Sue Etters never had trouble getting around on her own. But the woman, who was born blind, will never forget the day more than a year ago when her independence was shattered and she nearly lost her life.
“I never made it home from work,” said Etters, now 59.
Etters had been a switchboard operator at Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh in Homestead, advocating for people who are blind, deaf-blind or vision-impaired. Every day she took two buses from Sewickley to work -- a two-hour commute each way. Etters didn’t mind the long rides to work.
“I really loved my job. I really did,” she said.
SHE'LL NEVER FORGET
Etters said she’ll never forget Dec. 16, 2009. After work, she went to dinner at Bagels in Pittsburgh, then headed home. She remembers stepping off the bus in Sewickley at the intersection of Beaver and Boundary streets and lining up her support cane to cross the street.
Etters doesn’t remember the car that struck her in the 25-mph zone as she attempted to cross. She knows her body went into shock from the impact and that someone called the ambulance.
“They said I talked a lot in the ambulance. I don’t remember that. When you go into shock, your body tries to fight it,” Etters said.
She suffered a concussion from a head injury and woke up in the trauma unit at Allegheny General Hospital. She had broken several bones and needed to undergo surgery.
Her right knee was fractured; both her left knee and ankle were broken, and she had “a pretty nasty fracture” of her tibia and fibula, lower leg bones, said Dr. Alan H. Klein, an orthopaedic surgeon with Allegheny Orthopaedic Associates, a physician practice that is part of the Pittsburgh hospital.
“Before this happened, she was totally independent,” said Klein, who saw Etters about two weeks ago for a check-up and plans to see her again in three months.
Etters had to wear a fracture boot from the knee down and couldn’t bear any weight on her body, leaving her immobile. When they took the cast off, she said, her bones weren’t set back exactly right, so she now has a titanium rod in her leg from the knee down to her ankle.
“She’s still going to continue to heal from where she is now,” Klein said. “I would hope that her pain would get better.”
Etters was away from home for about five months and began feeling discouraged that she’d never regain her independence.
Her sister and mother, who live in Beaver County, were by her side.
“I think it was hard for my poor mother to accept that this happened to me. She felt badly about it. Everybody did,” Etters said.
She spent weeks in the hospital, bound in a cast. Three months went by at Friendship Ridge, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Brighton Township, Beaver County. Time passed slowly as Etters could only lie on her back, but she was able to do occupational therapy and received frequent visits from Klein.
She went from inpatient care to living with her sister because she wasn’t self-sufficient just yet. She also began physical therapy at in Sewickley, where she learned how to get around again using a walker. She eventually was able to return home to Sewickley Manor and is now back to a regular routine. She gets around using both a support cane and a mobility cane, a type of rolling cane used by the blind.
"I’ve been through quite an ordeal. I’m really glad to be alive,” she said.
"I think she’s really done remarkably well considering the extent of her injuries and the fact that she’s blind,” Klein said.
CONTINUING TO HEAL
Recovery has taken time. Etters still has pain and worries about the possibility of arthritis setting in. She hasn’t completely recovered. Critical senses she depends on -- taste and smell -- were altered from the concussion and are still returning slowly, she said.
Klein said Etters remains at risk for arthritis because her factures were in the joint areas.
Etters exercises every week at HealthSouth to prevent from stiffening up. Due to the extent of her injuries, she has to go back to the hospital every so often for X-rays and checkups.
“I still have pain issues. It’s probably going to be a long time … I take very slow steps,” she said.
Etters was born prematurely at Heritage Valley and was given too much oxygen as a newborn, causing her to lose her vision. The car accident changed her course of life in many ways, too. Etters said she didn’t have insurance and had to work hard to settle some disability issues. She also lost her job after six months – though she imagines she would not have been able to sit at the switchboard for eight hours a day.
“It really has changed my life because I lost my job over it. I was at the end of my career and just count it as a blessing.”
Etters has hired an attorney and would not comment about the crash or the driver who struck her.
She remains upbeat -- largely because of her chipper personality -- and hopes to get another guide dog in the future, though she said, “if I don’t I understand.”
Her biggest hope, however, is to change people’s aggressive driving habits.
“If we can stop people from speeding -- it’s a bad thing," she said. "It amazes me that people don’t follow the rules."