Jenna Hanson found a picture of the crumpled car at the scene of her first car accident at age 11. Years later, chills still ran through her body. Since she has no memory of the accident, she felt as if she were living through the wreck for the first time. But her tears quickly changed from panic to gratitude that she and her older sister survived the near-fatal collision. After a second accident at age 17 resulted in severe whiplash and months of physical therapy, Hanson realized she could choose to take care of her body, or live in pain.
"My sister was driving me home from school during a freak March snowstorm with over a foot of snow. She always drove like a grandma, but she hit a patch of ice. A car hit us. Our car was spinning and another car struck the passenger side where I was sitting. I was 11 and so small that the seat belt didn't hold me in place and so I slid underneath the dashboard while my right ankle went through it. My femur bone snapped from the pressure and I had [a traumatic brain injury], a lacerated liver and a broken ankle. My sister had zero [visible] injuries, but she had severe brain trauma in one spot. We both were in comas."
"I was in the hospital for two weeks and then at home in bed for two weeks. Instead of putting me in traction or in a cast, my parents thankfully opted to have an external fixator [metal rods] screwed into my bone so that after a month and ankle surgery I could shower and walk on crutches. Before I had my ankle cast taken off, I started running in my cast while holding my crutches. I don't know why or how; I guess I wanted to be a normal 11-year-old. My sister didn't remember me when she woke up. She had to relearn everything, how to feed herself and go to the bathroom. She was in rehab at the Mayo Clinic for a little under two months, but, oddly enough, she went back to school before I did."
BARING, AND BEARING IT ALL
It was easier for me to wear shorts [with the fixator], but it made it really visible. My classmates were 11, and they weren't intentionally cruel, but ... there would be stares, and people made fun of the way I walked.
Looking back, maybe there should have been more rehab. I made myself take a back seat to my sister; I let everyone think I was OK. The orthopedic surgeon gave me the OK to do anything; he said I shouldn't have any lasting effects, but I've never really been able to feel good about running.
"The day before my senior year of high school, I was coming home from working a shift at a restaurant, and I was so tired. I was on a country road without a shoulder, and when I looked up [from the radio], two wheels had come off the shoulder. I overcorrected and started fishtailing through the corn. There was no time to be afraid; I was counting the corn and wondering when I was going to stop. When I stopped, I felt OK. I was hanging to the side from my seat belt. I started realizing blood was dripping from somewhere, so I called 911."
BECOMING A GYM RAT
"I did physical therapy right away -- I thought I was doing OK, but when I went to college and slept in a crappy dorm bed and stayed up working on papers until 2 a.m., the muscles in my neck hurt so bad that my hands were getting numb. I went to a chiropractor ... and he told me I was starting to develop arthritis. It probably started when I was 11, and the second accident exacerbated everything. I went to the chiropractor three times a week. The muscles in my neck had atrophied. When my neck started getting stronger, I started going to the gym. I try to be active every day, which includes weight training, walks and yoga. When I go to the gym, I start out with 20 minutes of cardio, and then I do a half-hour of circuit training."
"Seeing that photo of the car made me so thankful for surviving. It's my job to do everything I can to keep my body as healthy as I can for the rest of my life. Because I have a healthy exercise routine, meaning I work out enough, but don't put too much stress on my body, I'm free of neck pain. I think a lot of people ignore the symbiotic relationship that they have with their bodies, but I never will."