Let me tell you about a life-changing moment I can’t remember.
I went to college in New York City. After graduation, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm, dabbled in real estate sales, and was even a manager for a singer. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, both personally and professionally.
While navigating that spirited life, like most 20-somethings who are trying to make sense of who they are and what they want to be, I got hit by a subway train. Not one of my limbs, or something that I dropped ... me. For some still-unknown reason (in part because there were no cameras in this particular station), I ended up on the train tracks and was unable to get back up on the platform.
The subway operator later reported that I had a look of shock on my face as he tried to engage the emergency brake before the train collided into me.
He was not successful.
After the emergency medical technicians peeled me off the tracks from under the train, I was rushed to a nearby trauma hospital where I was put into a medically induced coma. Upon awakening from my coma 15 days later, I was completely unaware of what had happened to me.
“Relying on other people for nearly everything meant I had to let go of who I was prior to the accident and redefine who I was now.”
What I know now is that I suffered multiple facial fractures, a shattered elbow, breaks in my left arm that required the removal of the majority of my triceps and part of my bicep (with initial contemplation of removing my left arm entirely) and a collapsed lung. Oddly enough, nothing happened to my legs ― I didn’t even break a toe ― but I did have a fractured pelvis.
Perhaps the worst injury, though, was the wound that couldn’t be seen: a traumatic brain injury that prevented me from remembering the accident and affected and continues to affect so many parts of my life.
My stay at the trauma hospital lasted 41 days, followed by another 29 days in a rehabilitation hospital. The first hospital is a blur. I remember one nurse telling me how “special” I must be ― not only because I was alive but also because the waiting room remained filled with my visitors throughout my entire stay, a fact I did not fully appreciate until a few years later.
Because I had a propensity for trying to get out of my bed, they used restraints on me, and my attempts at escaping my room were thwarted.
My 70 days in those two hospitals included undergoing numerous surgeries, countless meetings with physical therapists to determine if I could stably walk again, and test after test to decipher how cognitively functional I was ― whether attention, memory, reasoning and intelligence had been affected by the accident.
But it wasn’t until after I finally left the rehabilitation facility that I truly discovered how being hit by a subway was going to change my life.
I quickly realized I was no longer my confident (arguably, overconfident) pre-injury self. I was still bed-ridden, and my doctors advised that I be monitored anytime I was on my feet ― especially on stairs ― as a fall would put me right back in the hospital.
Relying on other people for nearly everything meant I had to let go of who I was prior to the accident and redefine who I was now.
I was constantly supervised, any decision I made was questioned, and I needed help with almost everything ― even bathing, which made for classically awkward moments with my father pouring water over me while I sat on a shower chair (naturally, I insisted on keeping my boxers on).
Eventually, my family had to go back to work, and I quickly learned why retired people do whatever they can to not stay at home all day. To say I was restless would be an understatement. I had a bedside cooler filled with food and a portable urinal because it was too risky for me to trek to the bathroom on my own. I watched TV while waiting for anyone to come home from work and keep me company, all the while spending countless hours pondering how I got into this predicament at the vibrant age of 25.
Thanks to a visiting nurse service, I went through neuropsychological cognitive exercises to help adjustment challenges like difficulties with short-term memory, reduced mobility in my left arm and hand, and a bruised confidence and sense of self due to my brain injury. The service also provided routine maintenance, like changing various dressings and removing a few lingering staples from my various surgeries. After three months, when I healed more and was steadier on my feet, I began out-patient neuropsychological rehab (and also, thankfully, was able to abandon that portable urinal).
When I first looked in a mirror ― after I finally graduated from a bedpan and was allowed to use the bathroom ― I saw “my” face. It was missing eight teeth. My nose was askew. There was a scar forming on my broken right eye socket. Close friends and family tell me that, almost 11 years later, I look “normal,” which probably means “you don’t look like you were hit by a train.”
I assume they’re right, but I can’t actually see it ― I still usually see the curse of the experience, not the gift or luck or survival or blessing that other people see.
I see the 20-plus surgeries I went through in hopes of looking even remotely like I did before I was hit by the train. Every time I brush my teeth, I see the eight fake ones that were drilled into my jaws while I was awake. I see a man grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, which I initially argued I don’t have.
I began seeing a therapist five years after the accident. We started our time together by spending two sessions with her saying that she was treating me for PTSD, me denying that I had it, and her finally asking me, “Did you not have something disturbing and grandiose happen to you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Is it not causing you pressure, anxiety and unease?” she asked.
I tried to counter with, “but I didn’t lose any limbs and my injuries are pretty manageable,” to which she responded, “Did you not lose who you were and what you were able to do?”
“Close friends and family tell me that, almost 11 years later, I look 'normal,' which probably means 'you don’t look like you were hit by a train.' I assume they're right, but I can’t actually see it ― I still usually see the curse of the experience, not the gift or luck or survival or blessing that other people see.”
While I’m now not always thinking about my accident or how my life has changed because of it, the specter of “when is the next train coming to run me over?” is, or at least has been, stuck in the subconscious part of my mind. That’s how trauma works ... it’s always there ― and so is the dread and fear that accompanies it ― even if I’m not consciously thinking about it.
Two months before the accident, I had taken the LSAT exam. I did decently and I remained interested in attending law school even after the accident. After being accepted, I deferred for a year due to additional surgeries I needed to undergo and the following rehabilitation periods. The neuro-psych center officially deemed I was intellectually capable of attending graduate school and drafted up the essential academic accommodations I would require, along with a stipulation of adding more if necessary. I delivered them to a dean during law school orientation.
Unfortunately, I never received the accommodations I needed to compensate my poor lack of retention, and panic set in. Because of my brain injury, I experienced memory deficits and, while it’s just one more obstacle I have to overcome and I continue to show improvements, a faulty memory does not play well with closed-book exams in law school.
Looking back, it wasn’t an intellectual challenge I was facing; it was attempting to control too many moving parts and forcing them to align with previous goals while I was a whole new person with different circumstances. I was Patrick 2.0, but I hadn’t totally accepted that at that time.
Following my impressively poor performance on most of my law school exams, I met with the same dean I’d originally informed of my need for accommodations. He told me, “I checked your grades and I understand your concern. I reviewed the paperwork you had given me and I did not realize your injury was so severe.”
As heartbroken as it was to admit, law school was just no longer a viable option for me. I tried at the wrong time.
I don’t regret that I wasn’t able to complete law school. I would have regretted not having tried (though when the student loans I have to pay come due, I may sing a different tune!). Now, I’m happy to report that I just completed a Master of Arts program and maintained a 3.8 GPA.
At this point, I’ve regained most of my independence, but I am always striving to gain more. Watching my friends get married and buy homes is a constant reminder of the different path my accident set me on and the separation I have from their (and my own old) “normal” lives. However, this reminder also serves as a constant motivation and fuels me to persist in making whatever progress I can in my own life.
The mission now is just to keep moving forward.
That means finding ways to have fun with whatever is causing delays or going out of service in my life, like leaving myself lovingly self-deprecating notes on objects that read, “I knew you’d forget you put this here” or setting reminders in my phone that state, “you said you would bring the flash drive tomorrow ... don’t F up!”
I also like to have fun with other people, too ― like when I go to the beach and a stranger asks, “What happened to your arm?” and I reply as seriously as I can, “shark attack,” and then walk away while my friends shake their heads and try to keep straight faces.
Nearly 11 years after being hit by a subway, I’m sharing this story as part of my ongoing rehabilitation progression. I don’t know what the future holds for me or how I will feel ― physically, mentally or emotionally ― a year or five years or 25 years from today, but for now, I’m grateful for how far I’ve come and where I am. Life may have given me the gift of a second chance, but I also recognize the gift isn’t the second chance itself, it’s recognizing this opportunity and then acting on it.
Patrick Labossiere is a recent graduate of the Corporate Communication Master of Arts program at Baruch College. He is a New Yorker who has lived within a 15-mile radius of where he was born for his entire life, except for a quick study abroad excursion in Italy. Curiously, he does not have a discernible accent.