By Ria Newman and Rebecca Drew
THIS WOMAN lost her EYE and had her face reconstructed after getting hit by a drunk driver.
Masters student Sarah Ruggiere (26) from Portland, Oregon, USA, was walking to meet a friend after an evening with her family on December 13, 2019, when a car mounted the pavement and hit her.
She has no memory of the accident but was rushed by ambulance to Legacy Emanuel hospital in Portland. In the ambulance, a paramedic performed an emergency cricothyrotomy – a procedure where an opening is made into the windpipe through the neck.
Sarah woke up the next day and learnt that she had undergone surgery to reconstruct her face, her right kneecap was broken, she’d lost three front teeth and the bone to her upper jaw, and she had suffered a cut to her left eye.
Doctors kept a cage over Sarah’s left eye to try to save it but after the pressure in that eye did not improve, the decision was made to surgically remove it on December 31 so that her body didn’t try to reject her seeing eye.
Sarah stayed in hospital for a month where she was able to practice being able to see with just one eye. Her depth perception is severely affected and whilst it has improved since her operation, Sarah is still adjusting to life with one seeing eye.
In February 2020, Sarah started the three-week process of having a prosthetic eye made and fitted for her – something she describes as a ‘cool experience’, but she admits the emotional aspect of her recovery has been the hardest to deal with.
Sarah no longer worries about things that are beyond her control and she believes that her experience has made her a stronger, braver person and she hopes that by sharing her story, she will be able to help others.
“I remember being with my family at a bar. After having a drink, I was going to meet up with a friend,” said Sarah.
“Apparently I said goodbye, left the bar, crossed the street, walked down the sidewalk about sixty-five-feet, and a car driving north on SE Grand in Portland, Oregon, drove up onto the sidewalk and hit me but I don’t remember.
“The last thing I remember is starting to say my goodbyes to family at the bar.
“I was rushed to the hospital. The ambulance ride was eight minutes and in that time, one of the paramedics with me in the ambulance performed an emergency cricothyrotomy surgery.
“I am the first person of seven to have survived that surgery. The paramedic that performed the surgery is using my case to train and educate other paramedics so that the surgery can be more successful. I was taken to Legacy Emanuel hospital and rushed into the operating room.
“When I woke up the next day, I remember the room was really blurry because I didn’t have my glasses. I had no idea where I was or why I was there. I saw the blurry figures of my family and tried to get up but my body felt so heavy.
“I tried to talk but I couldn’t because of the tube in my throat. My parents and sister were in the room with me and realised I woke up. They came over to me and held my hand.
“My dad explained to me that I had been walking down the sidewalk and was hit by a drunk driver but that was all he said because that was all we knew.
“The surgeons had to reconstruct my face, my right kneecap was broken, there was a cut in my left eye, and I had lost three front teeth as well as bone to my upper jaw. I had twenty-seven injuries in total but those were the major ones.
“The doctors were trying to save my left eye. I remember they kept a cage over my eye while I waited for their verdict. A few days after I got to the hospital, they checked my eye pressure and it hadn’t improved so they recommended removing the eye so that my body wouldn’t reject my seeing eye which can happen in some cases.
“Since I spent a month in the hospital with one eye, I realised when I got home that I had had a lot of practice during my stay at the hospital. Depth perception is affected in people with one seeing eye.
“I had to re-learn how to gauge where the curb ended and started so I knew how low or high to step, where the last stair was as sometimes it blended in with the floor, how far to reach for something without knocking it over or grabbing the air in front of the object, where to pour liquid into a glass from a jug or pitcher, how to catch or throw a ball accurately.
“I’m still adjusting to seeing with one eye but it’s getting easier with time. My brain was used to seeing with two eyes for twenty-five years and now it has to learn how to see the world with one.
“The emotional healing has been the hardest part. This is something that will take a lifetime, but the emotions won’t be so raw as time goes on. I try not to think about the ‘what ifs’ and try to focus on what I can control: my body and regulating the way I feel in the moment.
“Mindfulness has been super helpful and doing activities that help boost my spirits like walking, knitting, listening to podcasts and taking a bath help too.
“Spending time with people who will bring me up and move me forward and has been super important. I’m not going to waste any of my time.
“Being a victim in our criminal justice system is really emotionally taxing. The reality is, I have no control over what happens to the drunk driver. I choose to focus on myself and my healing as much as I can.”
After leaving hospital, Sarah was in physical therapy for two months for her knee injury and her jaw and mouth is still recovering now.
Sarah described the process of having her prosthetic eye fitted.
“It was such a cool experience to go through. I went in for a consultation where my ocularist took measurements of my iris, my pupil in various lighting,” she said.
“I went in a second time for the prosthesis making – she made a mould of my eye socket, and we chose an iris for the base colour. I went in a third time for the painting process. My ocularist turned the mould into the acrylic plastic prosthesis and painted over the iris in the prosthesis to make it match my seeing eye.
“I went in a fourth time for the finishing touches. My ocularist used red thread for the veins in my eye, tweaked the colour of the iris and the pupil size, and added an emoticon of my choice at the top of the prosthetic eye so that I knew which way to put it in and to personalise my eye. I took the final product home.
“After a few days, I ended up going a fifth time because I wasn’t pleased with the colour and the pupil size. My ocularist made my pupil bigger and darkened the colour of the iris.”
Finally, Sarah shared how her recovery has shaped her.
“I feel like I am braver and stronger than ever before. The accident and all the experiences that go with it have redefined fear in my life,” she said.
“I am learning how to be aware of my body and listen to what it’s telling me. I have learned who my true friends are – the friends who are my cheerleaders, the friends who are my coaches and will help me move forward, and the friends I no longer need or want in my life.
“To anyone who is going through something similar; don’t live your life in fear or regret because you never know when it will end or be taken from you. Your life is no one else’s so live it the way you want to.
“Surround yourself with people that will move you forward and will be there to support. Everyone else is wasting your time and your energy.
“Beauty is not defined by how you look on the outside. It’s defined by how you are on the inside.”