Libby Beemer talks about her daughter’s recovery from a devastating car wreck and the “meaning of Sam.”
This spring, surrounded by the doctors, nurses, firemen, and EMTs as well as family and friends, Sam Beemer celebrated her graduation from high school. Like many graduation parties, there were flowers, toasts, hugs, and tears. Her mother, Libby, looked on not only with pride but with gratitude and awe because, less than three years before, her daughter had been trapped in the passenger seat of a car, wrapped around a tree, severely injured and fighting to stay alive.
Who believes in miracles?
People often talk about miracles when it comes to recovery, especially those from traumatic brain injury. Maybe miracles do happen, or maybe they’re simply a combination of great hospital care, timing, love, and luck. But sometimes the universe leaves messages, whispers hints, and taps out fingers of light that convince at least a mother praying for her daughter’s life to believe in them.
First there were the responding EMTs who immediately recognized the severity of the accident when they arrived on scene. Thinking she may already be paralyzed as a result of the injuries but hoping she was not, the three EMTs worked quickly and in partnership to keep her alive. One EMT knew he had to hold Sam’s head steady from the back seat of the car as the other two worked to stabilize her from the front seat. A veteran emergency responder, he had seen many accidents involving teens over the years, many ending tragically. So he held her head still, vowing to do everything he could to prevent paralysis. At the same time, the fire department worked to pull the car from the tree. Unable to remove her from the passenger side due to the extensive car damage, and Sam’s fragile condition quickly deteriorating, the three EMTs had no choice but to bend and twist her body in order to pull her out of the driver’s side door. They had to get her out quickly, onto the waiting LifeFlight for transport to the hospital. They did just that and watched as LifeFlight raced to the hospital, with Sam onboard and alive. Whisper one…
Four life-threatening injuries. Severely critically injured. Multiple skull fractures. Traumatic brain injury. Dissected right carotid artery. Multiple bone fractures. Punctured lung. Bi-lateral breaks of the pelvis. She’s stable but we’re not sure what is going to happen. These were the words used by the ER trauma physician to describe Sam’s condition. He also said she is young and strong, and survived the accident as well as the trip to the hospital, which was significant. Hint 2…
Individually, the injuries warranted their own course of medical attention, including surgery. Collectively, these treatments were not an option. The brain trauma and dissected carotid trumped all other injuries and their treatments. Surgery to repair the pelvis and broken bones could not be performed. Eight weeks later, x-rays showed that the bones had knitted back to together, straight and perfect, all by themselves, indicating Sam would be able to walk again. Whisper 3….
Perhaps the loudest whisper of all was the craniotomy. Seven days into her coma, Sam’s brain began to swell. To save her life, an emergency craniotomy had to be performed. As she was wheeled into the OR, Sam’s mom kissed her goodbye, just in case. Devastating news, the PICU medical staff who tirelessly cared for Sam around-the-clock for days were affected as much as the family. While Sam was in surgery, hugs and tears were shared. A few hours later waiting in Sam’s room, her mom heard a PICU nurse say, “She’s coming back.” Sam’s mom looked at the clock and realized it was very early in the morning and it was Sam’s 16th birthday. She was coming back to her PICU room at nearly the same time she was born 16 years earlier.
The PICU staff at Mercy Children’s Hospital in Toledo, Ohio said they had never had a patient like Sam with so many injuries. Many hospital departments and physicians were involved in her care, requiring significant coordination and on-going communication.
But in the grand scheme of severe brain injury when recovery seems glacial and every Lilliputian step forward a victory to be celebrated, Sam’s recovery occurred with downright celerity. Fifteen days after the accident, after her brain started to swell and show little activity, after her family was told that if she survived they should expect extensive brain damage causing significant cognitive deficits and physical challenges including not being able to talk, walk, eat, or breath on her own, she surfaced. A nurse asked her to give a sign if she could hear her. Everyone in the room was stunned as Sam raised her right thumb in the air. “I asked her if she knew I was her mom,” says Libby. “The thumb went up again and I knew in that moment that Mercy had given me back my daughter.”
Talk and touch
Often during Sam’s recovery, especially during those first days and weeks when the ground felt like eggshells under her feet, Libby was asked by friends how she was keeping it all together. “What is there to say?” she says. “You have no choice. You are the mother, the caregiver, the protector. You have to absorb as much information as you can from the doctors and nurses, read, do internet research … and you have to insist on being partners with the medical team.” What also helped, she says, was talk and touch. “I talked to Sam nonstop. I told her to be strong, to breathe, to know that we were all in this with her. I stayed positive and made sure every single person who was in her room talked to her, not over her. We’d tell her what was going on in the world. We’d read to her. Her friends would tell her about chemistry class or the cute boy of the moment. We’d also touch her — rub her feet, hold her hand, stroke her face with love.”
Her brother, Nick, 9 at the time of Sam’s crash, had a difficult time seeing his sister still and silent, attached to snaking tubes and beeping machines. At first, he was hesitant to touch her. Nick is a tough boy who loves his sister very much. He has a face full of freckles and a sensitive heart,” says Libby. “We tried to keep things as normal as possible for Nick. Their father and I are divorced, but we work as a strong team for the kids, so during all the time Sam was in the hospital, we switched off every 24 hours so that one parent was with Sam, the other with Nick.” Now, the siblings are buddies, they look after each other. They have a bond, Libby says, that is stronger than ever.
For many people in the wake of a brain injury, one of the many challenges to overcome involves the social aspect of daily life. Fitting in, especially in high school, is important. Coming from a small high school, Sam knew everyone. Her friends and others were there for her. They visited Sam in the hospital, bringing flowers, stuffed animals, and girl gossip. As Sam focused on her recovery and intensive rehabilitation, time between visits with friends grew longer. As often happens in life, people change and move on. Although social interaction with many of her high school friends has been limited, Sam has forged a stronger bond with her family. “Sam is a much stronger person,” says Libby. “Sam, Nick, and I do a lot of fun things together. We’re a unit.”
That said, friends from Sam’s elementary school have re-connected to support her. She’s also made many new friends while staying at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus for rehab. “They understand each other. They know what challenge means,” says Libby.” I think Sam will have some of these friends forever.”
Sam is also heading off to college at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in the fall. After missing almost a full year of school but still managing to graduate with her class, Sam is looking forward to a new start. “Sam and I have given a few presentations about traumatic brain injury at BGSU among other places so she’s already made some friends there,” says Libby. “They’ve told her they can’t wait till she starts, and that they’ll look out for her.”
TBI is forever
“I never coddled Sam during her recovery,” says Libby. “Instead I tried to support her.” When Sam would have a bad day and ask “why me?” questions, her mother would remind her of some of her much worse off friends back in rehab and say that despite her ongoing challenges, she is incredibly lucky to be alive. “I tell her that I have no idea what she is going through, but we’re going to get through it together. I know she will take this experience and do something great with it to help others.”
Sam has no vision on the left side of both her eyes, a condition called hemianopsia. She also continues to have weakness and reduced functionality on her left side, especially her arm and hand. She suffers from recurring headaches, and in early 2014, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an autoimmune disease. “We continue to deal with these issues and seek help,” says Libby. “It’s one slow, but steady step at a time.”
When asked what advice she would give other parents in similar situations, Libby does not hesitate. “I’d say be as strong and resilient as you can be; you’ll find that you have more reserves than you could ever have imagined. You either embrace it all or let it crush you. It’s as simple as that,” she says. She adds that being a relentless advocate for your child is crucial, learning to prioritize and be forgiving of yourself, and lastly to listen to your gut. “Your intuition is your best guide,” she says. The hardest part is taking the time to pause and listen to it, she says, especially in the maelstrom of acute care.
Listener of God
You’d think that Libby and her two kids would avoid the road — the crunch of gravel on the meandering turns and the sight of the tree — that changed their lives, but they don’t. In fact, they drive it every day on the way to bring Nick to school. “I guess in many ways it’s a good reminder for me that life is short and to embrace every moment,” says Libby. “If I’m stressing about something, I see the tree and I’m instantly less stressed. It serves as a reminder to keep things in perspective.”
Sam’s big graduation fete is over. The table center pieces were vases of asters — Sam’s birth flower. The words chosen as the party’s theme to represent Sam’s journey — valor, faith, and strength — have taken on new meaning for the 300-plus guests who attended. And Libby, who finds comfort in knowing that her daughter’s name, Samantha, means “listener of God,” has let spring slip deliciously into summer like a sweet breeze, familiar and comforting.