You Never Know Where Life’s Journey Will Take You

By Elizabeth Grace, Work Experience Graduate and Goodwill Retail Merchandising Associate

Hello, my name is Elizabeth Grace, but I go by Grace or Graci. As a junior at Tekamah-Herman High School, you could say that I was your “typical teenage girl.” I was in FBLA [Future Business Leaders of America], I played basketball, volleyball, and softball, and I also ran track. I played tenor sax in marching and concert band, and I sang alto in the school choir.

I was a devoted student who enjoyed school very much. I usually hung out with my boyfriend or friends on weekends.

My life changed drastically on the night of Jan. 25, 2017, when my car hit a patch of black ice and flipped and landed on its top. I don’t remember it, but, after my accident, I was told the details of my injuries and how I looked. Seeing me today, you would never believe my story.

The Accident That Changed Graci’s Path — and Her Life

When I was found, my ears were bleeding, my nose was broken and bleeding, I had a broken pelvis, and I had bruises everywhere because I was tossed around pretty good. One of the biggest blessings about my accident is that my temporal bone got fractured, which caused the brain fluid that was building up to be able to drain out through my ear. It turns out, this most likely saved my life while I was waiting to be rescued.

When my car flipped, I was hanging upside down inside the car by my seat belt, which caused me to have a stroke, and I had a traumatic brain injury from the impact. When the rescue squad arrived, because of my seat belt, they had to cut me out to release me from the vehicle. The squad took me to the hospital in Blair, and then I was sent in an ambulance to the ICU at UNMC. Rescuers couldn’t use the helicopter because of the weather conditions — it was freezing cold, snowy, and icy.

I was in a coma for 17 days. When I woke up, no one really knew what to expect. The next several months were a blur. You see, with a traumatic brain injury, your brain is severely injured, so it does not function properly, and I had memory issues. Doctors, nurses, and therapists were all working together to save my life.

As you all can see, they successfully got the job done. There were a few scary moments where they thought they were going to lose me, but I fought through it and battled my way back, and I came through it all stronger than before.

I was at UNMC from Jan. 25 until Feb. 14, and then I went straight to inpatient care at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha. This became my new norm: therapy, therapy, therapy. I worked so hard, but then I had a setback. I wasn’t responding like they thought I should have been, so I was sent back to UNMC for tests.

The Long Road to Recovery

Unfortunately, the UNMC test results were not in my favor. They showed several dark spots in my brain, which were blood clots. If you ever have the chance to see me in person, I have a shunt in the back right side of my head. A shunt is a flexible silicon contraption that was placed inside my head to relieve pressure on my brain caused by fluid accumulation. After that procedure, I spent 10 more days in the hospital before heading back to Madonna.

My amazing therapists pushed me very hard because they knew what I was capable of. They motivated me to walk and improve myself in the best way possible while I was there. My parents knew how to motivate me, so they hung pictures and a quote on my dresser in my room at Madonna. The quote says, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is all you have left.”

The picture that I remember most of all was of my sister and me with some friends. I know these things might seem silly, but they were my motivation to kick butt all day and every day, to get out of there, and get back home to my safe, warm, bed.

Finally, the day arrived when I got to go home! I was extremely excited and overwhelmed to go home. I bawled when the time came to leave. I didn’t want to leave my second family that I’d gained at Madonna, but they knew I had to take the next step in my incredible journey.

Graci Finds Her Path

After some transition time at home, I got to start back at school with my senior class. I wasn’t able to be there full time yet because of outpatient therapy three times a week at Madonna, and the stimulation was very hard on me at the beginning. As the year went on, I started doing less therapy and more school until I started going four days a week. I was blessed to be able to receive services at school, such as speech, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. I was glad to be able to keep working hard academically and physically.

One of my goals at Madonna was to be able to attend prom in the spring. Not only did I attend, but I was also elected senior attendant at prom. My class had also supported me the year before while I was recovering in the hospital by electing me junior attendant. It was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.

For the longest time, no one thought I would ever walk, talk, eat on my own, or even graduate from high school. May 12, 2018, was an unforgettable day for everyone: I walked in my school’s graduation ceremony and received my diploma! The feeling was exceptional. I am a real-life example that if you set goals and work hard, you can get the job done if you really want it.

Tekamah-Herman School, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and Leslee Brenneis, one of my teachers at school, were also instrumental in setting up work-study opportunities for me at the public library and at Master’s Hand, a candle shop in Tekamah, to get experience working different jobs to prepare me for the future.

My paraprofessional, Rebecca Sheets, is my person. She always finds the best way to lift me up on my bad days, and she’s been my para for almost four years, so, she’s had to put up with all of my mood swings. She really is a star.

I was able to continue to attend school after graduation so I could transition into my new “normal.” I finished some classes I hadn’t completed because of the accident, and I worked on lots of life skills to prepare for my future. As of right now, I am working with Vocational Rehabilitation Services to find a job that is a match for me. I have also been able to work at the Subway shop in town, and I’m now in the Goodwill Work Experience program.

I love my Work Experience trainer, Aubrey Gutierrez, at Goodwill. She never fails to put a smile on my face with her upbeat, happy-go-lucky personality! One of my future goals is to grow and become a motivational speaker so I can have the opportunity to share my story with others. My hope is that they take my story and learn from it and that it will help them get through their obstacles.

I never dreamed this is where I would end up at 21 years old. When I was a little girl, I remember talking about where I wanted to be after I graduated, but I obviously didn’t plan on getting into a life-altering car accident. I’m still not exactly sure what the plan is for my life, but I know for a fact that there is a plan for me in this world. Part of my journey will be finding out what my plan is. We know God has a plan for all of us, and I believe I’m here for a reason, so, we’re just going to have to work together to figure out what that reason is.

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