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Thursday, 15 January 2009


By Brenton "Sandy" Dickson

(My younger sister, Holly, was a reliable source of girlfriends when I was a teenager. One of these became my wife and we just celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary. Even so, over the last 67 years, Holly and I have had an up and down, sometimes combative relationship. I think I have always been envious of her idealistic and compulsively positive approach to life.)

On October 24, 2002, Holly and her husband Dick were driving north from their home in Key West. A car in the opposite line of traffic suddenly swerved into their lane and hit them head on at 60 miles an hour. The driver, who was later determined to have been drunk, was killed and his passenger was severely hurt.

Dick suffered only minor cuts and bruises, but Holly was a mess. Except for a fractured right arm, balloons protected her upper body. But, the major bones in both of her legs were broken in several places. Her knees and her feet were shattered – one of the bones in her left foot was broken in 20 places.

She was airlifted to a Miami hospital, where she would spend 12 hours sedated in a hallway before doctors got around to dealing with her. Then she was loaded up with countless screws and plates. She was in excruciating pain.

Her daughter, Julie, flew in from New York. Sensing something seriously wrong with the treatment Holly was receiving, she contacted her cousin, Lee, in Massachusetts. One of Lee’s students (she gave horseback riding lessons) was the daughter of a senior physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Using this as leverage, Lee arranged for Holly to be examined by one of the top trauma surgeons in the country. Several days later, when she was stable enough to be moved, she was med-flighted to Boston.

In a letter Holly later sent to her friends, she wrote,

“In the course of two weeks, I went through ten operations. At the Mass. General Trauma Center, (the doctor) removed all the Florida hardware and redid all the Florida surgeries. My bones were riddled with empty screw holes.”

Her surgeon installed long plates in both of her legs, as well as one in her right arm, ten new screws in her left knee and in her left foot, which was also supported with two long laterally protruding pins.

When Betsy and I visited her at MGH, it was difficult to maintain our composure. Holly was tall and thin. Most of the hardware was visible as it pressed outwardly against her skin. While she tried to smile and talk to us, tears streamed down her cheeks as she grimaced with pain. Pain which was emanating not only from her injuries, but also from the friction caused by all the screws, plates and pins.

In addition to being a licensed message therapist and Trager practitioner, Holly had practiced yoga and Pilates regularly. She had been an accomplished tennis player, competing in tournaments regionally and nationally. This previously active and vibrant 61-year-old woman was flat on her back with machines gently moving her legs up and down to maintain her circulation.

Her doctor’s goal was to make her legs as close to the same length as possible so that she could eventually move around with a walker. Running and tennis were out of the question. To us, it all seemed so hopeless and depressing, two adjectives that were not part of Holly’s vocabulary.

“For the first few months after the accident,” wrote Holly, “I awoke in pain, unable to get back to sleep; I sat up and rubbed creams into my legs along the stapled wound sites…Other times I’d make up stories and visualized that making it through each day was a victory.

“I imagined what it’s like catching a game-winning pass at the Super Bowl. You wouldn’t feel the batterdness, the pain, and stiffness; you’d feel the victory. Many nights when I couldn’t get comfortable in any position…I’d pretend that the pain that I felt was like the pain one would feel after winning a 26-mile marathon; stiff, exhausted, sore all over, but victorious…I went through extraordinary efforts to cope.”

She also embarked on a campaign to avoid dependency to painkillers. During another visit to MGH, I noticed a row of pills partially obscured on a shelf in a table next to her bed. With trepidation, I asked her what she intended to do with them. She said with a strained smile, “Oh, they are Percosets - I collect them!”

Just then a nurse walked into the room with two more of these pills and a glass of water. Holly protested, saying that she only needed one.

“Take them both!” ordered the nurse. Holly reluctantly put the second pill into her mouth, and as she raised her glass, the nurse departed feeling smug and triumphant. As soon as she had gone, Holly removed the pill from her mouth and added it to her collection.

After spending two months in hospitals, including three weeks at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, she was taken by ambulance to our childhood home in Weston, Massachusetts, where our 99-year-old mother was still living.

Holly took up residence in what had originally been a screened-in porch. It was later transformed into our father’s art studio when he resumed watercolor painting in the 1960’s after a 20-year hiatus caused by the Second World War.

Once there, she took control of her own recovery. She did what the doctors prescribed, but went well beyond. She enlisted an army of alternative therapists and embarked on a myriad of alternative approaches – acupuncture, applied kineseology, Asian medicine, and Barbara Brennan Healing and Water Therapy. She received message therapy daily by Martin, her friend and fellow Trager practitioner.

She especially liked the aquatic therapy.

“Wearing a water vest for flotation, I was wheeled down the pool ramp. The water rose around me. I slipped off the chair and maneuvered into the deep water. Tears streamed down my face. I felt supported, light, pain free for the first time in months. The buoyancy and support of the water allowed me to regain balance and coordination. My whole body became increasingly stronger, long before I could put weight on either leg.”

On August 22, 2003, our mother died peacefully at home, on the first day of her 100th year. That was ten months after the accident. By that time, doctors had succumbed to Holly’s pleas and removed most of the hardware in order to relieve her pain.

Her new battle was to find ways to compensate for the parts of her foot that had been so badly shattered they had to be fused together thus eliminating the flexibility and movement that most of us take for granted.

“Some of my injured parts are arthritic and permanently compromised,” said Holly. “But other structures are taking over their function.”

After the funeral, Holly and Dick returned to Key West, where she added modified yoga and Pilates sessions to her regimen. Knee replacement was still a possibility, but as of this writing all prospective artificial parts remain on factory shelves.

* * *

In early 2005, two-and-a-quarter years after the crash, all of the remaining hardware was gone. There was no wheel chair, no walker, no cane; just a slight limp. In late January of that year, Holly and her partner won a local ladies’ doubles tournament in South Florida. By then she was playing tennis four times a week.

In August of 2007, she, her partner and teammates won the Northeast Regional Super Senior (over 50) Team Doubles Tennis Tournament in Beverly, Massachusetts. In April of 2008, a week after her 67th birthday, she and her teammates finished fifth in the championship round at Mobile, Alabama. Twenty regional teams competed in the finals.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


What an inspiration Holly is to all of us.

Such courage and determination should be rewarded with our sincere admiration.

You told the story very well. I hung onto every word hoping it was going to turn out well, and it did.

There is something about the name Holly that speaks of courage and faith and fun.

That is my DIL's name and I think our Holly would behave exactly as your sister did and make the best of things and conquer every adversity with a smile and determination to take one day at a time until things are back to normal again.

Congratulations, Holly. We are proud of you and you deserve it..

Truly inspirational story, lovingly told. Thank you for sharing it.

Until you have suffered pain you cannot realize the tremendous courage that Holly displayed. You must be so proud of your sister.

Holly is a beautiful example of a person who will not give up and will beat all the odds. Yes, she is an inspiration.

remarkable story. Holly must be a remarkable person. Dick seems to have been silent for much of the time that Holly was trying to recover.?

Your comment makes me feel guilty! In this short piece I concentrated on Holly. In addition to Dick, she had the support of many friends and family members. Dick took a hiatus from his work in Florida, and was with her throughtout her ordeal.

Thank you for such an encouragement,especially on a day like today when anything really does seem possible....

Oh, please, somebody just make me read this wonderful story the next time I complain about some trivial ailment which keeps me off the tennis courts. Really! I wish I could know Holly myself. What a hero! Nicely told, too, Sandy.

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