I wanted to write down what happened to my sister, my feelings of when it happened, and everything that comes with my sister’s story before these memories leave me. I will start from day one.
On Saturday, May 12, 2012 I was leaving for a friend’s house to have a relaxing night with some girlfriends. As I was walking out the door, my mom and Sherrin were going over our plans to go hiking at Great Falls Park the next day for Mother’s Day. I knew it was going to be an early morning, so I planned to come home fairly early to be ready for the hike. My dad was in San Jose, California to visit his mother since she was extremely sick. It was likely that this would be her last Mother’s Day so we agreed it would be best for him to spend it in California. Sherrin was in her bedroom before I left the house. I remember shouting goodbye as I walked out the front door and her hollering, “Later!” back at me.
The next morning, May 13, Mother’s Day, I was asleep in my bedroom when my mom shook me awake sobbing at around 7 AM. “Kaci,” she quietly cried in a panic, “It’s Sherrin. The cops found her in a ditch. She’s in the hospital and we have to go now.” I sat straight up. The weird thing is, I wasn’t that worried. Unfortunately, my sister had been in the hospital before and she came out just fine. I knew this was bad, but I really didn’t think much of it.
My first thought was to call my boyfriend, Sam. “Sam, Sherrin was in an accident and they found her in a ditch. I don’t know what’s going on but it’ll be okay,” I quietly said. He only replied with, “Oh my god.” I said I would talk to him later and keep him updated and for him to go back to sleep. To this day I regret calling him then. He should have been able to sleep in more.
I got dressed and packed a bag of clothes in a matter of seconds, ran downstairs, and saw a policeman in my front room while my mom sat on the stairs. He was telling her where to go once we got to the hospital and she quietly wrote down the directions. I sat down next to my mom and she told me to leave her alone and to go back upstairs. I asked her if I should call Dad and she nodded. I didn’t realize that my dad didn’t know yet. I thought he would be the first my mom would tell. I called my dad, 4:00 am his time. I was surprised when he answered, but then I remembered he sleeps with his phone right by his side. I was very brief. All I remember saying was, “Sherrin was found in a ditch. You have to come right now.” He got on the first flight back to Virginia. My mom and I then headed to the hospital.
I remember parking at the hospital, jogging to the emergency room front desk, getting directions on where to go next, and then jogging to the trauma ICU with a social worker who briefed us on the technicalities of the accident.
Sherrin was found at around 5:30 AM in a ditch off of Evergreen Mills and Watson Road in Ashburn. A driver passing by found her outside of the car and she was alone with no indication of anyone else being involved. The social worker said she was found warm and there was no blood. She was then airlifted to Inova Fairfax Hospital. Whoever the stranger was that found Sherrin, I owe you everything.
I remember going into the small hospital room and seeing my sister’s beautiful blonde, wavy hair She had a ventilator down her throat and a group of policemen and doctors huddled outside of her room. I held my mom as they told us the severity of what was about to happen. They said that she has a severe traumatic brain injury (sTBI) and that it was extremely serious. I just kept repeating, “Well is she going to be okay? Will my sister live?” The doctors said her age was in her favor and that they would take good care of her. I wish they could have told me more. Not knowing hardly anything was agonizing. The police said, “Well it’s good that they found her outside of the car. That means she got out and walked.” We later learned that Sherrin was found with her purse and car keys with her, indicating that she tried to leave the accident but then collapsed from the swelling of her brain.
I turned to my sister. My mom and I immediately stroked her arms and whispered that she was going to be okay and that we loved her. We were then scolded by one of the doctor’s saying that we were giving her too much stimulation and should be extremely quiet when we were around her. Her brain was too sensitive and any overstimulation could be life-threatening. That made my mom so upset. All we wanted to do was reassure Sherrin that she was okay and we weren’t even allowed to do that.
THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING
The doctors told my mom and I to go into a private room within the waiting room. My mom whispered under her breath, “That means this is bad. They only put the families with bad news in that room.” I tried to ignore her and quietly went into the room. About 5 minutes in, I looked up and saw my mom on the ground, in the fetal position, with her hands on her head. She kept repeating, “This can’t be happening. Not my baby. Please God not my baby.” I wrapped my arm around her. She pushed me off and told me to leave her alone. I know my mom well enough to know that when she is upset she does not like to be spoken to or comforted. I then sat cross-legged on the bench and waited for the doctors to give us the cue to let us back into Sherrin’s hospital room.
When the doctors told us to go back in, reality finally started to settle. I walked into Sherrin’s room, sat down on a fold-out chair, and let the sobbing begin. This would be the first of many sobbing fits I would have to battle through in the near future. I put my head in hands and started shaking and dry heaving. I still had to be quiet and not overstimulate Sherrin so I tried to breathe through a pillow. This is the moment that I realized this was bad. My life was about to change forever. My family and I were about to go on a journey that very few people ever have to endure. My mom and I held each other as we sat next to Sherrin’s hospital bed and let the tears pour.
My dad finally arrived around 3 o’clock. The doctors had been holding out details on us until he got there so it was a bit of a relief. I was in the bathroom when he first came. I walked back into the room and saw my dad leaning over Sherrin. He was sobbing too. That was the first I had ever seen my dad cry. Not even at his father’s funeral, not even when Sherrin was in the hospital before. It hit me again that this was bad. I didn’t know how bad, but I knew it was horrible.
The doctors then told the three of us the severity of Sherrin’s injury. She was in an accident-induced coma and the doctors were not sure if or when she would wake up. She had hit multiple parts of her skull during the accident, which meant that the doctors couldn’t perform surgery on her. Normally when someone has an sTBI, the doctors are able to remove a piece of their skull so the swelling of the brain can expand. My sister’s injury was too severe and too diffused for the doctors to do that, which meant that we would have to wait for the swelling to go down. They put a monitor into her brain (also meaning that they had to shave off a large part of her hair) in order to track the swelling. There was another monitor that would beep each time the swelling went over 20. All I knew was if it went over 20, the swelling was increasing and Sherrin could die right then and there. The beeping haunted us all day. Every few minutes it would go off again. My heart would stop and I would hold my breath until it ended. It was torturous. To this day I still shudder when I think of that beeping.
At the ICU, visiting hours would go until 9 pm, but they let us stay since it was our first day. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. I didn’t know I could cry so much. My eyes were so puffy, my body began to ache, and nausea never left my stomach, but I refused to leave, and neither did my parents. I felt so raw. Before I knew it, it was midnight. A nurse came in and told us that only one person could stay the night and that the other two would have to leave. They kept repeating that we needed to take care of ourselves because this wasn’t a sprint, it was a marathon. They said that we needed to rest and pace ourselves for what would lie ahead. My dad and I decided to get a hotel next to the hospital while my mom stayed with Sherrin. I was so scared to leave. I felt like if I left, Sherrin would die, and I wouldn’t be there. My dad and I were back at the hospital at 8 am, preparing ourselves for day two.
I’m not a religious person. My friends, parents, and Sam all give me crap for it, but despite 10 years of Catholic school, I had decided that it wasn’t for me. However, when all of this happened my take on God went two ways. 1) I despised God. If there was a god, why would he do this to my family? Why us? My parents were respected Army officers who had always done things right in their lives. Didn’t I have enough good karma in my life in order to prevent this from happening? If God loved me, he wouldn’t do this to my family. 2) There is nothing I have left but God. There is nothing that I can turn to other than God. Only God can give me reassurance that my sister would be okay. I needed some hope. To this day I still do not know how I feel about religion, but praying was the one thing I could do during this incident. I had never felt so lost, alone, scared, horrified, and confused in my entire life. But then I was so angry and hurt and could not believe that any god would let this happen to my sister.
When I woke up the next day, the first thing I did was look at my phone. I was so scared that my mom or someone from the hospital would have tried to call me to tell that Sherrin had died. Thankfully, I didn’t have any missed calls. My dad and I went straight back to the hospital as soon as they would let us in.
This was the day that they had the results of the tests they had been running on my sister. She had broken her collarbone and had an injury called diffuse axonal injury (DAI). It is one of the most severe TBI’s possible. Just our luck. Once the doctors left the room, I googled DAI. I shouldn’t have done that. I instantly felt sick as I read the search results. “90% of victims never come out of a vegetative state.” This had to be a joke.
Suddenly, a flood of future plans came rushing to me. Am I going to go through the rest of my life without my sister? Are we going to have to take her off life support? Are we going to be one of those families that spend millions upon millions of dollars trying to save a loved one that would never have a chance of coming back? Are my future children going to have an aunt? Will Sherrin ever be able to get married? Will she be able to have kids? Will I ever have nieces and nephews? Am I never going to have a maid of honor? Am I going to lose my only sibling? Are my parents going to lose their child? If Sherrin did die, would my parents do something drastic? What if I lost my entire family? What do I do?
I tried to suppress these thoughts, but they kept coming back to me every 10 minutes. This wasn’t how my life was going to end up. I felt so sick with all of these thoughts that I had to vomit in the bathroom sink. I don’t remember much else that day. I know that the doctors performed constant tests on Sherrin. EEGs, cat scans, MRIs, blood tests, breathing tests, everything.
What did happen that day was the posturing. Posturing is a post-TBI effect where the victim tightens up their body. They make fists, rotate their arms and legs inward, and hunch their shoulders up to their ears. I was the first one to see Sherrin posture. I didn’t understand what it was at first, but as soon as I saw Sherrin move, I began bawling and shaking. I thought, “She’s moving! My big sister is moving. This is it. She is going to wake up.” Then the doctors explained to my family and me that posturing was “good” but not “great.” If she continued it for a few more days, then that was bad. It meant that her brain had severe damage that may not be reversible. I ignored them. I figured if she could move at all, then that was good. It was hope.
Honestly, other than the first two days, everything else was a blur. I was never sure what time it was; I spent 12-14 hours in that tiny hospital room with my family. I ate here and there but I was always too scared to leave Sherrin’s room. I was scared that I would miss something or that she could be gone at any second. If these were my last few days with my sister, I didn’t want to leave her side.
After the first couple of days, her brain slowly stopped swelling and the nurses let us talk to her and touch her. I painted her nails and brushed her hair. It was eerie because there were still leaves and twigs in her hair from the accident.
One day during the first week, my mom and I went to the scene of the accident. The police had found everything in Sherrin’s purse except her phone. My mom and I luckily did find her phone buried in some leaves at the scene of the accident and also found one her side view mirrors. We then went to where her car was being kept. It was smashed. There was a lot of mud on the roof of the car from her flipping it and the tires were shredded apart. The inside was a mess. Sherrin was always a bit of packrat and my mom and I took 3 giant garbage-fulls of items from her car.
The doctors told us that Sherrin’s initial chance of survival was less than 50%. I just kept thinking, “Jesus Christ, how hard did she hit her head? Damnit, Sherrin, always putting our parents in worry.”
Sam was working at a week-long summer camp that week and I’m thankful for that. Every time I talked to him he said he wish he could be there with me. I do wish he was too, but it would have been too much for him. This was something that my family had to go through on our own, at least for the first few days. My mom never answered her phone when it rang, so all of our family, friends, and acquaintances called, texted, Facebook messaged, and emailed me. I was constantly answering someone who was worried and who told me to “stay strong.” I got so fed up with people telling me to stay strong. It drove me crazy. It was like no one had anything else to say.
One day, however, my mom was losing it. My dad suggested she should go get her hair done, so she did. She needed it. Those few hours that she was gone were important though. The doctors pulled my dad and I aside and wanted to explain a few things. They wanted to do an MRI on her brainstem. They needed to see if Sherrin had a seizure in brainstem, and if she did, that would mean she would be brain dead. One of the very few things I knew about the brain was if a certain part of your brain is dead, you can never revive it. In this case, if Sherrin was brain dead, we would have to come to the decision if we wanted to take her off life support, meaning she would die. I stared at the ground when they told me that. I couldn’t bring myself to make eye contact with anyone. I knew the doctors pitied us. They said they would get the results by that night.
I ran out of the room and felt so nauseous that I threw up again. I called Sam. I know he didn’t know what to say, but who would? I was so terrified. In a matter of hours, we would be getting the news of whether or not my sister would be brain dead. How does one even go about dealing with that?
Thankfully, there were no signs of there being a seizure in her brainstem. I sobbed immediately. This was more hope for me to cling on to. For now, we just had to sit and wait for her to wake up.