Don’t call the car wreck that changed Heather Tice’s life forever an accident. “An accident implies that it could not be prevented. My crash could have, but I was just plain naive,” explained Heather.
On July 12, 2005, Heather, was riding unbuckled, in a car with some friends on the back roads near her home in Belton, Mo. The inexperienced driver lost control of the car and crashed head-on into a tree. The driver and two of the three passengers were able to exit the car on their own. “When I first opened my eyes, I was freaked out by all of the blood, and I didn’t even realize that I couldn’t feel my legs,” Heather said.
After two and a half weeks in acute care where Heather underwent surgery to stabilize her neck and received care for a collapsed lung and pneumonia, she was flown to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. When she arrived, Heather was ventilator dependent due to a history of asthma and contracting pneumonia. Medical staff at the acute care hospital told Heather’s mother Datha that it was likely her daughter would always rely on ventilator assistance.
“Within four days at Madonna, Heather was completely off of the ventilator,” noted members of Heather’s care team in her Goal Awards nomination form. It was evident early on that Heather was a determined individual.
“Due to her level of injury and weakness, Heather could not even complete the simplest of tasks such as hold a brush for her hair—which is a big deal if you’re an adolescent female with long beautiful hair!” her team added.
Although rehabilitation was challenging, and even something Heather fought at times, she was inspired by the constant encouragement of her team. “Their support motivated me,” Heather said. “My therapists gave me my life back. They showed me I could have a life without walking. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and the determination to be independent,” Heather said.
Heather’s team worked to help her with personal cares like dressing and grooming herself. “She worked hard during physical therapy and occupational therapy, but also practiced outside of therapy time to improve her dexterity and strength so that she could feed herself, brush her hair, put on some make up and nail polish, but mostly to be able to hold and play with her two-year-old nephew safely,” wrote her therapists.
Recognizing her daughter’s desire to perform her “aunt duties”, Datha also played a vital part in Heather’s recovery. After daily rehabilitation sessions ended, Datha would work with her daughter on hand and finger function. The assignment: untwist and re-twist the lid onto one of her nephew Preston’s baby bottles.
Now that Heather is home and preparing for her senior year, she wants to be a positive role model for Preston, who is now an active four-year-old, and her one-year-old niece Mariah. But being a role model doesn’t stop with her family. Heather has been heavily involved with a Missouri organization called ThinkFirst Missouri. The organization’s aim is to educate individuals, community leaders and the creators of public policy regarding ways to prevent traumatic injuries. Heather knows first hand of the importance of providing a “think-before-you-act” message to young people, who are often at high risk of a brain or spinal cord injury.
“I regret getting into that car and not buckling up, but I have no choice but to live with the decision that I made,” said Heather. “Many teens think the same way I used to—that nothing like this could ever happen to them,” added Heather, “but I’m proof that it can. If, because of one of my presentations, someone will think twice and not get into a car with an inexperienced driver or always wear their seatbelt, then I feel it’s very much worth my time.”
For her determination through her rehabilitation and for her spirit of giving back to her community and peers, Heather Tice will be presented with a Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital Chairman’s Goal Award annual luncheon.