“I now understand the saying what goes around comes around…”

Erin and the tail-shaft that hit on the head
Erin, before her accident at Surfers Paradise, 2016

(Enjoying Surfers Paradise, just before my accident.)

On Monday the 10th April, 2006 I was traveling on the M1 highway at Yatala on the Gold Coast. It was peak hour traffic, but on this day the traffic was twice as heavy as usual. The car in front of me swerved to try and avoid a 10 kilogram tailshaft lying on the highway but hit it anyway, and it came flying through the windscreen of my car and hit me straight in the face. I was knocked unconscious. I lost control of the car.

Erin and the tail-shaft that hit on the head

(Holding the tail-shaft that flew through the windscreen of my car.)

I crossed a lane of traffic, and went along the fence for about 30m. Then, I went through the fence and into the bushes for another 30m. I don’t remember any of this happening. In fact, I don’t even remember the weekend before and the day it happened. I only remember two things: asking my boss for time of to go to a funeral and a thought I remember which was about the amount of traffic on the way home – I hadn’t seen the highway that busy before. The man in the car that hit the tail shaft stopped to help and so did the person in the car behind me. By the time the police and ambulance got there I was conscious, but I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember talking to anyone. I don’t even remember the ambulance trip to the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane. The ambulance staff later told us that I was in a huge mess and in a bad way when they got there. I thought I must have been really bad for them to say that because they see this all the time.

Erin's car following her crash

(My car after the crash.)

The first thing I remember was hearing people saying they had to cut my clothes off. My first thought was “Oh no, what clothes am I wearing? I hope I’m not wearing my favorite clothes.” I don’t remember very much of the emergency ward because most of the time I was semi-conscious. But, I have been told that I was able to talk to the staff. I remember becoming conscious enough to hear things. I’d think, “They’re still working on me so I’m going to go back to sleep,” and that is what I did. The times I could hear them speaking all I could hear them saying was we need to operate on this and that and I started to feel scared and all I could think of was “Jeez, how many operations do I need.” It seemed to me like the list was never-ending. At this stage, I wasn’t aware of being in an accident or what my injuries were and the thought of an operation scared me because I didn’t know what for and I could tell by the tone of the voices around me that it was very serious. I only knew I had broken my arm as it seemed to just flop around whenever they moved me and it was the most weirdest feeling.

Next, I remember mum and dad talking to me. This was the first time I was fully conscious enough to know that I was speaking to people, to be able to think about what to say and to see things. I felt so relieved to see them. Mum started to tell me I had been in an accident and because I didn’t know how the accident happened my first thought was “Oh no, I hope it wasn’t my fault.” Then, I felt relieved to hear that it wasn’t my fault. Mum explained to me that the humerus bone in my arm was broken, I had bruised lungs, my cheek bones were shattered, cuts on my face that went right down to the bones, cuts on my arm, a huge gash in my neck that narrowly missed my jugular vein, busted veins in one eye, vision problems, broken palate and bottom jaw broken in 2 places. I was reassured that I would be okay and that I hadn’t lost any teeth. I argued with mum and dad about losing teeth. I kept telling them that I had lost 2 bottom teeth because there were 2 huge gaps and my gums were broken. Fact was that my jaw was so severely broken that the bones had broken the gums and the big gaps I could feel were because my jaw was hanging down so low. It felt to me like it was hanging down around my chest. This made it hard to talk I felt like I could talk fine but apparently you could barely understand me because I couldn’t really move my bottom jaw, and I was so weak that by the end of the sentence I would start to fall asleep. Then the rest of the family came in. Just before they came in, I vomited twice because I had swallowed a lot of blood. It was projectile vomit and mum wasn’t very pleased as she had just cleaned my hands, then I went and made and even bigger mess than before. But, it added some humour to an emotional time for the family and even now they joke about how on earth I could get vomit on my feet while lying down. I don’t remember talking to the rest of the family that came in. I remember them leaving so I could be stitched up, and at that time I went into a state of semi-consciousness because I didn’t want to be awake getting stitched up.

Erin Billiau

(With my mum and dad in hospital.)

The next day, I had the first of 4 operations to plate my lower jaw. They put 2 plates in, but had to wait a week for the swelling to go down to plate the rest of my face. I was glad my face was swollen because then you couldn’t notice that my face had sunk in. But, it meant that for a week I had to get used to the weird feeling of my face moving from side to side. I spent 4 days in hospital in a high-dependency ward. I was almost put in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) because of my bruised lung. I don’t remember much of these 4 days, but the family reminded me of what happened in those 4 days. Apparently, the morphine and other drugs I was on were making me say some really funny things.

Erin in hospital soon after her car accident

(Early days in hospital.)

When I got home, my bedroom was full of flowers. At first, I thought why all the flowers, as I didn’t realize how serious the accident was. Even worse, I couldn’t smell the flowers because my nose was so full of blood and was so for quite a few months. Then, over the next days and weeks, visitors, flowers and cards came flooding in. I couldn’t believe it as I knew people cared about me, but I didn’t think I meant that much to them. I got cards from people I never thought would that I hadn’t seen for quite some time. I even had a teacher from high school come and visit me. That was the biggest surprise as I hadn’t really seen him much since I finished school a few years ago. I didn’t even think he would have found out about me. Being Easter, a few people brought me some chocolate. The only problem was the doctor said I wasn’t allowed to chew so it was frustrating having all these chocolates in the fridge and not being able to eat them. In the end, some of the chocolates had to go in the bin because I wasn’t allowed to chew for almost 3 months so the chocolate had turned white. A few people bought over loads of movies for me to watch. I think the family got more use out of these then I did as I slept quite a lot. So, I couldn’t stay awake for a whole movie and because of the brain injury, I just couldn’t understand what was happening in the movies.

It was a big change getting used to the new lifestyle for everyone in the family. For me, the hardest was getting used to having no independence and no privacy because I needed someone to be with me 24/7 for quite a few weeks – not only to help, but in case I passed out or something, because I wasn’t very stable on my feet. I was so weak and I had lost 10kg in weight. I needed someone to shower me for a couple of months, I needed help to sit up because I was too weak to do this by myself, help to get dressed, someone to make my meals, I even needed help to go to the toilet and help with many more things but too many to mention. I tried hard to at least have the independence to go to the toilet by myself; unfortunately, I failed because I passed out. After a while, it was tough having to eat mushy food because I couldn’t chew. I was getting sick of eating the same foods as there are only some many foods that can be blended. Physically, it was hard to eat because I had lost feeling in my face from the eyes down so I didn’t know where my mouth was. So I stabbed myself a few times trying to get food in, and half of my dinner would end up on my shirt because I couldn’t feel a thing to know when to lick or chew. Some feeling has come back in my face. It is still annoying to eat sometimes, but the upside is that I can go to the dentist and not feel very much. Another big change was just simply going out somewhere, even for a short time for a drink or something. I could barely stand up for 5 minutes without nearly passing out, so to go shopping we needed to hire a wheelchair but they didn’t fit inside many shops. Mentally, I would also get tired so I couldn’t go out for long which was frustrating, as I wanted to get out of the house badly.

There were a few scary moments along the road of recovery. The first time was when I had elastic bands on my teeth holding my mouth shut and I wasn’t allowed to take the bands out to eat, drink, or sleep. I walked out of the doctor’s room and cried because they hurt, and I had to breathe through my mouth because my nose was still blocked with blood. So going to sleep that night was scary. I slept sitting up but every time I went to sleep I would wake up straight away because I couldn’t breath. Every time I relaxed and fell asleep my tongue even though I was sitting up would still fall back and block my airways, and I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I couldn’t wait until surgery the next day because I really looked forward to having a good sleep but I knew that after the surgery I would have to wear the elastic bands again. After wearing the elastic bands for a few weeks I couldn’t open my mouth at all. The doctor was worried I might have some pieces of bone stuck in the joints; otherwise, it could just be extremely tight muscles, which would mean a lot of physiotherapy at home to be able to open my mouth again. But, it may not be all the way. Now I can open my mouth, but it’s not the same as before and sometimes my jaw pops out of place.

The scariest time was having an operation on my arm to put plates, screws and a bone graft in. The anaesthetist came to talk to me before the surgery and he asked me to take the elastic bands out of my mouth and show him how far I could open my mouth. I couldn’t open my mouth at all and the anaesthetist started to panic and get scared. He was trying to open my mouth and he was pulling as hard as he could on my jaw but it wouldn’t move one bit. I said to him it was okay, since it the last 2 surgeries they have put the breathing tubes down my nose. This time it wasn’t that easy because my nose was also blocked and the anaesthetist explained to me that if they anaesthetised me but couldn’t get the tubes in, we would be in a lot of trouble, because I wouldn’t be able to breathe for myself and they wouldn’t be able to breathe for me. When I heard this I felt like crying and all I could think was “God, I don’t want to die.” We decided to go ahead with the surgery. They had to anaesthetise me a different way, which was horrible. I had to breathe in the anaesthetic through a mask and I could taste the anaesthetic which wasn’t a very nice taste. From what I have been told there was a lot of people behind the scenes in a panic as well. Even the cleaner the next day came and asked me how the surgery went, because he knew about the problems with the surgery. I don’t think I will ever forget the terrified look on the anaesthetist’s face.

I thought that surgery was the worst and the most painful, but little did I know physiotherapy and hydrotherapy turned out to be 10 times more painful. I thought I would only need to go to physio about twice a week for a few weeks then I would be okay. But when I got there, I was told I had to do it every day for months and I still may not get a straight arm at the end of it all. My physiotherapist Luke first asked me how much I could move my arm, and I said I can’t move it at all. He couldn’t believe it he had the “Oh, no” look on his face and all he could say to me was we are going know each other very well by the end. It is very rare to break the humerus bone in the place I did so Luke had to go and ask his boss about how things would go and what to expect in the future. I didn’t mind going to physio every day as I got a long really well with Luke and the other people. What I didn’t like was the pain: it was unbelievable. Every time I got in the car to go to physio I would start feeling nervous. I would get the sweats and everything because of the pain I knew I was about to experience. Every day the pain would bring tears to my eyes, and I would try my hardest to hold it in and not cry but on numerous occasions I did cry. Luke would always apologise to me for it hurting I think he had a soft spot for me and hated seeing me cry. Later, he told me that when I first walked in there, he thought this girl is such a nice girl and I bet she has no idea what’s ahead of her and he felt really sorry for me. He also said that I was the bravest patient he had ever had. Not only had the muscle tightened up in my arm but the nerves were all bound up in the scar tissue and the muscle as it healed attached itself to the bone in the wrong place. All this meant it was more painful then it should have been. Luke is a footballer so he is big and muscled, and he would put all his body weight onto my arm. I remember he would shake, and his face would turn red. He was putting that much effort into stretching my arm, and he also did the same in massaging. So, you can imagine just how painful it all was for me.

Still, after doing all of this for a few months my arm wasn’t improving as much as it should have been, so they sent me to see Heidi, a physio who specializes in arms and splinting. If that didn’t work, I may have need surgery to release the muscle. I was still doing physio with Luke as well as with Heidi. She enjoyed treating me because I had a different injury to most people. I was only the third person she had seen in her 15-year career with this injury. I didn’t like the splint I was given. It cut off my circulation, gave me a tingly hand, and it was just painful. To me, the splint seemed so bad that I would rather not wear it and take a risk at never getting a straight arm. I am still doing physio 3 days a week now, and it will be another year or so until I will have full strength back in my arm. In the beginning, my arm was so weak I couldn’t hold an empty cup without shaking and nearly dropping it.

I also have seen a neuropsychologist to test my brain injury. I have memory problems, writing and reading problems, just to name a few. In one year’s time, I will go back to the neuropsychologist for another test to see how much and if any of my brain has recovered and what permanent damage I have. I do cognitive therapy to help with using different strategies to do things where my brain has difficulty doing a task. This also helps me to understand brain injuries, as it is one of those things where it is hard to put in words what it is like and you don’t know till you have experienced it yourself what it is like.

I had to do a driving assessment, as they weren’t sure if my brain worked well enough to drive safely. I passed the test, but I have driving restrictions. I can only drive in the local area, can’t drive on any highways and I can’t drive for longer than half an hour. I have been showing signs of epilepsy, so I am not allowed to drive on the highways until I am assessed for epilepsy, which will be sometime in April.

Most of the time, I don’t mind the fact that I have brain damage that may be permanent. Sometimes, it is frustrating, because it now takes me twice as long to do some things and forgetting things makes for extra running around and extra expense. I think it is more frustrating for the people around me then it is for me, because I am always leaving things around the place that I have forgotten about, or I am asked to do something and I totally forget to do it. I am grateful that I am still able to work and drive even though I have a brain injury.

Throughout the whole experience, I have been amazed at how other people have been touched by my story when I meet them. Every time I went to hospital or a specialist, they would take the time out to come and say hello to me because they had heard about me and wanted to meet me. One in particular was Susanne, a nurse. Whenever she could she would come in and have a little chat with me. Susanne always said to me, “God has wonderful plans ahead for me.” It may be something as simple as raising wonderful children that go on to do something great. Then, as I was leaving, she asked if she could have her photo taken with me. Then, she gave me the biggest hug I had ever had. I thought she was never going to let me go. Then, I saw the tears in her eyes. This made me feel sad because I didn’t want to say goodbye to her either. At the same time, I was speechless. I never thought that I would have an affect on someone like that after meeting them for a short time, as I thought of myself as just an ordinary person. I have heard so many stories of people not being treated properly when they see a doctor. I was lucky that all the people treating me went above and beyond their own job to help me. Also, the receptionists and other nurses that weren’t treating me would go out of their way to help me. One receptionist is even helping me find a job. So, I now understand the saying what goes around comes around.

Throughout all of this my boss decided to not keep my job for me. At first I was pretty annoyed about having no job, especially because my boss was really rude to me about everything. Then, I thought not to worry. I will find a better job anyway. I believe everything happens for a reason.

Emotionally, it hasn’t been as hard as you would think it would be. Survival mode kicks in and you just go and do it. It isn’t till you look back on it that you think, “How did I handle that?” Probably the hardest was socially missing out. Everyone went to movie world and I couldn’t go on rides. For a while, I couldn’t even go see a movie with friends. I missed out on playing sport for the rest of the year. In the beginning, I was in a lot of shock. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror or look at pictures of my car. Then, it was hard to accept the fact that I won’t be the same as I was before in terms of the way I look with all the scars. As time went by, you just learn to accept it. Sometimes, the pain and the itchiness would drive me crazy. I wasn’t able to scratch myself because of all the stitches, staples and scabs I had. The sore on my neck was the worst. It was almost unbearable because it had lots of glass stuck in it. To this day, I am still getting glass out of my body.

It has changed my life in other ways, such as driving. Now I am more careful. It also makes you a stronger person and I am now able to relate to people better who have been in a similar position. You appreciate people and opportunities that come your way a lot more. It is funny to look back and see how the little things made a huge difference. If I hadn’t been wearing sunglasses that day I would have lost my eye. But, instead I am glad my sunglasses were broken. At one stage, my face swelled up so much that I couldn’t see out of one eye. I wasn’t happy about that at first, but later that day I had to get a different brace for my arm, and I was glad I couldn’t see because I wasn’t ready to see how bad my arm looked.

I'm a big Elton John fan. Here's me at his 2015 concert.

(I’m a big Elton John fan. Here’s me at his 2015 concert.)

Now that I don’t have to see many doctors and the rest of my recovery will just take time, it is good to be able to have a normal life, even though it is different to life I had before the accident. I am looking forward to the future and what job I will get soon and where life will take me. Sometimes, it is hard when I wish I could do things that I used to do that I can’t do anymore, but I stay positive and think that if I didn’t have the car accident I wouldn’t be doing the things I am doing now. I also try to think of it as something exciting and new to experience life in a way, that I wouldn’t if I didn’t have the car accident.

– Erin Billiau