Cara’s story says it all – never give up hope
Story by Chris Graham
I always wonder how I would react if I had everything taken away from me and had to fight to get it back.
Cara Atkins has been there, done that – and says it is the most difficult thing you can imagine having to go through.
“It’s been really difficult – but I’ve been able to stay positive throughout it all. Because there are good plans for me – and there are bigger things ahead,” said Atkins, now 30, who was left in a coma following a 1997 car accident in Rockingham County involving a drunk driver.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, doctors told her mother, Darlene Spitler, that Cara was not expected to recover from the coma and that she should consider putting her into a nursing home to provide for her long-term care.
But Atkins beat the odds – waking from her coma after 12 weeks and leaving the hospital five months into what has become an 11-year journey back from brain injury.
As is chronicled in the book From Coma to College: The Reconstruction of Cara Atkins from Severe Traumatic Brain Injury Caused by a Drunken Driver, it is something that Atkins will be dealing with the rest of her life.
“Today I really am hopeful for the future that I will one day have,” Atkins said to me at Book ‘Em, an annual book festival in Waynesboro where she signed copies of the book written about her life by author James G.T. Fairfield.
Her mother was also there – and told me about how she basically moved into the intensive-care unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville so she could be with Cara around the clock. She also said she decided then and there that she was going to do what she could to help her daughter remember the time in the hospital – and the photographs that she took in the course of trying to preserve those memories are there for the world to see in the book.
Atkins, for her part, doesn’t remember any of those first 12 weeks.
“It took me a while to realize where I was – although while I was in the coma, my sister said to me she would come in every day and say, Cara, today is whatever date, and you’ve been in an accident, you’re in the hospital, and we’re taking care of you. And I don’t remember her saying any of that, but, you know, hey,” Atkins said.
“The first thing that I remember is being on a tilt table, which is a table that they strap you into to help put weight on your ankles – my heel chords had shrunk – so you can stand once again. And they were saying that I had to stand on this tilt table – they were making me do it twice a day, for like, long periods of time, like, 15 minutes, which seemed like forever. I couldn’t talk yet – and I was just beginning to come to. And I was just thinking, Why is my mom, who is a very strong person, allowing them to torture her baby girl like this? I just could not understand for anything,” Atkins said.
You want to reach out and hug her at this point – but wait … it gets harder.
I asked Atkins if she ever had a moment where she thought it just wasn’t in the cards for her to recover from the accident and the brain injury. Her “yes” was so sudden and emphatic that it put me off-stride.
“The saying, You have to hit rock bottom before you’ll get to the top, before you’ll see any victory – I definitely hit rock bottom,” Atkins said. “I lost all my friends. I lost my boyfriend at the time. I lost the training that I was going through at school. I lost anything I could possibly imagine. And I definitely had times, periods, where it was a blow for me, and I really just felt like I couldn’t get any lower. I was so depressed, I was so alone. I just kept saying to Mom, I’m so alone. I had no friends – all my friends left. They were like, You’re not the same person, we don’t want to be around you. And it was so utterly lonely.”
But she persevered – and then made the call one day to do something that certainly her doctors wouldn’t have believed possible, if not everybody else. Atkins enrolled at Eastern Mennonite University – becoming the first person in her family to attend college, and then later the first to graduate from college, in 2004.
She has a degree in social work, which she keeps exercised volunteering at the Harrisonburg Pregnancy Center.
She’s even back out on the road driving again – another hurdle that she had to overcome following the terror of her 1997 accident.
“I just got my drivers license back two years ago. I’m driving a Volvo – and it’s keeping me safe. Her name is Emma. She keeps me very safe,” Atkins said.
Atkins hopes to continue breaking through barriers as time marches on. She wants to marry and raise a family.
“I believe that God has a plan for me. And I can’t wait to see what it is,” Atkins said
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.