Last year, Rachael Popejoy, now 28, bought her first house and a new car. While these might not seem like extraordinary accomplishments, it was only five years ago that doctors told Rachael's family she wouldn't survive the weekend.
Rachael was driving home from the zoo with the boys she nannied for when an 18-wheeler swerved into their lane. The boys were unharmed, but Rachael's skull was crushed in on one side. Doctors at Denver Health removed her skull plate to allow for swelling, and Rachael slipped into a coma. The doctors said there was only a 50/50 chance she would survive the weekend. Not only did Rachael survive the weekend, but she awoke from her coma 16 days after the accident. Rachael returned home in November 2006 to overwhelming love and support. That December, she was participating in a hospital walk-a-thon, flirting with the firemen on the sidelines.
Listening to Rachael talk about her accident, it's as if she fell off her bike and scraped her knee. She doesn't remember the accident. "I remember being at the zoo on a beautiful day, getting lunch, getting on the freeway and waiting for the semi next to me to pass. I don't remember him coming into my lane or hitting me." When asked if talking about it is upsetting, she says she likes to see people's reactions. Like when she took her cell phone to be fixed and "one of the younger guys who worked there was smiling and winking while he talked to me. He thought my trach scar was a hickey." Rachael laughed and acknowledged that her natural sense of humor has been one of her biggest strengths in her recovery.
Having graduated college just before the accident, Rachael didn't have any health insurance. She was pending Medicaid, and was turned down from several rehabilitation centers as a result. She was eventually taken to Craig Hospital but spent a lot of time sitting at Denver Health, waiting. Without any insurance, Rachael's family had to get creative. A trust fund and fundraisers were set up, some as far away as California.
When asked about her experiences in the hospitals, Rachael admits that she doesn't remember much, she just remembers being scared. "I was in a room with three other people who talked to themselves." She also remembers getting mad at the nurse because she wasn't allowed to close the door to the bathroom. "I'm pretty sure I yelled at her like crazy."
Rachael was transferred to Triumph Hospital in Aurora, Colo. while waiting for a bed at Craig Hospital. Rachael's bed at Triumph had a "cage" -- a zip-up tent that went around her bed to keep her from trying to walk around on her own. Rachael proudly remembers figuring out how to open and get out of the tent. "It's kind of like a WOW moment because it's never been done before." Rachael's sister remembers several occasions when Rachael packed her belongings and attempted to escape from the hospital. When a bed finally opened up at Craig, a hospital exclusively for patients with brain and spinal cord injuries, Rachael was able to start the therapy she needed.
While Rachael's family was ecstatic to have her come home, it wasn't always easy. Her sister, Dacia, shared that Rachael would get upset easily when she first came home:
She didn't understand that she wouldn't have to go back to the hospital. She didn't recognize her personal belongings and she didn't remember to eat unless someone cooked for her. She cursed a lot. She never did that before. She had a hard time with relationships, too. She called my husband my brother for a while and my dad my husband.
Dacia also remembers her sister struggling a great deal with speech. She would confuse her letters sometimes and would say, "it is bunny outside" instead of "it is sunny outside." Then she would catch herself and say things like "Silly Rachael, sunny not bunny!"
Rachael got a settlement after the accident but had to pay back over $70,000 to Medicaid. Her hospital and doctor's bills were over two million dollars. Not to mention the $200,000 in attorney fees. What's left over sits in a trust fund for Rachael, and a certain amount is deposited into her account each month. "I really don't have room to complain too much though considering I don't have a car payment or mortgage but I of course have other bills like normal people and went through hell to be like this. I hope you never have an accident," says Rachael.
Prior to the accident, Rachael had plans to become a social worker. Always looking for ways to give back to her community, Rachael started a blanket drive for the homeless, volunteered for the Denver Rescue Mission and interned with a shelter for families. Since the accident, Rachael has continued with her volunteer work, both working with first-graders and volunteering at The Gathering Place, Denver's only daytime drop-in center for homeless women and children.
Last year, Rachael took a flight to New York to visit family and tell me her story. She made the most of her trip, using her fold up map to navigate the city without anyone's help, and meeting up with me for dinner and mingling with the celebs at Madame Tussauds. Aside from the hickey-like trach scar, you would never guess that this energetic and optimistic woman, who wasn't expected to ever be alive, to be fighting over Johnny Depp's wax figure with me.
When asked about the best part of her sister's recovery, Rachael's sister replied, "The doctors didn't give her three days. She's walking and talking and doing things they thought would take her years, if ever. She was hit by an 18-wheeler and she's here, reading her Facebook."
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