P amela Williams’ life is different now.
She no longer drives 12 hours to visit family in Virginia. Accounting work, which used to be second nature, is now taxing and at times, frustrating. Routine errands and appointments need to be meticulously recorded, lest she forgets. There are times, particularly when she’s tired, that she trips over words.
Ear plugs have become a part of her wardrobe at basketball and football games because the sounds of sneakers squeaking against a gym floor and or the blare from a whistle trigger anxiety attacks from post traumatic stress disorder. She has to wear sunglasses inside because fluorescent lighting triggers “massive headaches.” And she’ll never drive an all-terrain vehicle on the 22 acres surrounding her home or ski with her two teenage sons.
But Williams insists life is not about what she can’t do, but what she can. And one thing she does very well is knit.
It’s an activity that has helped her recovery from a traumatic car accident and given her life a renewed sense of purpose.
Williams spent the morning tearing down a house—she and her ex-husband Joe Williams own several rental properties—next to Poultney Auto on Main Street in Poultney, Vt.
Later that day she and her youngest son, Morgan, hopped in her olive green Kia Soul, that she had bought three month later and decorated with pink flower-shaped decals. They were heading west on County Route 18 in Hampton, toward the direction of Whitehall. Williams, a Hampton resident, was all too familiar with the stretch of the road; a year earlier she had been in a car accident near the intersection of County Routes 18 and 21. She escaped that accident without any significant injuries.
She crested the hill near the East Whitehall Brick Church and began descending toward the intersection when she saw it coming. Traveling south on County Route 21 was a one-ton pickup truck pulling a cattle trailer; and the truck wasn’t stopping.
“I remember saying ‘we’re getting in an accident’ and after that I don’t remember anything,” Williams said.
In a blink of any eye, Williams’ life changed.
The truck smashed into the passenger side fender, driving the small four-door vehicle more than 100 yards down the road. The truck careened into an adjoining meadow before coming to a stop.
“We were hit so hard that is pushed the car past the white house and all the way down to the first telephone pole,” Williams said.
The impact completely destroyed the front end of the car. First responders and witnesses saw the wreckage and told themselves the passengers were dead.
Williams said her husband’s cousin lives down the road and when he saw what was left of the front end of the car, he literally got sick.
“I contacted the state trooper afterwards to see what happened and he was so happy that I was alive,” Williams said.
The driver of the truck escaped uninjured. Morgan broke his arm in two spots. Williams was rushed to the hospital with traumatic, life-threatening injuries.
She spent the next four days in a coma, clinging to life. Her injuries read like the medical log from a M.A.S.H. unit: a broken foot, three broken ribs, an aneurysm, a displaced shoulder, a torn tendon, damage to her left eye and two dissected carotid arteries.
The path to recovery
Williams also suffered a traumatic brain injury and three strokes.
“After four days in a coma, I woke up and saw my mother, who lives 12 hours away and I said ‘shit, I’m in trouble. My dad was in hospice care at the time and the bells and whistles were going off in my head. And then I remembered my son was with me,” Williams said.
After assurances that Morgan and her father was alright, the doctor asked Williams if she recognized anyone in the room.
“I pointed to my mother. He said ‘tell me who that is?’ I tried to speak but all that came out was ‘muh, muh,” Williams said.
“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t use my arm and I couldn’t walk.”
Williams spent the next five days in the intensive care unit at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, Vt., three weeks in the hospital and weeks at the Fannie Allen Rehabilitation Center.
“I had to relearn how to dial a phone and use a fork. I basically had to relearn how to do everything,” Williams said.
It was while she at the rehabilitation center that she received a simple gift that would have a profound impact on her recovery.
Kathy Juckett, whose son is close friends with Morgan, paid Williams a visit and brought with her a basket of knitting supplies.
“She told me, ‘we’re going to teach you to do this,” Williams said. “It’s been the most valuable gift in my recovery.”
“I thought it would help her pass the time. Knitting, or any artistic medium, it’s good for you. It’s good for your soul. I thought it might help to distract her from some of the things she was facing,” Juckett said. “She has just taken this and ran with it.”
Knitting proved to be more than just a distraction though. It became part of her recovery.
“It created a connection between my brain and hand that was missing. It’s a creative way to explore the use of my brain,” Williams said. She also learned to follow a step-by-step set of instructions, things that may seem mundane for some, but are remarkable for someone who suffered a severe brain injury.
“It keeps me on track and it keeps me focused.”
A new purpose
Williams’ knitting style is a bit unorthodox. Because she had to re-learn to use the right side of her body, Williams had to adapt her knitting to what her body allowed her to do. For instance, she made her own specially designed needles that were easier for her to use. She also started with larger needles until she was able to regain enough coordination to use smaller needles.
She admits that a few of her first knitting projects weren’t very good, but the more she did the better she got. And that improvement wasn’t limited to knitting; she began to improve physically and mentally. Knitting became her coping mechanism.
“Every time I have a pity party, every time I feel like pulling the sheets over my head, I knit,” Williams said.
When she wakes up at 3 a.m. with pain so bad that she breaks her teeth from trying to grit through it, she grabs her needles and yarn and knits.
Several months ago she joined an informal knitting group that meets every other Tuesday.
“The women are so supportive. It’s been great,” Williams said. “I’m truly blessed. I’m grateful to everyone who has been so supportive. The positive-ness that comes out of the knitting group is amazing.”
But Juckett said its Williams that has inspired the group.
“She’s alive and thriving,” Juckett said. “Looking at her now, it brings tears to my eyes.”
Knitting has become Williams’ purpose.
She is donating hats and headbands for a Granville football fundraiser (both her sons play) and has made more than 100 hats which are given to newborn children in the nursery at Rutland Hospital.
Williams still has a long recovery in front her. She continues to suffer from PTSD and Horner’s syndrome, which affects the nerves in the face, and needs to use a GPS when she’s driving to make sure she doesn’t get lost.
But she doesn’t dwell on these things. As she says, life is 90 percent attitude and 10 percent the things she can’t control. And every hat, scarf or laundry bag she knits is another step to normalcy.
“I can’t do a lot of things, but I can do this,” Williams said. “Knitting has given me a whole new opportunity on life.”