Julianna Leone – Everything did not go as planned and that is okay

Author(s): Darcy R. Merkur

June 15, 2016

It was 2008 and I was 23 years old. It seemed like I had everything going for myself. I had a full-time job as a senior credit manager at Wells Fargo Financial. I had just bought a 2006, Pearl White, Cadillac CTS. I was a proud homeowner of two years and I had also just graduated from the University of Windsor with a Bachelor of Honours in Business. On top of all that, I was also enrolled in a LSAT prep class, with plans to enrol in Law school. But first, I had a trip and tour planned to Italy with my best friend at the time.

On August 9th, 2008, from what I can remember I was in my room refreshing my Italian vocabulary for my up and coming trip. The next thing I remember, is a few weeks later, waking up on the 6th floor at Hotel Dieu, which is a hospital in Windsor, with my mouth wired shut! This means there are two weeks of my life that I cannot account for.

I have no recollection of anything at all from my accident. From what I was told, I went out bar hopping. Even to this day, this doesn’t make sense to me. I never bar hopped. I normally just liked to stay at one bar and dance the night away. But, I was told I went out with a friend. I guess we met up with a few of her friends and we drank. We drank a lot. Then, I decided to leave. The bars in Windsor close around 2 am, so probably sometime around then or shortly thereafter.

At 4 am, I was found at the side of the road by a nurse who happened to be travelling on the same road as I was. Talk about having angels looking after me. The nurse performed CPR and emergency vehicles were alerted to the accident scene by a neighbour.

I was taken by land ambulance to Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital. Upon admission to the hospital, my Glasgow Coma Scale score was 5/15. This test rates your level of consciousness, with the lowest score being three. Any score of eight or less is a comatose client. I was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit where I was intubated and I remained in a coma for ten days.

An investigation later revealed that I hit the shoulder of the road and lost control of my vehicle. My vehicle ended up rolling into the ditch. I was ejected and found approximately twenty meters or sixty-five feet from my car. I have included a picture of what my vehicle looked like after my accident. Please heed the warning if you have a weak stomach.

Image of car wreck

My injuries consisted of:

  • Complex liver lacerations
  • Lacerations to my right kidney
  • Undisplaced fracture of the right mandibular condyle
  • Dislocated and fractured avulsion of my mandible bilaterally
  • Multiple fractured teeth
  • Deep laceration to the left upper eyelid
  • Deep lacerations to left groin and abdomen
  • Deep abrasion and burns to the right cheek, right shoulder and both knees
  • Pulmonary contusions of the left lung
  • >Significant closed head injury
  • L2, L3, T9 & T10 fractures

An undisplaced fracture is a break in which cracks in the bone may radiate in several directions but the bone fragments do not separate. Dislocation is where a bone has been displaced from its normal position at a joint. An avulsion fracture is a bone fracture which occurs when a fragment of bone tears away from the main mass of bone as a result of physical trauma. A pulmonary contusion is a bruise of the lung, caused by chest trauma.

image of mandibular fractures
image of an un-displaced fracture

For those of us that did not graduate from medical school or study medical terminology, I should have scars everywhere. I had road rash and burns all over my body. I was wired brushed head to toe. My hands had cuts. My right check, I could actually lift the skin up at one point. The right side of my lip had a cut, as if I bit it, and my stomach and groin areas also had cuts. I have plates on both sides of my mandible, keeping it connected to my skull. Like the picture above displays but I also have the same plates on the right side. In addition to these plates, I also have two plates on the bottom right of my jaw, like you see in the picture. My mouth was wired shut for a few months and I had jaw surgeries that lasted a few years. I also fractured my back in four spots. My knees were so banged up that you could see the bones and my right shoulder had a welt from the road rash. I remember scratching it one time and it became welted because it was sensitive. On top of all that, I also suffered a brain injury and will live with one for the rest of my life.

I was told it took the Doctors, three days to revive me and to get me stable. I had so many injuries that they had neglected to find an open wound on the back of my head. I have my Father to thank. He actually pointed it out to them, nearly a week later when he noticed it was still bleeding. He also tended to all of my wounds daily and did whatever he could so that I would not have many scars. I had lots of visitors, family and close friends. Although, I only remember those that visited me after I was out of the ICU.  My medical treatments included reconstructive surgery, dental surgery, wound healing, respiratory care and neurology.

My discharge was actually initiated by myself. There was definitely disagreement amongst my physicians but on August 22nd, I went home. Looking back now, that probably wasn’t the best decision I had ever made because I missed out on the inpatient rehabilitation.

Then again, if I was making proper decisions around this time, I would have never experienced this catastrophic, life altering event, all together. Nothing I can do about it now but accept it, learn from it, and share my story to get others to understand why they should never do what I did. My first lesson in all of this is DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE.!! Be responsible and also be accountable. Everything that happens to us in life is because of something we are doing. If you are going out and plan on drinking, take a cab or have someone drive you. I recommend leaving your car and your car keys at home or somewhere safe and out of your reach.

The new me: the easiest way to sum it up, all my negative qualities were intensified and a few deficits were added. I got agitated very easily. The slightest noise drove me up the wall. I was short tempered and short fused. I also had very poor memory skills, especially for names and faces. This was actually a really hard adjustment to make. Having worked at the bank, remembering names and faces was a strength of mine. I also had difficulty multi-tasking and with attention, which was also an adjustment I did not take a liking to. I could not listen to music or even have it in the background if I was doing something else. Having grown up with my family owning a music store, this was something I needed to fix. I also couldn’t follow any television shows or movies. I remember it took me nearly ten attempts to understand and be able to follow the first criminal mind episode that I watched and I needed the help of a friend. Thank goodness for their patience. The first movie I went to go see, I sat too close and had to leave because I was getting light-headed. When I got up to leave, I actually almost passed out, so I had to sit down and stand up the entire way out. To this day, I can re-watch movies over and over again as if it was the first time. Not really a bad thing though, if you ask me. Once I finish the movie or show, my memory fades and gradually over the days, it becomes a distant memory.

My energy was also considerably diminished. Someone once explained it to me and compared it to a tank of gas. People that do not have a brain injury start their day with a full tank. When they sit down during the day and relax, their tank gets refilled. Someone with a brain injury starts with a tank of gas and when they sit down their tank does not get refilled. They even sometimes go into using tomorrow’s tank and start the following day at a deficit.

At one point, I was even told I was only capable of doing four hours of cognitive work a day and for every hour of cognitive work I did, I had to rest four hours. I was also even told I would remain in a wheel chair and have a speech impairment for life. Good thing our brains are like a muscle and over time, the more we focus and work towards something, the better we get at it. Practise, really does make perfect.

The first book I read after my accident took me a good six months to finish. My recall on word definitions was just horrible. I had to look up a good 20-30 words per page, if not more. In 2014, I actually read 30 books, with one book being the bible. One of my goals is to write an autobiography. Last year I wrote 40,000 words towards it, however, it is still nowhere near to being completed.

I had a lot of assessments. Too many if you ask me. On November 20th of 2008, three months after I went home from the hospital, I had a neuropsychological assessment. The Dr. came to a conclusion that I would not be able to perform the essential tasks of my pre-accident employment as a Senior Credit Manager. Multi-tasking and keeping track of a lot of verbal details would likely be difficult if not impossible for me. The test results also suggested that I would not be able to complete law school. In plain English, this meant, I was incapable of going back to the life I had before.

But, even though the neuropsychological assessment recommended I could not go to law school or my pre-accident lifestyle, my ultimate goal was still to become a lawyer. I spent the next few years pursuing this. I was back at the University taking two classes and just when I thought things were back on the right track, I was heading to school to do a bonus assignment and was stopped at a red light, I got rear ended.

The next couple of months were spent trying to pick up the pieces and start over again. I had intense headaches, I was passing out and vomiting from the bright lights, noises, medicine and pretty much anything. It was at this point that I decided to re-evaluate my goals. My reasoning behind wanting to be a lawyer did not coincide with my overall values and morals.

I realized I needed to set realistic goals for myself. Setting genuine goals for myself was not about giving up on my previous goals but it was now about breaking them down and remaining loyal and honest with myself.

Just when I thought I was back on the right track and I had a good plan, so did God. It was Christmas day of 2012, we had just finished opening our gifts and the phone rang. It was the hospital calling. I was in a week prior complaining of chest pain and a bad cough. I was sent home with medicine to fight what they told me was pneumonia. Christmas day when they called, they said they had reviewed my charts and wanted to set up a date and time for me to come in and see them. I was so confused. Why would they call me bright and early Christmas Day to schedule an appointment? If it could wait, calling me on Christmas day could also wait. That was my thought process and before I freaked out and got upset with them, I passed the phone to my mother. Once I passed the phone to my mom, I allowed myself to cough. When the lady on the other end heard me coughing, she told my mother to get me in there immediately. It was at this time I found out I had cancer.

On January 16th, 2013, I was officially diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I started chemo the same day. I had six rounds of chemo. One week in with a solid 24 hours of chemo every day, for the entire seven days and then two weeks out. I had no energy for anything but chemo. This was my life from January – May of 2013.

It was during this time that my parents had separated. If I am not mistaken, that happened in March.  Shortly after, my dad and I started looking at houses in London. Fireworks night in Windsor, which was June 24th of 2013, I finally got my results from my pet scan and was officially 100% cancer free. A week later Dad and I moved to London and I was ready to start my rehabilitation journey once again.

I never really understood the idiom 3rd times a charm!

I am definitely not a Doctor but it is proven that stress does cause cancer and my tumor actually grew in front of my back fractures. The tumor was so close to my back fractures that I actually could not differentiate that the pain was any different.

Throughout all of this, I learned that pain is our body’s way of telling us that something is out of order. I realized that in order to maintain and live a healthy lifestyle, attention needs to be equally distributed to both the cognitive and the physical aspects of our lives. I also learned about prioritizing and being realistic about setting goals and finding a rehab team that was on the same page as me. I also learned about finding a balance from a rehab perspective and about finding the time to just be myself and to do things I enjoy doing.

You know yourself better than anyone else, you know what you need and you have to be the one to fight for that. This goes back to goal setting and advocating what is important to you especially for your treatment because whatever way we want to look at it, rehab is actually our full-time job. Routines help us pace ourselves and prevents the highs and lows and makes everything more stable. We also need to surround ourselves with positive support. Not just our rehab team but also our friends and family and we have to minimize the negativity in our life.

If practise makes perfect, what would 80 years of experience get you?

I truly believe I had the best rehab team out there. Starting with Darcy Merkur, from Thomson Rogers. Having Darcy lead my rehab team, he made it possible for me to actually concentrate on rehab being my full time job. He put together the rehab team I worked with for seven years and together we worked day in and day out, on my best interests. This is more than just a pay cheque to Thomson Rogers and the therapists that they work with. They have a passion for helping people and making a difference in their lives. Without a doubt, they have all made a difference in mine. I will forever be indebted to my entire rehab team. Even to this day, we keep in contact and they continue to help me reach my goals.

  • Case Manager: Cheryl Shillington of Shillington Consultants
  • Speech Therapist: Karine Pepin out of DMA Rehab in Windsor, Ontario, at the time we worked together, as well as, Bianca Heaslip of DMA Rehab in London, Ontario
  • Occupational Therapist: Gina Matesic out of DMA Rehab
  • Psychologist: Dr. Carol Franklyn in Windsor, Ontario, as well as Dr. Tamara Biedermen in London, Ontario

Brain injuries are hard to detect. You do not know how many times I have heard, “You don’t look like you have a brain injury.” I bet I also do not look like I have been through cancer or that I am still experiencing side effects from that but I actually am. I mention this because we all have a story and your story is no greater or worse than mine. We will never really know what someone else is experiencing unless they choose to share it with us. However, what I do know is how far a positive gesture or kind remark can go and that it is not our place to judge anyone.

Perspective is huge. How we view or see things alters the choices we make and in my opinion, it is all about one basic choice we make every day. We can fancy it up, sugar coat it and make it sound more appealing to the ears but it all comes down to whether we choose to be positive or negative. What drives you? Love or hurt. We can all be victims by situations but we need to choose to be survivors by choice.

Every experience we go through helps mold us into the person we will become tomorrow. I believe our destiny is inevitable but we can make choices that stray us off the correct path. It is my goal, in sharing my story, to help all of you, make less of those choices and to remain positive, no matter the circumstances.

Nobody is going to hand you the ladder and climb it for you. If you want something bad enough, start small and work towards your goals. Take it one day at a time and give it your all, day in and day out. Push yourself. Do not fall trapped into self-imposed limits or even limits that our society has come accustomed to. Practise really does make perfect in everything that we do. Just do your best, give it your all and when you know better, do better. Make adjustments if you need to. I hope my story shows you, that you can overcome all the roadblocks in the world if you just believe in yourself and put in the work.

Julianna Leone working out image

[email protected]

Copyright 2016 Julianna Leone

Julianna was treated at Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor for an extended period with multiple fractures including facial fractures and a catastrophic brain injury, following a single car accident in Windsor.

Julianna was represented by personal injury lawyer Darcy Merkur, a partner at the firm of Thomson Rogers.

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