The desperate needs of Erica; paralyzed for life
Erica Brown is lifted out of her wheelchair by her husband Matthew at their Cloverport apartment complex Monday. Matthew is Erica’s primary caregiver followed the March 19 crash in Hawesville which left her paralyzed from the chest down. Matthew Brown wrestles the heavy lift device into the bed of his small Ford Ranger, something he must do every time Erica must get in and out of the vehicle.
March 19th was a beautiful day and Erica Brown had the music blaring as she slowed to turn onto Kentucky 69 from Highway 60, returning to Hartford after visiting her best friend, Donna Foster, in Cloverport. Erica and Donna would visit with each other about once a month, and on this trip they had lounged around Donna’s apartment, made a trip to the Hardinsburg IGA for snacks, and relaxed with chicken noodle soup and crackers.
“I took a nap on her couch and set a timer for 30 minutes,” she said. “I woke up and called my little brother, because I just had gotten my hair done and had some new clothes. I wanted to show off my new hairdo.”
After her nap, Erica and Donna hugged goodbye and she called her husband, Matthew, to let him know that she planned to visit her brother before returning to their Hartford home.
Erica was taking it slow that day, travelling about 50 miles per hour. She didn’t want the sodas she had bought on sale to slide around in the trunk of her white Pontiac Grand Am.
“I didn’t want to have to reach across the trunk to get the pop out and get my new shirt dirty,” Erica said.
The last thing Erica remembers about her life before everything changed forever was the road sign for 69.
“The next thing I know, I was being woken up by a man and a woman talking to me through my window, and they said, ‘Erica Brown, can you hear us?,’” she said.
Erica had been rear-ended at 70 miles per hour by a Lincoln Navigator being operated by Dustin L. Taylor, 23, of Bowling Green.
The Hancock County Rescue Squad had to extricate her from the wreckage of her vehicle. EMS and rescue personnel immediately began to assess her injuries.
“I heard the Jaws of Life, but at that time I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it was shaking me and I was in so much pain,” she said. “When they got the door open, they were touching me…they were touching places that I couldn’t feel and saying, ‘Can you feel this?’ And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, what if I’m paralyzed?’ The only parts I could feel were my arms, my face and the back of my neck. So, I kept blacking out.”
Erica was flown to Deaconess Midtown in Evansville by Air Evac Lifeteam, a turbulent ride which only exacerbated the pain she was having in her back and lungs.
“It was so bumpy. I remember passing out from the pain, because it hurt so bad,” she said. “I was awake off and on. I woke up to the doctors turning me left and right. Some of the nurses at Evansville were not very nice and not considerate of what the situation was, because I was scared.”
Adding to Erica’s anxiety and fear was the fact that she had been traveling alone and loved ones were expecting her trip home to only take about an hour. Unknown to Erica was that her brother had actually called her as she was being placed on the gurney at the scene.
“Someone answered it and said, ‘She had a wreck and she’s being life-flighted to Evansville…,” Erica said.
Learning The Diagnosis
“I remember waking up after having so many of the MRIs. It was so bumpy in the MRIs. It hurt so bad,” she said. “I just couldn’t breathe very well. I just kept tugging at things and saying, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ And it was so hard to get my thoughts out, to say them out loud. I couldn’t talk very well.”
Erica was eventually admitted and moved into a room to receive ongoing care. She awoke to husband Matthew sitting beside her bed, crying.
“I just wanted to make sure he was OK,” she said. “I remember asking, ‘Did I hit somebody?,’ and he said, ‘No.’ He didn’t tell me at the time, what had happened, but he said I didn’t hit anybody.”
The doctor treating Erica soon entered the room. Though she was having a hard time keeping her eyes open, Erica could hear everything that was being said. Matthew and the doctor stepped out of the room when she again thought,
“What if he’s going to say I’m paralyzed?”
Matthew returned to the room and Erica could tell he had been crying. The doctor had told Matthew, “This is Erica now. She’s paralyzed. This is who she’s going to be from now on.”
Erica was paralyzed from the chest down with a broken back; she will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The couple’s life, their future plans, their dreams, had just been dealt a devastating blow.
“I thought, ‘Man, this sucks. But, look, I’m alive,’” Erica said. “And I’m gonna keep fighting to the very end.’ I just knew I was so blessed to be alive.”
On Saturday, Erica awoke again in the Intensive Care Unit and finally learned what had happened, and why she was in the hospital. Immediately, she was concerned that she had hurt someone, but it was soon made clear she was the only person hurt in the two-vehicle collision.
Taylor, the other driver, was cited for driving with a suspended/revoked license and not having the required insurance at the time of the crash. He was a no-show for his appearance in Hancock District Court and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
The impact had pushed Erica’s small two-door Grand Am 50 feet along Highway 60, obliterating the rear of the vehicle.
Back and neck surgery followed, and a concern with her lungs during surgery required her to be placed on a ventilator for a few days with her hands and arms restrained. She was also in a neck brace for a time.
At one point, the medical team sat her up on the side of the bed.
“I wanted to throw up from the pain. But, I knew I had to do this; and maybe I could walk again,” she said. “They set me up and were holding me up and I started smacking my legs, and I said, ‘Man, I really am paralyzed.’”
Eventually, Erica was moved to the orthopedic floor at the hospital and began physical therapy, with therapists working with her to improve sitting in a chair and holding herself up. She improved, but the pain was immense.
From Evansville, Erica was transported to Frazier Rehabilitation in Louisville, where she stayed for a month. Matthew, Donna, and mother-in-law Ann Brown were frequent visitors and kept Erica positve and focused.
Dealing With The New Reality
While Erica’s automobile insurance covered the cost of the air ambulance transport, the hospital stay and rehabilitation stint totaled more than $200,000. The couple is currently negotiating with Medicare to get those bills reduced.
Though it may seem bold, Erica reached out to Taylor on Facebook after she came home.
“He said he was sorry for what happened, but, he was scared and didn’t know what to do,” Erica said. “He was living in Lewisport, with his mom and little brother. He told me how awful his life had been. And I just said, ‘I’m so sorry your life has been bad. But, that’s not right for you to be a distracted driver and hit somebody and not have any consequences.’”
Matthew had been working as a farmhand in Hartford before the crash, but Erica required around-the-clock care and he was forced to stopped working. The trailer they lived in was part of his compensation for his labor, and they were forced to leave their home. They had about a week to move out.
Personal belongings and furniture went into a storage unit as they searched for a new place to live. No one in Hartford returned their calls about living space, and there was nothing available in Owensboro. Their current apartment in Cloverport was the only one they could find which is wheelchair-accessible.
“It’s not what we want, but we are starting from the bottom and working our way back up,” Erica said. “This is what we’re going to do.”
The small apartment is on the third floor of the complex, the same building she left the day of the crash. Donna lives in the building, which is Housing and Urban Development managed and income-based.
With Matthew still her primary caregiver, he has been unable to work full-time, so the couple subsists on food stamps and some assistance from friends and churches.
Erica still has medical appointments that she has to get to, but that is a struggle for the couple. Matthew’s truck is a 2000 Ford Ranger, a small truck which is difficult to get Erica in and out of using the heavy lift device, which he must disassemble each time when she leaves the apartment. The Ranger is currently having mechanical problems and is unreliable.
“Medicare doesn’t provide assistance for transportation to get to my appointments,” Erica said. “I’ve reached out to GRITS (Audubon Area Community Services) for help, but they will only transport me at no cost if I am on full Medicaid through the state.”
As well, Erica is using a manual wheelchair which can only be replaced every five years through Medicare. She experiences hand spasms which makes controlling the chair difficult.
“I feel like our lives could improve so much if I had an electric wheelchair and a decent lift van so we can get out and actually do a fun thing every now and then,” Erica said. “I am so thankful to be alive and I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. But I know that living like this for the rest of our lives is just more difficulty than anyone should have to do.”
By C. Josh Givens