What’s it like to be injured so badly that you believe you’re going to die?
In June 1997, a couple of months before Princess Diana tragically died in a car crash, I too was involved in a very serious car accident which left me maimed and losing so much blood, I believed I would die. I’ve never written about what happened, and if you’ve ever wondered what going through trauma is like, please read on. Disclaimer; not for the squeamish.
At the time of the crash I was 23 years old and very fit, regularly practicing Thai boxing. It was after a session at the Thai boxing gym one evening when my girlfriend Louise came to pick me up in her car. We then drove over to my friend Tim’s house as I wanted to introduce him to Louise who I’d only been seeing a few weeks.
It was close to midnight when we left Tim’s house, and we began driving back to my house along some quiet residential streets. I hadn’t put my seatbelt on which Louise noticed, and she told me to buckle up. Reluctantly, I did as I was told. She wanted to listen to some of her dance music as we drove along, so she reached down to the glove compartment to find a cassette. (I did mention it was ‘97 right?)
My eyes were focused on the contents of the glove compartment for a second or two as she rummaged around, so what neither of us realised is that because she’d leaned over to reach into the glove compartment, her other hand compensated on the steering wheel the other way, causing the car to veer off into the middle of the road.
A couple of seconds later, I glanced up out of the window, seeing that we were about to impact with a traffic island in the middle of the road. It was the kind used to protect crossing pedestrians, with a massive concrete step so that cars can’t mount the island and run people over.
Louise looked up at the same time, sharply turning the steering wheel to avoid the traffic island, but it was way too late. We slammed into the concrete step at approximately 40mph, and because Louise had tried to turn back into the road, the impact at that speed was enough to send the car airborne, spinning over anti-clockwise.
The car smashed passenger side down onto the road, and gravity slammed my arm against the passenger window (which was now effectively the floor of the car) with the whole of my bodyweight on my arm. This would have been fine if the window had stayed intact, but it didn’t. The glass shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces, meaning my exposed arm was dragged along the ground at 40mph with my weight pushing it hard into the road. Imagine the ultimate friction burn, powerful enough to tear away all of the skin, with glass, dirt, gravel and dog shit being driven through the muscles of the arm for good measure. The car kept sliding until it hit the pavement curb which sent the car rolling again onto it’s roof, bringing us to a standstill.
The whole sequence of events, from me clunking in my seatbelt, to the car ending up on it’s roof must have taken all of ten seconds. If I hadn’t put on my seatbelt at that moment, then I would have likely gone through the windscreen upon impact, and the car would have probably then rolled on top of me. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
With the car turned over, Louise and I were left dangling upside down in the air strapped in by our seatbelts. I looked at my body and arms to see if I was hurt because I’d felt no pain at all during the actual accident, it was just like being on some sort of twisted roller coaster. I saw that the flesh of my forearm had been ripped off my arm, leaving the bone exposed. My watch was no longer on my wrist, and in it’s place was a gaping wound where the watch-strap had sliced through. I learned later in hospital that the watch-strap had missed the artery in my wrist by 1mm. Had it severed the artery, it’s unlikely I’d be here today.
I looked over at Louise, and she was totally motionless, eyes staring unblinkingly out of the window, and her mouth slackly hanging open. I realised she must be dead, and even in the chaos of the accident I dreaded having to tell her father that his daughter had died. “Are you okay,” I asked in deep desperation. I couldn’t believe it when she turned her head towards me and said “Yes.”
“Good, but I’m not.” I replied, looking back at the wounds on my arm. My knowledge of car accidents only came from watching films, where cars in accidents always seemed to catch fire then blow up. “Listen, we have to get out of the car, it could catch fire,” I blurted to Louise.
What the accident taught me is that shock has different effects on different people, and the effect shock had on me was to turn me into a very logical, calm, and analytical person. I explained to Louise that I was going to undo her seatbelt and then she was going to fall onto her head, so she had to put her arms up and cushion her fall. Once her hands were on the roof of the car, I unclipped her and she fell upside down onto the roof. I then undid my own seatbelt with my right arm, leaving my damaged left to take the impact as I fell.
“Follow me Louise,” I said and then wriggled out on my belly through the passenger window onto the pavement. I stood up, and helped Louise escape the confines of the small battered car. Louise began crying almost hysterically and I told her not to worry it was all okay, guiding her away from the car in case it did catch fire.
Once we’d walked a good twenty yards away I sat down on the edge of the curb and took a good look at my arm. It was in a real mess, and a pool of blood began to gather on the road in front of me. It was at that moment I understood that I was going to bleed to death, there was too much blood pooling in front of me for me to survive. I always imagined that if I knew I was going to die, I would panic and scream. But there on the side of the road in the dead of night, a serene calmness came over me. Louise was standing in front of me staring at my arm, sobbing hysterically. She kept saying “I’m sorry,” over and over again, while I reassured her it was okay. It’s hard to describe the calmness that came over me, but it was an immediate acceptance of my likely death, and I felt relaxed and dare I say it, ready to go despite my lust for life.
It was June, but being a clear night and with the time approaching midnight, it was a cold fresh evening. The impact of the car had been so loud that several residents had now got their dressing gowns on, and were rushing out of their houses to see a car on its roof, me sat on the edge of the road, and Louise running up and down the street crying. A guy saw the state of my injuries and said, “I’m gonna run back inside and call an ambulance mate, stay there.” I had to smile even at the time, where was I going to go?
He came back quickly, bringing a blanket with him which he wrapped around me while I sat on the curb. He sat behind me, holding me from behind. I remember him being kind and funny, but can’t remember exactly what he said to me. I think he thought I was going to die and wanted to ensure I had some human contact on the way out. I never found out who this person was so that I could thank him.
The first of the emergency services to turn up was the fire brigade, and they began the process of turning the car from its roof back onto its wheels. The police turned up a few minutes later and they wanted to know what had gone on. Louise was still too upset to be interviewed, so I gave them a statement in a very considered way. The policeman smirked as I calmly explained how the car rolled anti-clockwise, and that Louise had been doing 30 mph (the speed limit on residential roads in the UK). I didn’t ask him why he smirked but I think he just found it strange that a guy who was rapidly losing blood at the side of the road was calmly and logically explaining the events of the crash.
The ambulance arrived last, but was still relatively quick onto the scene, within ten minutes of impact. The paramedics took a look at the wound and put Louise and I quickly in the back of the vehicle.
“Am I going to die?” I asked them.
“No,” said the guy closest to me.
“Am I going to lose my arm?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
I tried not to think about this.
The female of the crew asked me if she could she my arm again as she’d never seen a ‘degloving’ before. A degloving, I learned later, is when an extensive section of skin is completely torn away from the underlying tissue. I was happy to oblige and let her take a good look.
When I arrived at the hospital one of the first things the doctors did was to disinfect the whole wound by swabbing it in Iodine. I hadn’t felt any pain until this point, but when they did this, the pain was so intense that my whole body started involuntarily shaking. They also gave me a shot of morphine to deal with the pain which resulted in me saying all sorts of silly things, including confessing to Louise that I’d been recruited to become a male stripper. This was true, but I hadn’t planned to tell her just yet. My mum had been called by Louise and told about the crash. When she arrived at the hospital and saw my arm, she burst into tears, and no amount of me telling her it was fine could stop her.
The doctors stitched and bandaged me up as best they could, but told me that the wounds were too severe for them to deal with, and so I had to be transferred by ambulance to a specialist burns and plastic surgery unit at Queen Victoria Hospital 30 miles away in East Grinstead.
My mum followed me to East Grinstead while I rode in the back of the ambulance with Louise, and by this time it was approaching 3am. I was told to get some sleep as I’d be operated on in the morning. My mum and Louise went home after this and I was left to try to sleep, but I couldn’t as I kept thinking about everything and my wounds were throbbing.
During the eight hour operation, the doctors removed over one hundred pieces of glass and gravel from my arm, some of it embedded deeply within the tissue. They explained afterwards that there was no way they found all of the fragments. For years afterwards, new pieces of glass or gravel would find the way to the surface of my skin, and have to be removed under local anaesthetic. Sometimes, these caused local infections, sometimes they didn’t.
A major part of the operation was to give me a large skin graft onto my forearm and a smaller graft onto my wrist. It was explained to me that skin will not grow back if it has been completely ripped from the flesh, and the graft is transplantation of skin from one area of the body to another. They shaved the skin from my left thigh and transplanted it onto my arm. Most skin grafts are successful, but a few days later the doctors became concerned that mine wasn’t going to take and that I would need further surgery and another grafting, but thankfully that didn’t happen, and the wound ended up healing. I was told that I could never expose my graft to the sun, and the area on my leg where the donor skin was taken from should be protected from sunlight for five years. It’s not what you want to hear as an active, fun-loving 23 year-old. I also had to wear a compression garment for a year on my arm.
However, this wasn’t the worst part of the operation. The repair of the tendons in my wrist, where my watch ripped through, was a difficult procedure and involved cutting into my hand and forearm and finding both ends of the tendon and pulling them together and then stitching them up. This resulted in my left hand being pulled downwards towards the inside wrist at a ninety degree angle. I was told by the surgeons that I would have to attend occupational therapy for a year afterwards in order to try and get my hand extending back again. The doctors explained that I would never be able to move my hand back past the horizontal position.
‘But how will I be able to do press-ups?’ I asked.
‘You won’t.’ I was told.
For over a year I had to attend weekly physio sessions and also exercise daily. I think if this had all happened to me in my forties, then I would have been very badly affected by the accident, and never gained full use of my hand again; I would have believed what the doctors told me. However, being young and cocky, I simply ignored the doctors, confident that I would gain full use of my hand again. For a year I continuously pushed back on my left hand with my right hand. And when I say continuously, I mean all the time, during meals, walking the family dog, watching TV. Eventually, I had pushed it back enough so that it would bend back ninety degrees, just like my right hand. I had to go back and see my surgeon every few months, and I left him gobsmacked when he saw me move my hand back normally. He said it was the equivalent of somebody being able to move their hand backwards so that it sat parallel on the back of their arm. That year taught me a lot about perseverance and resilience.
I also came to understand that people with skin graft and tendon injuries are prone to depression because of the long recovery time, long-term pain and loss of function. But at the age of 23, I saw it all as a big adventure. I won’t say it never got me down, but I don’t think I fell into any kind of depression.
I did however, about a year or so after the accident, suddenly develop alopecia areata, which saw big bald patches appear on my head. I was in a stressful job which I didn’t like, and over the next few years, stressful situations would cause an outbreak of alopecia. However, after the age of 30, I never suffered again, but perhaps I’ve learned to manage stress better. I sometimes wonder if the accident triggered the alopecia, affecting my immune system in some way.
After a year or so, the graft had healed as best as it could, but it still looks like my whole forearm is made from snakeskin. Thankfully, this doesn’t bother me in the least and I’m not self-conscious about it at all. My fingers are a little stiff with what is maybe a touch of arthritis from the accident, but on the whole, I live a totally normal life. In fact when I’m wearing a t-shirt and somebody sees my arm and asks what happened, I’m always a bit surprised that they even noticed as I’m so oblivious to it.
I stayed with Louise for three years after the accident before we split up, and she, nor any girlfriend since have ever been put off by my scar. In fact, I think it makes a great talking point. Would I rather have not had the accident? Of course, but in many ways I’m glad of the experience. You learn a lot about yourself when you go through tough and unique times.