It was the end of a fun night out in Phnom Penh and I was ready to head home. “Home” at that point was my friend Jess’s apartment in Tuol Tompoung, where I was staying during my one-month trip to Cambodia. My friend, Aldrin, and I agreed to leave together. I’d hitch a ride on the back of his scooter and he’d drop me off at Jess’s place on the way to his own apartment.
We both clipped on our helmets.
Mine was white.
I was wearing a new floral jumpsuit and flip flops. I got on the back of the scooter and shuffled comfortably into place. Aldrin turned on the engine. We started driving. It was 2 am and dark outside. The roads were wide and empty, but I distinctly remember agreeing we should drive slowly. Just in case.
“Is this speed okay?” Aldrin asked me.
“Yes.” I replied. “I feel safe.”
Ironically those were my last words.
Out of nowhere, a red taxi came towards us at full speed. It hurtled forwards so fast we had no chance. Aldrin tried to swerve, but the taxi was impossible to avoid. And then we crashed. A noise I’ve heard over and over in my head since, even though I don’t remember hearing it in real life.
The car hit me directly. My leg was crushed. My face ripped open as I flew through the air and skidded across the street. My front teeth were completely knocked out. I had severe internal injuries and was bleeding profusely. In and out of consciousness I went.
The taxi driver never stopped.
I’ll never know who did it.
What ensued was total chaos and incredibly heroic actions on Aldrin’s part. A security guard had witnessed our accident and rushed over to help. Aldrin was also seriously injured, but his indirect hit meant he was better off than me. My phone was crushed. His phone survived. Thanks to this stroke of luck, Aldrin was able to call all our friends and get a rally of support at the hospital. Something which ended up saving my life.
It was a life-threatening, life-altering accident, beyond Aldrin’s or my control. I’ll tell you the whole story another time, but for this blog post that’s all you need to know.
Over the last 2 years I’ve been recovering from that night, physically and emotionally. Throughout my recovery I’ve learned a lot. That’s not to say the accident was in any way worth it – but it’s given me insight and perspective on what it’s like to survive such a traumatic event.
So, here it goes. Things I’ve learned from surviving a near-fatal road accident:
1. Putting that white helmet on saved my life.
Sometimes a small decision has a profound impact. If I hadn’t worn a helmet that day, I wouldn’t have survived the accident. It was well-worth the helmet hair, the sweaty head, and what some might consider an “uncool” look. You know what’s really uncool? A cracked skull.
Always wear a helmet. I cannot stress that enough.
2. If I hadn’t had international health insurance, I would have died in a Cambodian hospital.
Remember that statement next time you doubt whether international health insurance is “really necessary” or “worth the money”.
In a country like Cambodia, no money = no treatment. It doesn’t matter how life-threatening your medical situation is. As soon as I arrived at Royal Phnom Penh hospital I needed life-saving blood transfusions and urgent surgeries to my face and leg. The hospital staff demanded a guarantee of 10,000 USD. That wasn’t an amount any of my friends had on them, and is beyond the one-time-transaction cap on many debit- and credit cards.
Thanks to responsible decisions of pre-accident-me, my insurance money came through while I still had a chance of survival.
There’s no way to sugar coat it, recovering from a serious road accident is pretty damn horrible. In a split second I went from a happy, care-free 23-year-old with career aspirations and a social life to an immobile 23-year-old who had to wear diapers and be syringe-fed liquid food. I’ve come a long way since then, and have tried to make the most out of a bad situation, but lots of days are still incredibly tough.
4. You’re allowed to feel different emotions at the same time.
After my accident I had a mixture of feelings. Immense appreciation to doctors for saving my core facial features and my leg. Immeasurable gratitude for surviving together with Aldrin. I’ve sobbed uncontrollably at losing my life as I knew it. I’ve felt enraged at myself for not waiting 10 more seconds to get on that scooter, thinking that might have saved us the accident. Other times I just feel numb disbelief, asking myself over and over again, ‘why me?’ For a long time I felt like I had to pick one emotion, until I realised it’s okay to feel them all.
5. Humans have an unbelievable capacity for resilience.
A lot of people have said to me, “I would never be able to cope the way you’ve coped with it all.” The truth is, you absolutely would. Maybe in a different way, maybe with a different support system, but when faced with no other choice, you’d find a way.
6. It’s okay to admit that you can’t deal with it all alone.
Surviving a near-fatal road accident is incredibly traumatic. There have been plenty of times when I felt utterly overwhelmed. So overwhelmed that I needed outside help. I found a lot of support in speaking to a trauma psychologist. I took the edge off the worst days by taking anti-depressants for over a year. The bottom line is, it’s okay to admit you can’t deal with it alone.*
7. Accidents are a dramatic way to learn who your real friends are.
Some of my closest friends who I thought would be there for me weren’t. Other people I’d crossed paths with for just a few hours in my life sent me paragraphs of support. I had friends nearby who could have visited but didn’t and friends farther away who made incredible efforts to be at my side.
8. People will call you “strong”, “brave” and “inspiring” even though you may not feel deserving of those words.
Soon after my accident, I got all these messages telling me I was “brave” and “strong” and “inspiring“. I’d turned into some kind of hero. But I didn’t (and still don’t) feel that way. I attribute my survival partly to luck, partly to precautions I took, and partly to the life-saving actions of my friends and medical professionals. If anyone is the hero, it’s them.
* For any readers who have survived something similar: click here to read a great article about coping mechanisms and outside help for traumatic near-miss experiences.
This is Part I of a longer blog post on “Things I learned from surviving a near-fatal road accident”. Click here to read Part 2.
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