On the first day of classes last year, I was hit by a truck. This is what it taught me.

Talking about trauma

Greg reflects on the aftermath of a traumatic accident.
Credit: 
Greg Adams
On Sept.4, 2019, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears started off the NFL season at about 8 p.m. It was the first day of classes last year, and I sped home on my unlit bike to watch the kickoff. The game would end up being disappointing, but I would never know: a truck turned across my path, and I was going far too quickly to stop. 
 
I was thrown from my bicycle over the front of the truck, hitting the sidewalk face first. My memory comes back to me as I am sitting on the sidewalk, my fractured helmet beside me. I am hunched over, my broken nose trickling blood onto my legs. Hearing the thud of my body hitting the side of the truck, students rushed out from the houses near where I sat bleeding. I knew one from my frosh group, and he called the ambulance. 
 
I do remember the man who hit me: a Queen’s professor on his way home. He couldn’t have seen my bike in the dusk. He knelt next to me while we waited for the ambulance. His face was etched with concern, and he looked like he was going to cry. I did cry. 
 
The paramedics who tookme to Kingston General Hospital joked with me as I struggled for humour through a headache that now made lights pulse and throb. I closed my eyes. The world bounced and rattled in my head as we passed over speedbumps. My nose still bled, smashed and broken; the skin on my upper lip was grated by the concrete. 
 
As I lay in the hospital bed, my girlfriend wiped blood off me with a paper towel. My roommates, somewhat more pragmatically, watched me get wheeled out of the ambulance and searched for bike helmets on Amazon. 
 
I dreaded having to call my mother, my roommate dialing the phone for me as I covered my eyes from the ceiling lights in Emergency. The first day of school had always been bookended with a quick call to her before bed, talking about lectures and the groceries I had forgotten to buy. Now, her voice broke seconds into the phone call. 
 
I cried for a second time. 
 
The hospital released me late that night. The doctor warned me: “you will feel worse before you feel better.” I didn’t realize how much worse I could feel. Already, I could barely open my eyes to bright lights and my face throbbed under the painkillers I had been given.  
 
When I ventured out from my room in the morning, my roommates reassured me that “it doesn’t look too bad.” Their eyes betrayed their concern. The skin on my lip had been shredded by the pavement, and I was told it would scar, potentially pulling up the lip like a cleft palate. My two front teeth were knocked loose and my neck cramped hard as a board, whiplash setting in. 
 
The worst injuries were invisible. A sharp pain pulsed in the back of my head, as if it were being split by an icepick. I lay on the couch, face down. My roommates knew more was wrong than just the bruises on my face. I was left behind in conversations, somewhere beyond arm’s length, just close enough to know how little I understood. 
 
My left eye struggled to track objects. For weeks, in games of catch, the frisbee would flicker in and out of sight, as if I was blinking rapidly. I would give up, putting my hands in front of my face, hoping it wouldn’t knock into me. My spatial awareness disappeared. Shopping at Metro, I lost track of my girlfriend. People simply disappeared from me when I passed by them; I had no sense of 360-degree space. I walked to the dairy aisle and looked down 
to find myself standing in a puddle of spilt milk. I struggled to eat; I texted my mother it “was hard to get the fork to connect to my mouth.” I felt childlike, incapable. 
 
In the weeks after the accident, I would walk to get groceries at Bearances, the corner store near my house. As I stepped off each curb, adrenaline spiked as the imagined weight of a car slammed into me again. Is it post-traumatic stress disorder to be afraid of a thing that almost killed you? 
 
I didn’t know and still don’t. 
 
The stress of missing classes built for me. I felt I was being sabotaged by my own injured brain, as if the race’s start gun had been fired, but the starting judge had used it to kneecap me. I went to class, my head pounding and the lectures blurring together. 
 
Queen’s for me is an academic place. I find my identity in my classes, taking pleasure in lectures, studying with my peers, and engaging with as wide a course load as I can. Now, I felt my injured brain was betraying me, barring me from being myself. 
 
At the end of each of my first lectures, I had the same conversation. Walking up to my professors, I told them what had happened, asking them to keep their heads up for academic accommodation requests and further follow-ups. Concern emanated immediately from all five of those professors. My requests for accommodation seemed to go by the wayside, pushed aside by compassion and inquiry: Are you okay? Do you need anything? Are you sure you shouldn’t drop the semester?
 
My professors gave me the same looks my roommates did when I came out of my room the first morning. I was prodded neither for the details of my hospital visit, nor the accommodations I might need. I wouldn’t end up needing the support the Queen’s bureaucracy offered, but those looks gave me hope in the first few days that if I needed support, the faculty would be there behind me. 
 
The professor who hit me reached out as well: he got in touch with my mother, first about insurance, and then about me. He asked her how I was doing. I met him again a couple weeks after the crash, standing sheepishly outside of his office, waiting for a student to finish going over a homework assignment with him. He asked what course I was there for but broke off in mid-sentence. No words spoken, he hugged me as if I were his son. 
 
We talked for quite a while. He offered me tea, asking how I was recovering. At this point, the headaches had broken, diminished to just a quiet throb. My face bore the marks of healing, the scabs and bruises barely showing through. 
 
I was lucky. My physical injuries healed quickly, and my brain followed behind, catching up slowly. I didn’t lose the semester. I was privileged enough to risk the financial loss of dropping classes later, and so I waited. My midterms went well; staying in school was the right choice. 
 
I didn’t lose myself. My life has returned to normal, and the traumatic brain injury that I suffered didn’t stretch out over the following years, as I know they can for so many. Last summer, I rode my bike again. 
 
But the imagined cars undercutting me have never quite gone away. As a passenger, when cars pull out of side streets, I grab the car door handle and brace myself. I flash back to the weight of the truck clipping my left leg. I taste blood again. 
 
My mother’s voice breaks on the phone. 
 
Trauma was never a part of my life before being hit. While I listened to and empathized with people who described their own trauma, I don’t think I really understood what trauma entailed. What is it like to feel “triggered?” Maybe it’s that imagined weight of the car sweeping out my legs, or it’s the moment of gripping the passenger door handle. 
 
When I speak about being hit, there is a temptation to understate how horrible those first few weeks were. People at dinner tables don’t want to hear about broken noses, confusion, headaches, and tears. There is a stunned look, a silence that no one breaks. I don’t like to cry in front of people. 
 
But I feel a responsibility to talk about that pain, to speak publicly about such private struggles. Those of us who have made it through such dark hours, partly through sheer luck and partly through the support of those around us, can perhaps create openness and understanding for others still in the darkness. 
 
On Oct. 7, 2019, I had my first beer in over a month. It was my birthday, and my housemates had cooked steaks. We ate, drank, and laughed. I had never had a birthday like that, nor will I ever have one again. A month before, I had not known if I would ever be the same. A month later, I realized that I never would be. 
 
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