One split second can change everything. After a tragic car accident led to the loss of her leg, Raeven Bell had to learn to walk again. She had to learn a whole new life.
Raeven Bell knew she wanted to get married in the fall. She imagined the way the trees would paint the skyline vibrant shades of yellows and reds. When her high school sweetheart, Marcus, proposed in 2011, they decided to wait until she finished her nursing program to get married. They set the date for September 21st, 2013. The venue would be right in their backyard, at the Bell family farm.
When the day finally arrived, it was anything but a dream come true. The rain was coming down in sheets, collecting in pools of mud all around the Bell farm. But the weather wasn’t the problem – in fact, it was the first sense of relief Raeven and her family had felt in weeks.
“It was pouring. It was absolutely miserable,” Raeven says. “And I remember looking out the hospital window and thinking, ‘Oh well at least it’s pouring… Just one good thing.'”
Raeven was supposed to be married. Instead, she was lying in a hospital bed.
It was the same bed she had been in since that tragic day in August. But she couldn’t really comprehend how much time had passed. After all, she only woke up two days earlier. She slept right through her 25th birthday, and the bachelorette party her girlfriends had planned.
* * *
As we sit at her kitchen table, Raeven’s 100-pound puppy chews on a bone at our feet. He’s a Great Dane/Shepherd mix – a breed Raeven grew up with at home. She and Marcus call him Finn, short for Finnley. He’s a gentle giant – playful, but lazy – the latter being a trait Raeven has grown to appreciate.
It’s been over a year since the accident, thirteen months since the wedding date. Her recovery has not been easy and small tasks, such as walking the dog or cleaning the house, often feel impossible. Even standing in the kitchen to make supper still causes significant pain.
But pain is something Raeven has learned to live with. Not just the physical pain of learning to walk again, but also the emotional pain of completely starting over. No 25-year-old woman should have to suffer the way Raeven has.
It’s a miracle she is still alive.
I remember waking up. I don’t even think I had my eyes open and I remember thinking, ‘I think my leg is gone.’
We talk about that ill-fated day. The newspaper reporting on the accident shows photos of her small Neon – the car she saved all her money to buy when she was 17 – crunched up like an accordion. The other driver didn’t see her coming. He made a left-hand turn right into the driver’s side of her car, hitting her head on. She was travelling the speed limit – but when your vehicle is going 80 kilometers an hour, any collision will leave its mark. This one left Raeven with scars that will never go away.
“I remember waking up. I don’t even think I had my eyes open and I remember thinking, ‘I think my leg is gone,’” she says. “I remember thinking about how our wedding would be in two days.”
* * *
Raeven definitely does not feel like luck was on her side that day, but the truth is she wouldn’t be alive without it. The Fire Chief of Hickson, a small town nearby, heard the accident and was the first to arrive at the scene. He immediately called for the Air Ambulance – a call the average civilian is not at liberty to make.
It was a call that would save her life.
The ORNGE medics arrived on the scene in 17 minutes. It took 45 minutes to retrieve Raeven from the car. Once they got her out, they were able to administer blood product transfusions immediately. Raeven suffered a massive amount of blood loss, mostly because of the tear in her thoracic aorta – the largest artery in the human body. She was also suffering from severe internal bleeding in her stomach – with injuries to her liver, spleen and numerous small arteries. Raeven had 50 blood transfusions during her first week in the hospital alone. She had 75 in total.
Oddly enough, the night before the crash Raeven and her fiance were donating blood – something Raeven did regularly. Of course, they had no idea at the time blood donors just like them would soon save her life. This was one of the last events Raeven can recall before her nightmare began.
Raeven doesn’t remember anything about that day – something she is still thankful for. She doesn’t remember getting in her car to go to work. She doesn’t remember what was going through her mind on the drive – though it was probably details about finalizing centre pieces and following up with the photographer. She doesn’t remember what song was playing on the radio. But she’s played the chain of events over in her head many times, agonizing over the timing of it all.
“If only I got gas in Stratford,” she says. It’s the only explanation for why she would have been driving down Highway 59 that morning – she had to take a small detour from her usual route to work in order to fill up in Tavistock. Of course, there’s no way of hitting the rewind button, no matter how badly Raeven, her family and her friends wish they could.
* * *
When Raeven was rushed to the hospital in London, Ontario, the doctors had to stop the bleeding and operate on her torn aorta and stomach injuries right away. Though these were her most severe injuries, they seem, in hindsight, to be far from the worst. Raeven also had a severed artery in her right leg, and although the doctors were able to fix the artery during that first trip to the operation room, the damage was already done.
Raeven had a fractured bone in her cervical spine, which would later require her to wear a neck brace for two months straight. Her left wrist was broken, and both of her femurs were fractured – she now has metal rods down both sides of her legs. In her left leg, she had a fracture in the knee joint, as well as a fracture of the tibia. Now she has screws from her hip, down her thigh and into her knee, as well as plates and screws in her ankle.
I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t have a choice.
Her kidneys shut down, meaning they were unable to filter her blood. She was on dialysis for six weeks before they were able to function again on their own. She had broken bones in her pelvis, which only time would heal. And she had three or four fractured ribs – an injury she didn’t even know about until months later.
The front end of Raeven’s car crushed into the lower half of her body. Raeven suffered from compartment syndrome in her lower right leg. Her leg was so squished in the accident, there was no where for the bleeding and swelling to go. The small arteries in her leg could no longer get to the tissue in her calf.
“The doctors could fix the bone, but they can’t fix dead tissue,” Raeven says. “The dead tissue could go necrotic and go into my blood, leading to blood infection.”
The amputation took place on the second of September. They removed her right leg from just below the knee. Raeven was still fully sedated at the time. “I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “Not that I would have had a choice about the amputation, but I didn’t have any kind of awareness or warning.”
Her recovery has been steady, but not without its setbacks. On Halloween last year, she was finally able to return to her home in Stratford – but only for the weekends. She was stuck in a wheelchair for two months. In January, she was admitted to Parkwood Institute, where she was fitted for a prosthetic. The first consultation was one of the worst days of her life. She locked herself in the hospital room and sobbed into her pillow for hours.
As time passed, Raeven slowly learned to walk again. She was first confined to the support of parallel bars. Next, she progressed to using a walker between the bars, and eventually using the walker in the open. This was a giant step. After endless strenuous days and months in physio, Raeven moved from walking with forearm crutches, to two canes, and finally to a single cane.
* * *
Raeven’s educational background is evident as we discuss her injuries and I have to ask her to describe them in layman’s terms. She says being a registered nurse has served as both a blessing and a curse in all of this; sometimes, when you’re a patient lying in a hospital bed, ignorance can work in your favour.
But Raeven had a year working on the Med/Surg floor at St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital under her belt, and seven months working in emergency at Woodstock. She was just beginning what promised to be a long and incredibly rewarding career. During this experience, she saw patients rushed in from traumatic accidents every day.
But nothing prepares you for being on the other side.
“Being on the other side of it – being a patient – definitely made me realize how important the small things are, like the interactions with patients, the small stuff you brush off because you’re too busy that day,” she says.
I want to be that exceptional nurse that actually makes a difference in someone’s life.
She describes the way nurses are forced to prioritize patients by urgency of care. But those other patients – the ones who have been lying in bed all day just waiting for the nurse to come in – their requests are still serious, and they need you too.
“They always taught us in school that nursing was just as much an art as a science,” she says. We’ve been talking about her injuries in detail at this point, as well as a number of the steep challenges she has had to face in her new life. But for the first time in our discussion, I notice her voice grows fragile. “What makes it hard for me to think about is that I’m afraid I won’t be that nurse.”
She talks about how badly she misses her work. “Sometimes you hate going to work, but then you don’t go at all and it sucks, and you miss it so much,” she says. “But it definitely shows me I want to be a better nurse. I always thought I was a good nurse, but I want to be that exceptional nurse that actually makes a difference in someone’s life.”
Sometimes I look down [at my prosthetic] and think, ‘That’s not my leg. This didn’t happen to me.’
Her fear is that her physical limitations will stop her from returning to the front line. Right now, the unknown is one of the most difficult parts of recovery. Thinking about her future swallows her up at night. It’s too easy for her to lose herself in the darkness of these thoughts.
“People will say to me there must be something really great to come for you, something amazing is going to happen to you,” she says. “Well, it might not.”
There is a lull in our conversation as the reality of it all sinks in once again. “It still feels so surreal,” she says. “Sometimes I look down [at my prosthetic] and I think, ‘That’s not my leg. This didn’t happen to me.’”
According to her therapist, acceptance will come in time. But it’s not something Raeven is looking forward to, by any means. “I’m stubborn. I’m a procrastinator by nature,” she says. “I’m not ready to accept the ways my life has changed. The doctors will say, ‘You’re going to be able to do this, there are all kinds of adaptations or modifications that make this possible.’ In my mind, I know that yeah, maybe I will be able to do it some day, but it won’t be the way I want to do it. It’s hard when I compare it to what I used to be able to do.”
It’s not only Raeven’s everyday life that has changed, but also the people in it. “My relationships with my parents, with Marcus, with my friends – it’s all changed. You don’t want it to change, but it does. It’s just different, because I’m different.”
She talks about her support system, specifically her mom, Bev, who took leave from her job to support her daughter in every capacity needed. Then there is Marcus, who has been her rock in all of this. Raeven moved home from the hospital in March of 2014, and Marcus became her number one caretaker. “For months, he wouldn’t be able to leave the house in case I might need him,” she says. “I’d have to call for him – or text him – every time I had to go to the bathroom.”
Raeven and Marcus have been together for 10 years now. They are more than comfortable around one another. But needing help getting to and from the toilet, or into the shower, brings a whole new level of intimacy to any relationship.
I want to be physically recovered enough to enjoy it. I want to walk down the aisle without a cane.
I ask Raeven the question she has heard many times from friends and family – is there a new wedding date in the near future? “I feel like it’s inappropriate to think of that right now,” she says. “A lot has changed, and we’re still figuring that out.”
I sense the stubbornness she referred to earlier start to creep up. “I don’t want to push myself and rush into it. I want to be physically recovered enough to enjoy it,” she says. “I want to walk down the aisle without a cane, be able to party with my friends and not have to sit down or go have a nap or be in pain. I want to experience it and enjoy it.”
In our conversations, Raeven has been speaking of her tenacity as somewhat of a negative trait. But I think it’s what keeps her going. I think it’s the reason she’s still here today. I think it’s what will help her return to the front line of emergency care, and I think it’s exactly what will get her walking down that aisle one day.