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Ramona Pierson: An unexpected place of healing

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I'm actually going to share something with you I haven't talked about probably in more than 10 years. So bear with me as I take you through this journey. When I was 22 years old, I came home from work, put a leash on my dog and went for my usual run. I had no idea that at that moment my life was going to change forever. While I was preparing my dog for the run, a man was finishing drinking at a bar, picked up his car keys, got into a car and headed south, or wherever he was. I was running across the street, and the only thing that I actually remember is feeling like a grenade went off in my head. And I remember putting my hands on the ground and feeling my life's blood emptying out of my neck and my mouth.

What had happened is he ran a red light and hit me and my dog. She ended up underneath the car. I flew out in front of the car, and then he ran over my legs. My left leg got caught up in the wheel well -- spun it around. The bumper of the car hit my throat, slicing it open. I ended up with blunt chest trauma. Your aorta comes up behind your heart. It's your major artery, and it was severed, so my blood was gurgling out of my mouth. It foamed, and horrible things were happening to me. I had no idea what was going on, but strangers intervened, kept my heart moving, beating. I say moving because it was quivering and they were trying to put a beat back into it. Somebody was smart and put a Bic pen in my neck to open up my airway so that I could get some air in there. And my lung collapsed, so somebody cut me open and put a pin in there as well to stop that catastrophic event from happening. Somehow I ended up at the hospital. I was wrapped in ice and then eventually put into a drug-induced coma.

18 months later I woke up. I was blind, I couldn't speak, and I couldn't walk. I was 64 lbs. The hospital really has no idea what to do with people like that. And in fact, they started to call me a Gomer. That's another story we won't even get into. I had so many surgeries to put my neck back together, to repair my heart a few times. Some things worked, some things didn't. I had lots of titanium put in me, cadaver bones to try to get my feet moving the right way. And I ended up with a plastic nose, porcelain teeth and all kinds of other things. But eventually I started to look human again. But it's hard sometimes to talk about these things, so bear with me. I had more than 50 surgeries. But who's counting?

So eventually, the hospital decided it was time for me to go. They needed to open up space for somebody else that they thought could come back from whatever they were going through. Everybody lost faith in me being able to recover. So they basically put a map up on the wall, threw a dart, and it landed at a senior home here in Colorado. And I know all of you are scratching your head: "A senior citizens' home? What in the world are you going to do there?" But if you think about all of the skills and talent that are in this room right now, that's what a senior home has. So there were all these skills and talents that these seniors had. The one advantage that they had over most of you is wisdom, because they had a long life. And I needed that wisdom at that moment in my life.

But imagine what it was like for them when I showed up at their doorstep? At that point, I had gained four pounds, so I was 68 lbs. I was bald. I was wearing hospital scrubs. And somebody donated tennis shoes for me. And I had a white cane in one hand and a suitcase full of medical records in another hand. And so the senior citizens realized that they needed to have an emergency meeting. (Laughter) So they pulled back and they were looking at each other, and they were going, "Okay, what skills do we have in this room? This kid needs a lot of work."

So they eventually started matching their talents and skills to all of my needs. But one of the first things they needed to do was assess what I needed right away. I needed to figure out how to eat like a normal human being, since I'd been eating through a tube in my chest and through my veins. So I had to go through trying to eat again. And they went through that process. And then they had to figure out: "Well she needs furniture. She is sleeping in the corner of this apartment." So they went to their storage lockers and all gathered their extra furniture -- gave me pots and pans, blankets, everything. And then the next thing that I needed was a makeover. So out went the green scrubs and in came the polyester and floral prints. (Laughter) We're not going to talk about the hairstyles that they tried to force on me once my hair grew back. But I did say no to the blue hair.

(Laughter)

So eventually what went on is they decided that, well I need to learn to speak. So you can't be an independent person if you're not able to speak and can't see. So they figured not being able to see is one thing, but they need to get me to talk. So while Sally, the office manager, was teaching me to speak in the day -- it's hard, because when you're a kid, you take things for granted. You learn things unconsciously. But for me, I was an adult and it was embarrassing, and I had to learn how to coordinate my new throat with my tongue and my new teeth and my lips, and capture the air and get the word out. So I acted like a two-year-old and refused to work.

But the men had a better idea. They were going to make it fun for me. So they were teaching me cuss word Scrabble at night, (Laughter) and then, secretly, how to swear like a sailor. So I'm going to just leave it to your imagination as to what my first words were when Sally finally got my confidence built.

(Laughter)

So I moved on from there. And a former teacher who happened to have Alzheimer's took on the task of teaching me to write. The redundancy was actually good for me. So we'll just keep moving on. (Laughter) One of the pivotal times for me was actually learning to cross a street again as a blind person. So close your eyes. Now imagine you have to cross a street. You don't know how far that street is and you don't know if you're going straight and you hear cars whizzing back and forth, and you had a horrible accident that landed you in this situation. So there were two obstacles I had to get through. One was post-traumatic stress disorder. And every time I approached the corner or the curb I would panic. And the second one was actually trying to figure out how to cross that street.

So one of the seniors just came up to me, and she pushed me up to the corner and she said, "When you think it's time to go, just stick the cane out there. If it's hit, don't cross the street." (Laughter) Made perfect sense. But by the third cane that went whizzing across the road, they realized that they needed to put the resources together, and they raised funds so that I could go to the Braille Institute and actually gain the skills to be a blind person, and also to go get a guide dog who transformed my life. And I was able to return to college because of the senior citizens who invested in me, and also the guide dog and skill set I had gained.

10 years later I gained my sight back. Not magically. I opted in for three surgeries, and one of them was experimental. It was actually robotic surgery. They removed a hematoma from behind my eye. The biggest change for me was that the world moved forward, that there were innovations and all kinds of new things -- cellphones, laptops, all these things that I had never seen before. And as a blind person, your visual memory fades and is replaced with how you feel about things and how things sound and how things smell.

So one day I was in my room and I saw this thing sitting in my room and I thought it was a monster. So I was walking around it. And I go, "I'm just going to touch it." And I touched it and I went, "Oh my God, it's a laundry basket." (Laughter) So everything is different when you're a sighted person because you take that for granted. But when you're blind, you have the tactile memory for things.

The biggest change for me was looking down at my hands and seeing that I'd lost 10 years of my life. I thought that time had stood still for some reason and moved on for family and friends. But when I looked down, I realized that time marched on for me too and that I needed to get caught up, so I got going on it. We didn't have words like crowd-sourcing and radical collaboration when I had my accident. But the concept held true -- people working with people to rebuild me; people working with people to re-educate me. I wouldn't be standing here today if it wasn't for extreme radical collaboration.

Thank you so much.

(Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 10 minutes and 52 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Director: TED.com
Views: 264
Posted by: tedtalks on Dec 16, 2011

When Ramona Pierson was 22, she was hit by a drunk driver and spent 18 months in a coma. At TEDxDU she tells the remarkable story of her recovery -- drawing on the collective skills and wisdom of a senior citizens' home.

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