BY MELISSA MATTHEWS
“Why me?” These were the words that echoed through my head while regaining consciousness at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, slowly realizing the nightmare that nearly killed me the previous afternoon was now my reality.
Little did I know as I stared out my window onto the ominous graveyard below, that this experience would become the catalyst for a personal journey that would change life as I knew it – forever! A journey riddled with pain, disabilities, discrimination, poverty, and isolation. A journey full of determination, resilience, faith, and hope. A journey that would ultimately lead me to defining and accepting my “new normal” – a place where perseverance transcends despair and courage replaces fear; a place where tragedies of every kind are continuously “meljourned” (transformed into positive, purpose-driven missions) by women who personify the spirit of perseverance!
Here is the celebration of my story…
I woke up the morning of December 18, 2003, thinking it was just going to be another ordinary day. With a cup of coffee in hand, I sat at the living room window admiring the tranquil, picturesque scene before me. The air was crisp, and the bright rays of the sun were traversing the light mist that was still hovering the dew covered grass of my front lawn. That morning I did not have a care in the world. I was a vivacious and confident 29-year-old educator whose identity was securely anchored in preparing students for the 21st century. Life was good!
Around mid-afternoon, I decided to finish up my Christmas shopping. With “I Can Only Imagine” prophetically serenading me, I headed toward the Waterloo Outlet Mall using a common labyrinth of back country roads upon which I had traveled dozens of times. Unfortunately, my familiarity with the route was no match for the unplowed snow drift and oncoming van obscured from view behind a final curve. In a single moment of impact, my intended journey abruptly ended, and a new journey began.
After being momentarily knocked unconscious, I awoke to find myself lying trapped beneath a heap of mangled metal and shattered glass, convulsing from shock and blood loss, waiting to be extricated from the wreckage of a head-on collision that was so severe it caused the bones in the left side of my body to pierce through my skin and winter clothing upon impact. Ironically, the severity of the crash was a Godsend. My legs were crushed under the dashboard of my car which acted as a crude and painful tourniquet slowing the loss of blood from my shattered lower extremities. The steering wheel was pinning me so tightly against my seat it prevented me from moving my torso. As the gravity of my situation began to set in, I realized time was not on my side. With acrid smoke from my airbags burning my every breath, I became panicked with fear. All I could do was scream desperately into the same mist that only hours before had peacefully graced my morning light. “Help me! Someone, please, help me! Get me out of here!”
Following a lengthy and dramatic rescue, I was rushed to Strong Memorial Hospital – a level one trauma center – where I was assessed as having numerous critical injuries to my legs, left arm, and head. I immediately underwent emergency surgery where doctors worked through the night to stabilize me and begin the continuous process of repairing and reinforcing the skeletal structure of my three limbs. My new home for the next few weeks was a room on the orthopedic trauma unit overlooking a local cemetery – which definitely gave new meaning to “room with a view”. The pain was beyond excruciating, and the slightest movement of any kind was almost too much to bear. During the day, I would stare at my wheelchair, teetering between anger and self-pity, while a machine slowly moved my left leg. At night, I would stare at the ceiling often listening to the billowing screams of a neighboring patient – jealous that his agony had an audible voice while my pain echoed silently within me. My mind would continuously dance to the same broken record playing over and over in my head: “How is this my life?!”
Once I was no longer in need of critical care, my doctors opted to transport the machines and equipment I needed for physical therapy to my mother’s house. Overnight her living room became a make-shift rehabilitation center where I could progress at my own pace while surrounded by family and friends. I knew maintaining a positive attitude would be critical to my recovery, so I worked hard at staying mentally strong. Research proves that what we “input” every day directly affects the way we feel, think, and act. Knowing this, I made a conscious effort to watch funny TV shows and movies, listen to uplifting music, and read inspirational books every day. After months of hard work, I had reached the point where I was finally ready to take my first steps. In truth, it was more like a hip thrust with legs that dragged, but I felt as though I had just climbed Mount Everest!
Being able to teach again had always been my ultimate goal, and every step I took brought me closer to achieving it. The doctors originally estimated I would be out of work for a couple of years. However, with a determined spirit I completed my first day as a substitute approximately 10 months later. I was so excited when I got the call that morning. I had worked tirelessly for months through intense pain to be able to walk back into a classroom on my own two feet, and that moment had finally come. I had beaten the odds, and now I was going to get my life back – or so I thought.
Unfortunately, the warm greeting I was anticipating proved to be an elusive mirage. With a discriminatory intolerance I could barely comprehend, the teacher took one look at me – with a cane in my hand and a leg still dragging behind me – and banished me to a table in the corner complaining, “Great! Well, I guess I’ll have to send kids to you!” Then, as I began my walk of shame to that destination of disgrace, one of the students innocently asked, “Why does that lady walk so funny?” That was a defining moment for me because it was then I realized I would never be the person I was prior to my accident. That person did not exist anymore. Yes, I had survived my accident, but could I survive the aftermath? Thus, my search for a “new normal” began.
Despite my rocky start, I continued substituting at the school for the next several months. However, I remained so haunted by the scars of that first day, I became hypersensitive to my surroundings and of others’ perceptions of me. Like thieves in the night, doubt and insecurity crept in; before long, my sense of self, direction, and perspective were gone.
Experience has taught me that sometimes the best way to help yourself is to reach out and help others facing similar adversities. So, I started volunteering at a local Veterans’ Hospital. I loved it there, and I always felt like I was making a difference. Despite having significant physical, mental, and emotional challenges, many of the patients remained grateful for each day and hopeful about their futures. After weeks of being inspired by their persevering attitudes, I began to internalize the fact that my disabilities did not define me as a person or as an educator. Little by little I became more comfortable in my own skin, and I eventually got to the point where I was able to accept my limitations. That acceptance was incredibly freeing, and I knew I was ready for the next chapter of life.
Around that time, I received a phone call from an area principal inviting me to interview for a full-time position at her school; I ended up getting the job. It was a great district, and I had never felt more at home than I did there. My colleagues were amazing, and I considered it both an honor and a privilege to be part of their team. Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain the accommodations my injuries required, and over time my legs deteriorated to the point where my doctors had to remove me from teaching permanently.
Losing my livelihood meant losing my income and my health insurance. Shortly thereafter, I also lost my home. Suddenly, all I had left was a mountain of agonizing questions: How can this be happening to me? Where am I going to live? How am I going to live? How am I going to pay for my medical needs? How am I going pay for food? Finally, with no other alternatives, I was forced to apply for disability and public assistance. As truly thankful as I was for these programs, the fact that I had gone from a vibrant, successful educator to someone now needing the help of the government to meet my most basic needs was gut-wrenching. Teaching had been my identity my entire adult life, and now it was gone. This was my rock bottom, and when I hit it, I hit hard!
Vulnerable, confused, humiliated, and very angry – that summed up my state-of-mind for the next 18 months. I often felt like I was back in my car – only this time trapped beneath the wreckage of life. For self-preservation purposes, I shut down emotionally, moved to a new city, and lived in a self-imposed exile. However, my situation only grew more unbearable with time, and I eventually got to the point where I was sick and tired – of being – sick and tired. Yes, tragedy had cast me into this sea of suffering unwillingly, but survival was up to me. I knew there would be no passivity involved in this rescue; on the contrary. Survival meant being an active participant in determining my fate. Survival meant letting go of the cruel injustices I had endured. Survival meant standing in faith and believing my tragedy had a greater purpose. Survival – was a choice!
In the natural, my obstacles still seemed insurmountable: I was living in extreme poverty; my legs were permanently damaged; my head injury was impeding my ability to process and communicate effectively; and I was a stranger in a new city. My only assets were a computer, a phone, the internet, and a steadfast determination to somehow turn this mess of a life into a message. Understanding that focus is the rudder of success, I turned my attention to maximizing the potential of those few resources in front of me.
Whenever I could tolerate the pain, I would use my computer to surf the internet for inspirational stories, best business practices, entrepreneurial opportunities, and at-home speech therapy techniques. If I came across an interesting book online, I would order it through a local bookstore where I could go and skim read it for free when it came in; the library charged for parking. Full of brain and word games played daily, my phone became a crucial tool for improving my language and processing skills. Finally, after two years of learning how to do a lot with very little, I realized the only obstacles that truly existed were the ones in my head.
My “new normal” was beginning to take shape. I had reached the point where effort had superseded apathy and courage had replaced fear. Unfortunately, my hopes and aspirations for the future were often eclipsed by the continuous reports of catastrophe, turmoil, and chaos dominating every headline. Knowing the internet was full of uplifting, tragedy-to-triumph stories only made the endless onslaught of doom and gloom more frustrating as it portrayed an incomplete picture of the world around us. Motivated by the premise of showcasing a more balanced snapshot of society, I began brainstorming ways to get those powerful, online stories into the mainstream media.
Then one day – following an especially devastating news week – things started coming together. Almost overnight, years of disconnected thoughts and ideas suddenly morphed into one, cohesive concept that uniquely blended the media and fashion industries: I would create a meaningful line of story-inspired jewelry collections celebrating women who have transformed various tragedies into positive, purpose-driven missions. This endeavor checked all the boxes. It highlighted my core message that pain produces purpose. It empowered women. And it promoted the spirit of perseverance. After months of research and refinement, I decided to maximize the project’s impact by donating a portion of the proceeds to various charities also working to help people overcome life’s many adversities.
Over the last four years, I tested, pitched, and polished my concept at every opportunity. I spoke to family, friends, elected officials, business people, investors, designers, manufacturers, retailers, charities, the media – anyone who would listen – they all loved it! Before I knew it, I had developed a strong professional network and an even stronger team. Every encounter proved valuable on some level. Unfortunately, the wheels of momentum were often slowed by the bad “breaks” of reality. The challenging nature of my circumstances became further exacerbated by numerous medical complications stemming from my 14 surgical procedures. As a result, the project was forced to endure many stops and starts.
Thankfully, I approached my professional ambitions with the same inner determination and perseverance that characterized my recovery and personal evolution. It would be in homage to this journey – “Melissa’s Journey” – that my empowering endeavor would become known as “Meljourne® Women”.
May my journey “From Mess To Meljourne®” stand as living proof that it is possible to turn pain into purpose. And may my collection be merely the first in a long line of story-inspired jewelry collections celebrating women who personify the spirit of perseverance.