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A Message to Distracted Drivers From Someone With a Spinal Cord Injury

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My spinal cord injury journey started with a fall in my own home in 2019.  I was sitting in my recliner chair watching a movie with my legs propped one behind the other.  As I sat relaxing and enjoying my weekend afternoon, my left leg went, unknowingly, completely numb.  After a period of about one hour, I started to stand up and the plan was to go to the kitchen less than 10 feet away and get an ice-cold glass of tea.  I never made it to the kitchen.

When I attempted to stand, my left leg gave out and my body completely collapsed to the hard tile floor.  I jarred my cervical spine in my neck and felt extreme pain instantaneously.  I sat on the floor for a moment and attempted to stand.  My leg numbness persisted and would not support my weight.  So, I remained on the floor until I regained feeling.  It took a few minutes but eventually, the feeling came back, and I was able to place myself back in my chair.  I did not realize what I had done at the time.  I thought it was a standard sprain in my neck and I felt with time it would heal.

After a couple of weeks, the pain did not improve.  I had trouble turning my head to the left.  This concerned me as I use the maneuver to do things like look over my left shoulder while driving and checking for oncoming traffic.  When the injury did not heal, I presented to my family physician and described my symptoms, and I informed her of my fall.  I was advised to seek out yoga and get a massage.

Over a period of several weeks, I did as I was instructed.  I noticed that when the masseuse was massaging my neck primarily at the base of my skull, there was a burning sensation in that area.  I did not understand what this meant at the time.

The house I lived in at the time was a two-story structure with stairs between the first and second floors.  This quickly became problematic.  I began to experience weakness on the left side of my body which also happened to be where my injury was in my neck.  This problem was exhibited in the form of multiple falls down the stairs, reinjuring my cervical spine every time I fell, and it was excruciating.  I repeatedly injured my elbows, arms, and legs as well and ended up with bruises.  Finally, the last time I fell down the stairs, I informed my wife I wished to sell the home as I was tired of navigating the stairwell.

After all this time, I kept complaining to my doctor over several visits that I was falling and experiencing bilateral body weakness primarily in my arms.  My spine was never imaged while under the care of that practice, so my injury went unknown and untreated.  Two years passed by.  I would frequently feel dizzy and had other falls.  I began to use a walking cane and finally ended up using a wheelchair that had been approved by my health insurance.  And yet, the pieces were never connected.

In 2021, I saw an independent doctor from my disability attorney.  He immediately noticed problems with my body upon examination and inquired as to whether I had an MRI of my spine.  I told him no.  His next advice was to see a neurologist and demand one.  I did as instructed.  Finally, after MRI, I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury in my cervical spine from C3-C7.   All my doctors could do was apologize and send me to a neurosurgeon.  I left the practice that missed my diagnosis and sought other care.

Upon examination of my imaging and physical, the surgeon reluctantly stated that he could not help me, to let no one touch my neck, and he told me he felt sad for me and apologized.  I felt lost.  What was next for me?  Paralysis?  My mind began to wander into unhealthy thoughts of what my future looked like.

Then, in 2022, I was in a car accident where I was rear-ended by a distracted driver in a pickup truck.  I was struck from behind in my small SUV and instantly received whiplash and a splitting headache.  I ended up in urgent care and received more imaging.  The doctors discovered that my spinal injury had worsened, and my spinal bones were pressing against my spinal cord and the nerves inside it causing further dysfunction.  I was told by the doctors that one more hit like that could “snap” my neck and it would be lights out.

Now, I drive even more cautiously.  I frequently check my mirrors and can exhibit anxiety over what could potentially be another accident.  I have considered no longer being behind the wheel.  However, that would not save me in the event of being involved in an accident as a passenger in a vehicle with another driver.  I try not to dwell on what other drivers are doing and focus on my task at hand.  I am, however, always on guard.  I always play defense behind the wheel, for even another minor accident inducing whiplash could be my undoing.

I feel like it is always a matter of time before getting entangled with another distracted driver.  With millions of cars on the road and opportunities everywhere for people to not be paying attention to what they are doing, I just hope that my injury remains unaffected.  But I feel the clock is ticking.  So, to other drivers on the road, please, please devote your full attention to driving when you’re behind the wheel.  Even what would seemingly be a minor accident can have disastrous effects on other people.

Getty image by Andrey Popov.

Originally published: August 30, 2022
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