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Area woman has a thankful heart, despite tremendous adversity

THANK YOU — After a freak car accident in December 2018 left Traci Sanders with challenging health issues, the area woman nonetheless finds many reasons to give thanks today. -- Janice Kiaski

TORONTO — From one Thanksgiving to the next, life can change dramatically.

That Traci Sanders understands all too well as she approaches the one-year anniversary of a freak accident that left her with a high-impact trauma injury from which she’s still recovering, yet counting her blessings.

Thanksgiving will be as it was in 2018 — a feast with family in an atmosphere of gratitude.

Ditto for today.

“I have never asked ‘Why me?’ because it doesn’t do any good. I’ve just put my head down and plowed through,” Sanders said.

A LIFE GAME-CHANGER

It was Dec. 13, 2018, around 5 p.m.

Sanders and her husband of 35 years, Jim, had pulled to the top of the sloped driveway at their home on state Route 152 in the rural Richmond-Toronto area.

Jim got out of the driver’s seat in their newer car. Traci lingered in the front passenger seat, about to grab her purse and sunglasses.

“I opened my door and had one leg still in the car, and the other one was on the ground, and I reached for my purse, and the car started going backwards, fast, dragging me,” Sanders said.

“I had to make a decision to let go, knowing I would get run over or hang on knowing it would have been much worse,” she said. “I knew there was the tree in the yard that I was getting ready to be slammed into headfirst backwards, so I made the decision to save my life. I knew I had to let go. I tried to get in a fetal position and protect my head, figuring the front tires could run me over, and they did.

“This was all in a split second. I never screamed or cried. I stayed calm. Jim said my body looked like a blanket in the wind.”

Sanders landed a few feet from that tree when she let go. The car ultimately ended up in a ditch, “a miracle” that it didn’t hit any vehicle traveling along state Route 152.

“I laid there praying, having the most helpless feeling,” she recalled of her fear that someone else could be seriously injured or worse in the path of the car.

FREAK ACCIDENT,

BRUTAL INJURY

“Jim was stunned and thought I was dead. I was having a hard time getting my breath. I was stunned I was alive,” Sanders said. “Jim said he heard me moaning and knew I was alive but seriously injured on my right side.

“The first thing I said to Jim is ‘I am seriously injured, call 911.’ The second thing I said was ‘We have to stay calm,'” Sanders said of her thought process.

“We knew because it’s a volunteer fire department, it would take a while, but after 35 minutes of laying there, I began to panic. I felt panicked inside,” Sanders said. “Jim called 911 again. They said they are close, and we heard sirens, and I felt so much relief,” she said.

In retrospect, the delay of the Richmond Fire and Rescue squad was to her benefit.

Being on the cold ground awaiting emergency help “was a miracle in itself,” she said, because it helped slow her bleeding.

When help did arrive, Sanders was adamant that she didn’t want to travel by helicopter because of the exorbitant cost “but they insisted upon it, and that decision contributed to me still having my leg,” she said, especially grateful for the Richmond responders’ vital input — “Ma’am, it’s a no-brainer — you’ve been run over by a car.”

Sanders was transported to the trauma unit at UPMC in Pittsburgh via a fast helicopter ride she can’t remember.

ASSESSMENT TIME

On a Facebook post two days after the accident and two days before her first surgery, Sanders expressed gratitude for prayers and concerns expressed on her behalf.

“I have a very long recovery ahead of me,” she wrote as she awaited swelling to subside so surgery could be performed on her right leg.

“My leg is severely broken from being run over by the car, and I have some injuries from the bottom of the passenger door dragging me. Plans are a rehab center for one to two months, and continued wheelchair at home, no weight bearing for approximately four to six months,” Sanders wrote.

Her injuries included a tibial plateau fracture — the tibia holds 90 percent of body weight and keeps the lower leg attached to the femur, she notes — a fibula fracture; a tibia fracture; a torn medial meniscus; MCL injury; brutal soft tissue injuries; rib injury; and “road rash” and abrasions of the right torso.

“I was put into an open cast from my toes to my hip and my leg swelled so much, I had to be cut out of it,” Sanders said, adding there were several days when the prospect of amputation seemed likely. Thankfully, it was avoided, she said.

Repair surgery happened Dec. 17. Sanders has a plate and screws holding her bottom leg to her femur. “I have inter-fragmentary screws threaded and traversing my medial and lateral plateaus.” Sanders, however, said she developed a “very painful” heterotopic ossification over her MCL, an acronym for medial collateral ligament.

“Before I left the hospital, the doctor sat next to my bedside and warned us that 30 percent of people with my injury become full blown addicts due to pain,” she said.

And did she want to talk with a counselor about PTSD, the hospital asked.

“I just try to move forward the best I can,” Sanders said. As the first anniversary nears, though, she thinks more about that day and what happened, but she says she’s OK.

“It’s not like I can get away from the memories since it happened at home.”

A NEW REALITY

“Due to the crushing of the car, I suffered severe muscle spasms,” Sanders said in continuing to explain the scope of her injuries.

She underwent a second surgery in September — “a manipulation under anesthesia” to remove scar tissue to help with leg extension and range of motion, repair the medial meniscus, remove a large cyst that had formed, cut out the heterotopic ossification (jagged bone) and repair the MCL and remove large amounts of scar tissue.

There could be more surgeries down the road.

“I regressed significantly after this surgery. I was so upset and frustrated,” she said. The resumption of physical therapy found her struggling to maintain, much less make progress. “I found out that I am having femoral nerve block complications. My knee down to my lower leg is still numb, my nerves are frozen, and so my leg muscles aren’t working,” she said. “My other leg muscles and areas of my body are doing jobs they weren’t designed to do. This can take a year to improve.”

Sanders said her leg is crooked and will always impact her walking and joints; one leg is shorter than the other; and she has chronic stiffness and arthritis. “I will know my permanent deficits after three years from surgery,” she said, adding that she can’t do normal things such as sit in a tub or kneel, but she remains ever so thankful to be alive, to have her leg and to have the love and support of her husband, family, friends, community and the kindness of strangers.

ACCEPTING THE

CHALLENGES

Sanders spent nine days in the trauma unit and had the initial surgery before returning home in December 2018.

“The living room was set up as a hospital room. I knew I had to be the best person I could be to help my husband. I didn’t cry very often, and he was my biggest cheerleader. If I could put my toe down on the floor, it was a victory, and that’s the truth. I couldn’t dress myself or bathe myself. He never complained,” she said.

For a three-month period she was bedridden and in a wheelchair. Feb. 11 marked the start of physical therapy that continues two to three times a week.

Physical challenges have had company from emotional, financial and insurance issues as well, but Sanders’ resolve is gritty.

“The doctor saved my leg, and they put me back together, but it’s my responsibility to put the work in to be the best version of myself I can be, so I am not a burden on those who love me, and so I can enjoy life and also be proud of my achievements, too,” she said.

“I am accepting it and learning to adapt to my environment,” she said. “I put my head forward, and I keep going.”

A HEART OF GRATITUDE

“I am outspoken, truthful, love people and I am opinionated for sure, but yet I know when to be thankful. I do,” Sanders said. “And I think I honestly thought I was going to die, this is it, my time is up. Honestly when I landed, I was stunned that I was still alive, and that’s the truth. I was scared up at the hospital, what was going to happen, but I stayed calm,” she said.

“There are so many things to be thankful for, including that I didn’t have a head injury,” Sanders said, beginning a list that rivals in length the Christmas gift requests of a dozen children.

Chief among them is the love, support and encouragement of her husband. “Jim has been fantastic,” she said. “When we took our vows I was 19, and he was 21, and you say to love in sickness and health, you think you know what that means.”

She also is thankful for their children — Meredith, Catherine and Shane; her parents, Bob and Mollie Meredith; in-laws Warner and Ruth Sanders; and family members Clint and Barb Sanders and Kathy Meredith.

The list also includes Jim’s co-workers at Buckeye Power at the Cardinal Plant in Brilliant; nurse practitioner Paula Knight at Dr. Katherine Kochenbach’s office; physical therapist Maria Petrus at Mainstream Physical Therapy; Comfort Inn in Weirton for pool and hot tub use; Melissa Ryan of Quality Health Massotherapy; and “to my friends who sent food, gift cards, money, cards of encouragement and continue to support us in anyway possible.”

She added, “I am thankful for the outpouring of love from the community, especially the Richmond area, and to remind me that I matter. If there is one thing as a person to be thankful for I found out that I matter,” Sanders said.

“I bet I got 300 cards and messages of hope and encouragement,” she said. “Jim would come in with mail, and I would open it up, and I would cry because I felt loved. I know what it feels like to be loved — in your darkest and ugliest moments, too.”

“The right people came into my life to help me at the right time,” Sanders said, including strangers. “When I was having a terrible day at physical therapy, a woman I hadn’t seen before came over and said, ‘Excuse me, I noticed you’re having a hard time. Is it OK if I bless you with oil and say a prayer?’ She took oil out of her purse and said a prayer for strength.”

QUOTES OF INSPIRATION

Sayings and quotes have helped Sanders along the way.

“During this time of injury and recovery, I have tried to be an example to my adult children, if life or life situations become hard or unbearable to remember this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'”

Within the past three weeks, Sanders said she has been pushing herself to adapt to her environment, to try to get out. “I am a people person, and I like to laugh,” she said with a convincing smile.

“Faith is believing things you can’t see, and I have had it,” she said.

The journey has been a teacher with many lessons learned, according to Sanders. How to be patient. Realizing that handicap accessible can mean anything but that. “And DNA doesn’t mean you’re family — so many friends are my family, too.”

She has her fears, though. “I’m still trying to overcome sitting in a passenger seat, moving cars in parking lots, the fear of rain and snow because of a fear of falling.”

Sanders is optimistic about the new year.

“Every single day, I wake up with new hope, and it’s true. If you don’t have hope, what do you have? Nothing. You have to have hope, faith and love.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com)

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