Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Little Red Mustang and a Flight of Stairs

By Barbara L. Corcoran

When I fell 13 feet onto a slate floor on July 18, 2003, the seed of hope had been planted. As everything in my field of vision began turning bright white, I felt the numbness of shock begin to overtake my body, and I thought of Leola’s story. Her influence had already shaped how I would react to both what had just happened to me and what I was about to face.

Why Me? by Leola Mae Harmon, originally appeared in the September 1976 issue of Reader’s Digest, winning the First Person Award. In 1982, her book by the same title was published; and in 1984, the account was retold in a made-for-television movie starring Glynnis O’Connor, Armand Assante and Annie Potts.

Nurse Leola was 23 years old in November 1968, happily five months pregnant, and on her way to work at the Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. She traveled along Tudor Road, babying her car up and over the crest of the hill. Ahead there was an oncoming school bus. Suddenly a truck darted out from behind it to pass, into Leola's lane of traffic. She tried to avoid an impact, but there was no time.

The collision sent her little red mustang over a 12-foot snow-covered embankment. Her seatbelt didn’t hold and she went through the windshield before being thrown back into her seat. The spinning three-pronged steering wheel tore through her face.

Her airway blocked by tissue, blood and chunks of bone, Leola could only wheeze as the ambulance took her first to a civilian hospital and then to Elmendorf, where her co-workers were in shock at the sight of the once-stunningly beautiful woman on the gurney. Plastic surgeon Dr. James Stallings, who happened to be passing by the ER, heard the commotion, took charge and saved the young woman’s life.

Leola Mae had lost most of her teeth, a chunk of her lip and parts of her jawbone, yet she insisted on getting back to nursing just five weeks after the accident. Dr Stallings was not one to be shy about trying new procedures, including rebuilding her lip from her own vaginal tissue. After 40 grueling surgeries, Leola Mae was put back together again.

The intoxicated driver that ran into her pretty little car, took the life of Leola’s unborn child, and did unspeakable damage to this beautiful woman received a $250 fine, 30 day suspension of his driver's license and 30 days in jail.

Leola also lost her husband before her recovery was complete. He could not deal with the extent of her injuries. Leola’s determination, combined with Dr. Stallings’ dedication and skill, kept her going through the pain, depression and physical adjustments she endured as the days became weeks and months and years.

She and Dr. Stallings went on to work together, marrying in 1971, only to divorce in 1976. Sadly, Dr. Stallings took his own life in 1991 after a long battle with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue hindered his ability to work. Leola remarried in 1982 and moved to Punta Gorda, Florida in 1998, where she caught a virus. She passed away in May 1999 of multiple organ failure.

I saw the 1984 made-for-tv movie first. I was lucky enough to later get a copy of the book, which filled a lot of gaps left by the movie. Leola’s miraculous recovery - replayed on screen and on paper, left no doubt that she was more than a survivor. She not only survived against the odds, but she had a terrific attitude as well. Leola Mae's beauty came from within, and in time, it was seen on the outside again.

In my case, I had fallen down a flight of stairs to a slate floor below. Both arms were broken; I had head injuries; bruised and torn muscles and cartilage. I was in wrenching pain. My heart stopped for more than a minute in the Emergency Room. My boss at the investment firm couldn't understand why I couldn't be back to work the next week. I couldn't feed or dress myself. I lost my job.

At first, I was thrilled that I had survived to have another chance at life. As the first few months passed, the magnitude of my injuries became more apparent to me. I had always been quite independent, yet now I could not bathe myself. I could not open a doorknob or even pick up a pencil. Always my own worst critic, I was about to learn a huge lesson. I was about to learn how to accept my imperfect self. Even more importantly, I was about to learn how to ask for – and graciously accept -- help.

For me, it has been a long process of learning how to sign my name again, complete with triumphs over lifting a wet washcloth; a metal fork; a can of tuna. On one particular day, I was carefully dusting my trophies from the days when I was a champion bullseye target shooter. It dawned on me that with my right arm still unable to straighten, I may never be able to shoot again. A kind of sadness swept over me that only accompanies the realization that one’s life-dream has suddenly fallen out of reach. I tried rationalizing, but the sadness overwhelmed me.

I went to my copy of Lola’s book and read again about her struggle, and chose to focus on things I can do instead of those I cannot. Six years later, I still have physical difficulties, and am experiencing what it is like to have an "invisible" disability. I still lack some dexterity in my fingertips, and it often takes me several minutes to pick up a button or manipulate the earring through my pierced ear. Four months ago, I finally summed up the courage to face the target shooting challenge. I was accustomed to bringing home first place every time. I now have three matches under my belt with two second place awards and one first place award. I believe that with a lot more work, I will one day return to those first place scores.

In the years since my own accident, people have looked at me in amazement after learning of my survival against so many odds. There are times when I cannot lift or move things with my arms, and the pain is a daily occurrence. I tire easily and can accomplish roughly half of what I could in a day before the accident. In spite of my own physical therapist having considerably less than “Stallings’-like” enthusiasm about my case (she told me I’d have to live with my right elbow permanently bent at 30 degrees), I have, on my own, recovered full range of movement with my left elbow and all but four degrees of range in my right.

Many times already I could have given up, but all I’ve needed to do is remember what I know about Leola Mae's endurance. I am forever grateful for her courage. Her story has influenced, and saved, my life. She didn't quit, and her injuries were much worse than mine. She kept a determined smile on her face and forged ahead willingly.

So, with the Authorities on their way to burn my library, who am I to do anything less?


  1. Hi Barbara,

    Welcome to the Grip, and thank you for such a wonderful, compassionate and compelling post.

    I'm the sort of wimp who hears the words 'swine flu' and then spends a month in bed, imagining I have the illness and avoiding all human contact and physical activity in case it uses up the last of my energey reserves.

    I have nothing but admiration for people like yourself and Leola Mae who have the strength and courage to battle these challenges with such conviction.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley Lister

  2. HI Barbara!

    Welcome to our blog and I hope you'll come by and readus regular here. YOu and your family have been through a lot. I don;t to know what its all about when these painful things happen but I suppose someday it will all make sense. Thanks for sharing yuor story.


  3. Barbara,

    Bravo! This is probably one of the best and most inspiring posts I've ever read. I remember reading a similar story of a young woman who broke her neck while swimming. She ended up a quadriplegic, but then went on to learn to draw and became a successful artist (she had never drawn before the accident).

    Things can always be worse, quitting being the worst things can get. You kept going in spite of your injuries, and that's amazing!

  4. Hello, Barbara,

    Thank you so much for joining us at the Grip and sharing your story. The body is frighteningly frail... but the mind, the spirit has such power that almost anything can be overcome.

    As you continue with your life, I predict that you will gain new skills and achieve new goals to replace the ones that you have had to release.

    All the best,

  5. Wow - I am humbled by your story. I thought I'd had a horrendous year, separated from my husband of 21 years. And then I read your story, and I thought, you are my inspiration. We can never go back to before, can we, but we can put one foot in front of the other and thrive. Thank you for giving us your story, your inspiration and your spirit...Mary Kennedy Eastham


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