From Truck Driver to TBI Survivor
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
In 18 years of trucking, Vernon Walters of Wiggins has seen a lot of spectacular sights through the windows of his 18-wheeler. But on Oct. 10, he spotted something he hopes to never see again — a freight train headed straight at him.
It was a Tuesday morning, and the 41-year-old had just driven a load of 80-foot poles onto the scales at the Electric Mills pole plant in Kemper County. While he waited for his paperwork, Walters began jockeying his 100-foot-long rig into a parking spot, a maneuver that put him astride some nearby train tracks.
Walters didn’t know he was in danger. A curve in the track and a cluster of trees hid the train until it was about 300 feet away. “In just a few seconds, he was right on top of me,” Walters said. “I was trying to back off the tracks, but with an automatic transmission you sometimes have to wait a little bit to get in gear.”
That pause almost proved fatal. “The train hit him on the passenger side, just before the door,” said his wife, Donyell. “If it had been a fourth of an inch toward the center of the door, it would have hit him dead center and killed him.
“A woman at the plant told me it sounded like a bomb going off. She wouldn’t go out there. When she called his boss, she said there is no way he could have survived.”
When Donyell first learned of the accident, the news was surprisingly reassuring. She was told that Walters was alive, alert and his worst injury appeared to be a broken ankle.
But once she arrived at Rush Memorial Hospital in Meridian, Donyell learned her husband had several deep cuts, terrible bruising and fractures in his right ribs and lower back. But what truly had doctors worried was the bleeding in his brain. “I said: ‘Can he die?’ ” remembers Donyell. “And the doctor said: ‘Yes, ma’am, he can.’ ”
Walters was quickly transported to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, a hospital better equipped to deal with his traumatic brain injury. After three days in an intensive care unit there, he transferred to Methodist Rehabilitation Center — another Jackson hospital renowned for its care of brain injury survivors.
Methodist Rehab is one of only 16 hospitals in the nation designated a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Model System by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The designation fosters collaboration between Methodist Rehab staff and neuroscientists around the world, and gives TBI patients timely access to treatment advances.
After six days of continuing progress, Walters headed home, happy to be away from confining hospital routines. But by February, he decided it might be prudent to take advantage of another TBI program at Methodist Rehab. He entered Quest, an outpatient program that helps people with acquired brain injuries make a successful return to work, school or community life.
Walters said it took being home for awhile to realize he had “a ways to go” recovery-wise. “As time went on, I started noticing problems with my memory.”
It’s a common problem for people who’ve sustained brain injuries, and Quest participants typically work with a speech therapist to improve their level of attention and memory. Strategies include using a day planner, written cues, checklists, repetition and visualization.
Because Walters planned to return to his job, his therapy activities also focused on building the strength and endurance necessary to manhandle heavy tarps and handle long hours in the driver’s seat. “His goal was to be able to lift 50 pounds and be able to participate in physical activities for two hours without feeling fatigued,” said Julie Walker, Quest therapy manager.
As Walters readied to run his first post-accident route in May, he looked forward to being back behind the wheel. “I’ve done it so long it ought to come back to me,” he said. Still, he confessed to being a bit nervous about his navigational skills. “I think I’ll look at the map book more than I used to.”
Even though transportation accidents are the No. 1 cause of workplace fatalities, Walters said he never used to dwell much on the inherent risk of his occupation. Now he knows better than to be so naïve. “I never thought I would get hit by a train — especially sitting still. It gets you to thinking about life and about getting your priorities in order. I think I need to thank the good Lord I’m here because he could very well have taken me that day.”
Vernon Walters was nearly killed when a train hit his truck.
Vernon Walters works on his strength, endurance and flexibility in the therapy gym at Quest, Methodist Rehab's outpatient community reintegration program for brain injury survivors.