Linda Ball always watched carefully for deer as she drove along the country roads near her home.
But nothing could have prepared her for the accident that nearly killed her.
As Linda drove to a friend’s house, a large buck jumped into the road. Another oncoming car hit the deer. The animal flew into the air, crashing headfirst into Linda’s Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“It put a hole in the windshield that big,” said her husband, Dave, holding out his arms about 2 feet apart.
The deer went through the car. It bent back the steering wheel and the headrest and struck the tailgate so hard the door bowed out.
Linda, at the wheel, suffered a crushing blow to her head and chest.
Her survival is nothing short of “amazing,” Dave said.
Her neurosurgeon, Todd Vitaz, MD, agreed. “You’re one in 1,000,” he told Linda.
And the fact that today she can walk and talk and tease her husband―Dave’s voice choked with emotion as he tried to describe it.
“Inspiring,” he said, wiping away tears.
It took 10 months to reach this point. Surgery, intensive medical care, rehabilitation―and much family love―fueled her comeback.
Life changed in an instant
Linda sat in the living room of her home near Kent City, Michigan, beside a window looking out over the grass and trees of their 3-acre lot. She used to mow that big lawn every week―and she snow-plowed the long driveway in the winter. She liked to stay active.
“She was so independent,” Dave said. “She was always helping people―not having people help her.”
On Oct. 11, 2016, Linda set off for her friend’s house, planning to help her apply for social security.
Six miles from home, the deer crashed through her windshield. In addition to head and neck injuries, Linda suffered fractured ribs, a fractured cheekbone and a dislocated left wrist.
I think emotional support from her family is what got her through it. She had a lot of encouragement.
An Aero Med helicopter transported her to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
When Dave and a dozen other relatives arrived at the hospital, they learned the extent of her injuries.
“They came in and said she’s probably going to be paralyzed from the neck down,” he recalled. “We all prayed. About 20 minutes later, they came and said she can move her legs and arms.”
The family cheered.
Linda still faced a serious brain injury.
“When she presented, she had a Glasgow coma scale of 4,” said Dr. Vitaz, the division chief for neurosurgery at Spectrum Health. “A normal awake person has a score of 15. A person who is basically brain dead has a score of 3. So she was 1 point above that.”
Doctors placed a monitoring device in Linda’s brain to measure the swelling in her skull. With medication, they were able to reduce the pressure over the next few days so she did not need brain surgery.
The injuries to her neck, however, required surgery to fuse the cervical vertebrae.
On Nov. 24, 2016, seven weeks after the accident, Linda arrived at the Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital. A tough road lay ahead. She had to relearn how to walk, talk and care for herself.
One step at a time
“She essentially couldn’t move at all,” said physical therapist Linda Rusiecki, DPT.
The injury to her shoulder caused nerve damage that weakened her right arm. She had a splint on her left hand. Her legs were weak, and the brain injury impaired her balance.
She couldn’t even sit up.
“Her blood pressure was dangerously low,” Rusiecki said. “We had to keep her in a reclining wheelchair to keep it from dropping even further.”
Linda began with sessions on a tilt table. As she lay on the table, her therapists gradually raised the head of the table, until her blood pressure could adjust to an upright position.
Next, she performed balance activities while seated, building core strength. By Christmas, Linda could stand and walk with a tall walker, equipped with armrests for her elbows.
Therapists walked on either side of her, and a family member pushed a wheelchair behind, just in case she couldn’t stand any longer.
By January, her hands became strong enough to grip a walker. She learned to walk up and down a few steps.
With her ability to swallow impaired, Linda also worked with speech therapists to relearn how to eat.
With each struggle and each bit of progress, Linda’s husband, their son, Ken, and family members encouraged and cheered.
“I think emotional support from her family is what got her through it,” Rusiecki said. “She had a lot of encouragement. They gave her something to live for.”
“My husband and my son made me promise I wouldn’t give up,” she said.
Linda smiled as she recalled her son’s persuasive tactics.
“He tried to talk me into making me promise him 40 more years,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.'”
Linda left the inpatient rehabilitation center Jan. 30. She continued her therapy at a residential treatment center and returned home at the beginning of August 2017.
Using a walker, she can maneuver around the house. She and Dave, married 36 years, look forward to resuming some of their favorite activities: fishing, going to garage sales, watching NASCAR races and traveling.
“We are going to work on getting her stronger,” Dave said. “It’s amazing. The first couple of days, not knowing if she was going to live or die―and now she’s walking and talking and giving me crap sometimes.”
She looked at him with a grin. “Not really,” Dave revised.
To see Linda back home, joking with her husband and getting back to the activities she loves, buoys her family and medical team.
“That’s why we do what we do,” Dr. Vitaz said.
“I can’t even fathom how it feels to go through something like this,” Rusiecki said. “This is just a really big success story. We are proud of her and we are proud of her family.”