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Patti Foster: The Survivor

In a split second my world went black and life as I knew it ended.

By DANNY MOGLE

June 18, 2002, could not have started better for 34-year-old Patti Foster. She received a call asking her to deliver the keynote address at a women’s retreat in North Carolina. She was elated.

Patti recently had moved back to East Texas after working as an on-air personality at a Christian radio station in Indiana. Previously she had spent nearly a decade at KVNE radio in Tyler. She was anxious to begin a new phase of life. Her dreams of becoming a motivational speaker were coming true.

 

Later that day, she met three friends in Jacksonville to carpool to their ladies’ Bible study in Tyler. Patti had purchased carnations for her Bible study sisters to show them how much they meant to her. She climbed into the backseat and placed the flowers in the space behind her.

As they headed north on Highway 69, one of her friends shared the good news that she was pregnant. The friends were thrilled and joyous.

At the intersection of Highway 69 and FM 344 in Bullard, they stopped at a red traffic light. Patti unbuckled her seatbelt and turned around to check on the carnations behind her.

The last thing I remember is seeing that bouquet of purple, pink and yellow blossoms spilling out of the basket. In a split second my world went black and life as I knew it ended.

A transport truck hauling cars and barreling down the highway at 70 mph slammed into the Chevy Tahoe they were in. The driver of the truck never slowed down. Witnesses said the impact sounded like an explosion.

One of Patti’s friends was killed in the wreck. The other two suffered serious injuries. The impact sent Patti’s unbuckled body like a missile through a closed window and into the air. It crashed onto the highway and skidded along the surface ripping away flesh and breaking bones.

The driver of the semi-truck was not seriously hurt. An investigation revealed he had drugs in his system. He was later sentenced to life in prison and remains behind bars.

With the help of writer Sharyn Kopf, Patti tells the story of the accident and her agonizing recovery – that continues today – in “Coping with Traumatic Brain Injury: One Woman’s Journey from Death to Life.”

(Excerpts from the book are presented in italics.)

 ACCIDENT AND RECOVERY

The book recounts the reaction of a motorist who drove up on the scene and saw Patti’s mangled and bleeding body in the highway.

The condition of her body was almost more than he could comprehend. He thought every bone must be broken. Her head lay smashed against the asphalt. One eyeball dangled from its socket while a pool of blood about 15 inches in diameter surrounded her head, growing larger by the minute.

A paramedic could not find signs of life and, convinced Patti was dead, put a sheet over her. But then Patti made a faint gurgling sound as she gasped for air through the blood. She was rushed by air ambulance to East Texas Medical Center in Tyler.

Patti was barely clinging to life. Her friends and family gathered at the hospital and began praying.

After a seven-hour emergency surgery in which doctors pieced Patti’s face back together, put her eye back in place and dealt with the massive swelling of her brain, the family was allowed to briefly see Patti. Her mother Judy, recalls the moment.

Her whole head was bandaged and the size of a large basketball. A tube was coming out of her head to release pressure. I could recognize her little nose, but the rest was bad. The whole right side was mangled, raw flesh and her right hand was completely useless. You can’t imagine.

Patti was in a coma. Doctors were not sure if she would ever come out of a coma much less survive After three days, a neuropsychologist offered a diagnosis.

The good news is she’s going to live. The bad news is, more than likely, she will be a vegetable, will never walk or talk again, but will stay just like she is now.

For the next five weeks, Patti remained in a coma. She was kept alive through breathing tubes and feeding tubes. Massive amounts of painkillers were pumped into her body. Pneumonia set in one lung and she suffered a staph infection.

Very slowly she began to open her eyes and show signs of recognizing the family members who kept a vigil at her bedside. Patti says it was like very slowly coming out of an all-encompassing fog.

She was transferred to the Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation in Dallas, a facility that specializes in helping patients recover from traumatic brain injury.

She would have to relearn everything. She would have to be born again.

 COPING

I was like a 34-year-old infant. I couldn’t feed myself. I couldn’t brush my teeth. I couldn’t stand. I certainly couldn’t walk or go to the bathroom by myself.

Everything was a struggle.

Things as simple as opening my mouth, letting someone place food in it, closing my mouth and then chewing and swallowing demanded loads of concentration Sometimes I would swallow and sometimes I wouldn’t. It all depended on how my brain was doing at that particular moment.

She had to relearn her ABCs and numbers and how write. She had to learn how to walk again. She had to learn the simple tasks of life. She had to re-learn who the people were in her life and who she was.

An occupational therapist came to my room every morning to begin to teach me how to take care of myself and get ready for the day ahead, from getting out of bed to brushing my teeth to running a comb through my hair. This was all very hard because I had lost my fine-motor skills.

Simple tasks left her exhausted and she couldn’t function without medications to ease the agonizing pain and constant pounding in her head. She fought through discouragement and doubt and with support of her friends and family slowly got better.

Coming out of a coma is a frustratingly slow process. You don’t wake up one day and “ta da!” everything is back to normal. It’s more of a two-step forward and one-step back experience.

After she showed the ability to perform basic tasks, she was transferred to the Pate Rehabilitation Ranch in Anna, Texas, to gain strength and receive more rehabilitation.

Rehab is more difficult than you might expect. It requires all the concentration and attention we (traumatic brain injury patients) can muster. And, as in the case of most head trauma survivors, these two traits are extremely hard for us to grab on to.

Four months after the accident, Patti had progressed enough to be released from Pate Rehabilitation and return to Jacksonville to live under the constant care of her parents.

Patti says she figured out ways, sometimes through trial and error, to cope.

I write myself notes all the time because I forget so much. Rather than tattooing the messages on my arms like the character in the movie “Memento,” I live by Post-it notes. They are everywhere – dotting my house, my computer, even the console of my car. No matter where I go, I take Post-its with me as a visual reminder of anything I need to remember.

When you observe a person who’s trying to live with a brain injury in the real world, seeing isn’t believing. You can’t see the damage to their brain but you can tell something isn’t quite right. The problems hide on the inside where cognitive and emotional skills are. For this reason, brain injury survivors have to find a way of coping with our function deficits.

PATTI TODAY

During my interview with Patti, I never would have suspected she had been through trauma, based on her appearance and outgoing personality. She looks healthy and happy and flashes a warm smile.

I did not see any scars until she pointed one out, a remnant of the surgery to rebuild her face. She said other scars are concealed by her clothing.

The longer we talked, the more I detected some of the problems she deals with. Sometimes she seemed to get lost in her thoughts. She would hesitate, regroup and then continue. Sometimes she had trouble remembering specific details.

She credits the love of God and family with pulling her through and continuing to cope.

Ironically, her story of survival has made her a popular motivational speaker before faith groups and accident victims – especially families and victims of traumatic brain injury. She now enjoys the public speaking career she had dreamed of on that fateful day in 2008.

Patti promotes herself as an “inspirational communicator.” Her message is to embrace life to the fullest and don’t put things off.

What I’ve gone through since the crash has presented me with many unexpected opportunities to give back, to give something that’s mine in order to help others with the knowledge I’ve gained along this journey. The main awareness being that life is hard, but God is good. …

So, as long as God gives me breath and strength and a voice, I will continue to use this gift to make a difference now.

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About Danny Mogle

2 comments

  1. Wow Mrs. Foster what a Blessing God has done in your life and is doing in your life. What an inspiration you are as a fellow Christian I would like to Thank You for allowing God to use you to inspire others in life through the tragedy that you went through. Praise God Yes God is Wonderful, Amazing and out of this world Magnificent! I say that because God is Real, He is invisible and He is very Merciful and most Gracious! Our Lord Jesus Christ has also given me a second life to, I spent 52 days in a coma before my memory came back it took me two years to relearn everything physical. When I woke from the coma I two was a infant again by the brain waves test that were performed. I go and share when God opens the door for me to go and share .Only Jesus Christ brought me through the wreck and recovery by His Grace! All credit goes to God for He is wonderful!

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