Victim or Survivor?

By Heidi Cave

Everyone has a story. This is what came to mind as I listened to Joshua Prager talk about how his neck was broken, how his life changed and how he could never have predicted the turn his life took. I related to his story. Fifteen years ago my car was struck by a reckless driver that killed my friend, burned 52 percent of my body and cost me both my legs. I nodded along with the audience as I heard Joshua Prager talk about choices. How will we respond to the uncontrollable, the unpredictable in our lives? What do we want our stories to be?

I was sobbing hysterically when I first woke from my drug-induced coma in ICU. I knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t know I had been in a car crash. I didn’t know about the loss of my friend or my devastating injuries. I only knew I was in a bed in a room that looked like a hospital room. Death was near. The room, my tears, my parents talking in hushed voices told me I lay in death’s shadow. I was confused and continued to sob until the door swung open and my boyfriend of just six weeks came into the room. He stood by my bed. “Heidi. You have to fight. You have to decide. Do you want to live?”

I said yes and from that moment on I continued to fight, to say yes to life. As I was wheeled in and out of surgery and as I discovered the extent of my injuries I was faced with this question: Will I be a victim or a survivor? I spent seven months in the burn unit battling infections, enduring skin grafts and bonding with morphine. Afterward I moved to a rehabilitation center where I had to learn how to walk with prosthetic legs and regain my independence. I grieved every loss and I mourned my former life, but I refused to collapse under the weight of what happened. I would never be the wide-eyed 23 year old girl I once was, but I could have a life where I held my head high and created a different version of whole. My version. My life became a series of choices and adjustments.

I had to adapt to the consequences of a young man who chose to drive too fast one lovely, ordinary summer evening. I would never talk to my friend or hear her laugh again. My feet were gone and I hated the scarred body I awoke to every morning. I was suddenly changed, limited. I had aged a hundred years. I didn’t want this life. I didn’t choose this life, but I could choose how I would respond. This was my life now. What was I going to do with it? What did I want my story to be? There were days where I longed to shut down, to retreat within myself and simply exist. But I didn’t want to be the victim in my story. The driver and the flames that engulfed me as I was trapped in my car had claimed enough, so I clung to possibility and I chased hope.

I couldn’t scale mountains and run marathons, but I could be present and engaged with my life. I got out of bed each day, participated in physiotherapy, and made trips to the grocery store in my wheelchair. When I was able to use my prosthetic legs, I walked. Sorrow and joy existed side by side. I laughed, cried, visited friends, read books and binge-watchedThe X Files. My boyfriend and I got married two years after the crash. I was still me and I learned how to live with a disability. While there can be so much beyond our control, we can choose how we will live. I found my version of whole when I chose the life of a survivor. Everyone has a story and mine is one of hope.