel insurance plan that covers you medically, in the event of an emergency.

2) I want to take this opportunity to thank all my friends and family for their thoughts, messages, laughs, kind words, gifts, visits and help along the way. I’d especially like to thank my family for doing literally everything and my work for allowing me to get well without having to endure the added pressure of not being able to pay my bills. I am forever grateful to all the wonderful people in my life!


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