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The Healing Process

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sahara L. Fales
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs

It was the stereotypical image of a car accident, the one where cars are frozen in time as their metal noses scrunch back to avoid colliding. Inside the car, glass shards danced in the air as her body was jerked toward the windshield.

It was Aug. 26, 2015 when former Minot Air Force Base Airman Stephanie Smith's life changed forever because someone decided to get behind the wheel while under the influence.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure all over my body--then I passed out.”

As her eyes closed, memories of her favorite past-times flashed through her mind. Smith thought of her love for running, hiking and the outdoors. She even envisioned herself putting on her Air Force uniform and going to work at the base legal office. She wondered if this would be the end of her short military career.

She woke up leaning on the inside of the car door, one arm hanging out of the window. A loud ringing in her ears made the already chaotic scene more confusing.

After reaching over to wake the driver, she attempted to get out of the car. Her right hand had swollen to the size of a softball and she couldn’t feel her legs.

“I could see how mangled my hand was,” Smith said. “It turns out, I didn’t break any fingers, just every other bone in my hand.”

With her one good arm, she pushed down on the center console. A loud crack echoed from her sternum warning her to stay put.

“It seemed like I was stuck for hours. I felt myself getting really tired, sort of dozing in and out,” said Smith.

The sound of a helicopter in the distance caught Smith’s attention, but as the whirring blades passed by, they took her hope for help with them.

It seemed like ages, but eventually emergency personnel arrived to rescue her from the broken glass and twisted metal.

“When they laid my body on the backboard, I felt an amount of pain that I didn’t know was possible,” said Smith. “I’ve heard people say ‘I’ll take pain because that means I’m alive’ but those people must’ve not felt what I felt that day. I remember just screaming. Repeatedly. It didn’t stop.”

The medical team began to cut Smith’s clothes off to assess her injuries better. Then she was transported into a helicopter.

On the upside, she could finally feel her legs again. The downside was her bones felt tangled up inside her, she said.

“When the helicopter landed, the medics couldn’t fully load me in since my legs were so deformed,” said Smith. “They wrapped a strap around my legs to straighten them, and succeeded getting me into the helicopter. The pain was so unbearable that’s all I remember about the ride.”

The team arrived to the emergency room with Smith in tow. She described the scene as busy- but everyone worked like a well-oiled machine. Fluorescent ceiling lights passed quickly overhead as she was rushed to surgery. One light. Two Lights. Three lights- she was out again.

“I woke up around midnight from surgery,” said Smith. “Around day three I started to understand what happened to me. I ended up shattering my pelvis, hips, femur, right foot and right hand.”

She continued, “I also broke a few ribs, my sternum, ruptured my esophagus and appendix, lacerated my liver, collapsed a lung and had several lacerations in my intestines.”

Smith endured six surgeries in the first five days, followed by 14 days in the intensive care unit and another eight weeks in the hospital.

Ten pins held together her hand while another 150 pieces of metal made up the rest of her new body.

“I relearned how to walk, which was bittersweet. You might think, ‘Wow that’s a lot,’ but it wasn’t the worst part,” said Smith. “A few nights after leaving the ICU, I remember waking in the middle of the night screaming and violently throwing up.”

When she closed her eyes, memories of the cars colliding filled her dreams, trapping her as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder invaded her life.

“It’s been two years since the crash and the nightmares still haven’t stopped,” Smith said. “The mental effects of the crash hit me harder most days than the physical effects.”

Nine surgeries have passed and she still isn’t done. Some days her pain is manageable, other days she can’t even move her legs without assistance.

“My recovery is still happening today, and I still have several surgeries that I need to have. It’s exhausting, but I want to be better than I was yesterday and that’s what the Air Force teaches you to strive for in your career.”

During the first year of recovery, Smith couldn’t bring herself to talk about the incident that got her medically discharged from the Air Force. Now she hopes to share her story and bring awareness to anyone who thinks about driving impaired.

“All of this was because some guy decided to get into his vehicle while he was intoxicated and high on heroin,” said Smith.

The man who crashed into her car that day died. He was found at the scene with a needle still attached to his arm.

“(His family) lost a family member that day because he made a selfish choice,” said Smith. “I watched all the emotions my family went through while they were grieving with me, but at least I am still here.”

In the future, Smith hopes to have a day with no pain and to pick up her love of running once more, but until then her goal is to have less surgeries.

“I am blessed to still have the opportunity to make memories with my family and friends every day, and every person should have that,” Smith added.

On the outside, Smith appears to be like any other person so telling her story is like sharing her biggest secret with strangers; scary and overwhelming. In other ways it helps her through the healing process, and she hopes she can help others too.