Long road to recovery

Fall 2016

There are five words on the wall by the window in Yvonne White’s kitchen -- It is what it is -- and these are the words she lives by.

Ten years ago Yvonne and her husband Bill were enjoying a holiday in the United States.

“We’re big motorcycle enthusiasts, and were just starting our trip to meet up with Bill’s brother in West Virginia,” says Yvonne.

Yvonne and Bill met when she was 12 and he 14. She was from South Bar and he was from Victoria Mines, small towns on Cape Breton Island. They married when they were 17 and 19, and a few years later the couple moved to London with their young family to pursue careers.

And in an instant one May afternoon in Springhill New York, everything changed.

“At about 4:20 a half ton truck came at us. It killed my husband instantly,” says Yvonne.

Yvonne’s injuries were extremely severe and included fractures to her spine that affected the nerves which control the hips, legs, arms and hands, as well as the muscles of her abdomen and back. Not only did she have broken ribs and a broken femur, she completely lost her tibia - the shinbone – along with a muscle in her lower left leg. On top of all her other injuries, she also suffered a concussion and brain injury.

“When I say I was left with almost every bone in my body broken, that’s pretty much what happened,” says Yvonne.  “I don’t remember the accident. I was in an induced coma for a week. The doctors were afraid that when I heard my husband had died I would go into cardiac arrest.”

During the first four days after the accident Yvonne underwent four surgeries in the U.S. On the fifth day she was flown to London with two nurses and two doctors, and brought to the trauma unit at London Health Sciences Centre.

“In trauma care it is life and limb. So first you save the patient’s life and then you look after the limbs,” says Dr. David Sanders, orthopaedic surgeon. Her life was saved in the U.S., it was now our job to bring back as much functionality as possible for Yvonne.

Yvonne has had seven surgeries at LHSC, surgeries which typically have a long and difficult recovery period.

“I was in the trauma unit to be stabilized and then transferred to Central Park Lodge for rehabilitation. At this point I had two steel rods in my back, a steel hip, and muscles removed from the back of my left leg to be used at the front of the leg. They thought I might never walk again,” says Yvonne.

Yvonne spent three months in rehab, which included intense physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

With sheer determination, over the next four years Yvonne progressed from using a wheelchair, to crutches, to using a cane. Eventually, five years after the accident, Yvonne was walking without a cane. She credits Dr. Sanders and the surgical teams that provided treatment, for getting her back on her feet.

“The whole team has terrific bedside manners, I was treated like gold,” says Yvonne. “Dr. Sanders gave me my life back. I was treated with respect and compassion.”

To someone meeting Yvonne for the first time, her injuries would not be apparent. While she lives with pain, she does not take any pain medication. She drives, gardens and does the housework.

“She has made a very good recovery from a very bad constellation of injuries,” says Dr. Sanders. “Her injuries took longer to heal given the many different injuries and the complex types of injuries she sustained. It is Yvonne’s triumph working hard through her issues to get to her level of ability.”

Healing the body and the mind

Once out of the hospital and rehab, Yvonne began going out for breakfast every single morning where there is noise and people around. She did not want to lie in bed and think, what am I getting up for?

While she has spent many years working hard to regain her physical abilities, Yvonne also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I went through PTSD and feeling sorry for myself, wondering why I am alive and Bill is not. It still comes up. There are cold winter nights where I think, I could be in Aruba with my husband.”

It took her a while to get the guts to fight. With the ongoing help of her LHSC psychologist Dr. Tony Iezzi, her family and friends, Yvonne is looking at the big picture.

“I do not have my husband, but I have so much. I live by the saying on my wall. It is what it is,” says Yvonne. “I wanted to be the best I could be and I wasn’t going down without a fight.”

Something that helped was baking. Yvonne used to bake all the time, and after the accident her counselor asked what she used to do when she was stressed.

“So I started baking. Even when I was in a wheelchair, I had a mixer and an accessible oven,” says Yvonne. “It got to be too much baking and I would give it to the firemen. They used to drive through my housing complex and return my containers. It was a riot.”

Dr. Sanders credits her determination and psychological strength.

“She is an inspiring person, a cool lady you would like to see again. And she brings cookies.”

It has been a long long road for Yvonne. “Am I 100 per cent ok now? No, but I’m a lot better than when it happened,” says Yvonne.

“In seconds your whole life changes. I worked extremely hard to get where I am today. I am a stubborn Cape Breton woman.”


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Yvonne White with Dr. David Sanders
With sheer determination, Yvonne progressed from using a wheelchair to walking unassisted.