Passionate volleyball player for Xavier College Preparatory. Nutrition major at Cal Poly. Health advocate and accomplished athlete. Kaitlin MacKay’s life was forever changed Sept. 9, 2009, when she was hit by a car in an intersection near her college in San Luis Opisbo, Calif. Kaitlin, now 22, talks about her personal healing journey after a serious traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
You were finishing a run when the accident happened.
I was jogging through a crosswalk. A woman went through the red light and hit me—the report says at 35 miles per hour. I was found 40 yards from the intersection where she stopped.
The chances of survival after being hit by a car going 35 miles per hour seem slim.
My orthopedic surgeon said I was really lucky. Not only am I tall, but he says that I must have seen the car coming at the last second and jumped up, landing on the windshield. When she slammed on her brakes, I flew off the windshield, 30 to 40 yards away.
And nothing was in your path as you flew?
No, nothing. I just…flew. I had a lot of road rash, and cuts on my body because of the glass in the windshield, but apart from that, my face was fine, I had all my teeth. It was amazing. I’m so lucky.
What are your memories from the accident itself?
I was knocked unconscious, thankfully I guess, and I don’t remember anything from that day. Your brain doesn’t have time to process and store memory from that.
How were your parents contacted?
The doctor called my parents and said, “Your daughter was in an automobile accident, and we’re taking her in to surgery right now to fix her ‘tib-fib’ compound fracture,” or tibia fibula compound fracture. My left leg was pretty badly beat up. They got in the car and immediately started driving.
So when they arrived, they found out it was much more than just a broken leg.
That’s when they got told, “She has a traumatic brain injury, her head is swelling; we’re going to put her in an induced coma. And she has a compound fracture—but we fixed it.”
The effect from the head injury, at that point, was a complete unknown.
My brain was swelling. They didn’t know if the swelling was going to cause more injury. They didn’t know how severe it was. I don’t know what they told my parents but I think it was, you know, “We’ll see how she recovers and we’ll make suggestions from there.” They didn’t know. Traumatic brain injury is, of course, really severe. It was scary for them.
Doctors decided to put you in an induced coma.
I was in the induced coma for less than 48 hours. They took me out sooner because I was doing so well, so that was a really good sign for my parents.
You began recovery in an intensive care unit at the hospital near your college.
I was only in the ICU for six days, and then I went to the “normal” hospital for another six days, and then I was transferred to St. Joe’s in Phoenix. After that, I did outpatient [therapy] at a rehab facility—The Center for Transitional Neurological Rehabilitation [at Barrow Neurological Institute].
CTN was where you began to grasp what, exactly, had happened to you.
And why I was how I was, and the things that my brain was doing to me. They taught me about brain injury, they taught me my deficits and how to fight them. I would be nowhere without that place and what they did for me.
How did you find that your brain was affected as you recovered?
It was crazy. My memory was affected probably the most drastically. I remember being in the hospital with my parents. They’d give me a menu, I would read it, and I would tell them what I wanted. Then 10 minutes later, my mom would say, “Kaitlin, what are we having for dinner tonight?” and I would have no idea.
During rehabilitation, you had to re-learn some social conventions, too.
One time, I was in the hall, in my wheelchair. I saw a man, and I made some really rude comment about him. And my mom said, “Aww, Kaitlin, you can’t say that! What are you doing?” And I was like, “What?” I had no idea. It was such a shock that my mom was, all of a sudden, really strict with me. It was hard for me because in my eyes, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Was there a breakthrough moment during rehab where you felt that things were looking up, and that you’d made some solid progress?
The biggest milestone for me was my first step. I wasn’t trying to step, I just did it automatically because my body remembered to. I was a little bit too far from my bed, so I just took a step. When it felt good, and didn’t hurt, it was amazing. I’ll never, ever forget that.
What was it like to pick up and go on after rehab? How did your friends respond?
My personality stayed pretty spot on, so I did hear from friends, “You haven’t changed at all.” But it was really tough for my closest friends and my parents. They were the ones who were picking up the changes. You don’t want to change, you want to be you, you want to fool everybody into thinking that this never happened to you, that you’re normal. That you’re not disabled. That was really hard. But those support systems help you realize how you’ve changed. It’s all about awareness.
Did your relationship with your family change?
I’ve always been close to my brother, and that didn’t change much. But during rehab, I wanted nothing to do with my parents. I was like a little kid again: “Just put me back in college, I can do it!” But they knew best. I appreciate and love them so much now for keeping me in rehab and trying to push me when I didn’t want to push. Because there were times that I felt like giving up. Our relationship is stronger because of it.
Ultimately, the day came when you were able to go back to college. What challenges do you face?
Everything in school takes me longer now. My memory is not very good. In order to memorize something, I have to spend more time on it. Graduating is taking longer; I’m going to graduate in a total of five years. Which isn’t terrible.
So what has this experience taught you about yourself?
That I’m not invincible. I thought I was, but I’m not. I’ve learned that I need to be patient…I’m not a patient person at all. I’m better than I was before because I have to be. I learned that it’s OK not to be perfect. Before, I always focused on that. I can do anything now because of what I’ve been through.
Phoenix multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions.