Yes, I was hit by a car. A white courier van to be precise.
Of all the things I’ve imagined in my life, this was not one of them. On Thursday April 26, I was crossing Northbourne Avenue, Canberra’s main northern arterial, at an intersection beset by roadworks and temporary alterations. I saw the car about to hit me, then it hit me and I was on the road on my back in extreme pain.
Luckily for me, my mobility scooter seems to have acted as a crumple zone, being the most significant thing to break in the crash. I remember being very distressed as I lay there on the road: worried about my mobility scooter, which had been kindly donated to me because the NDIS had refused my application for assistance; the driver of the van because I imagined it would have been terribly traumatic to have seen me right up in his windscreen; and the bottle of shampoo I’d just bought with the last of the money in my bank account because I was due to be interviewed the next day and I didn’t want to have greasy hair on national television.
There were so many people at the scene: fire, police and ambulance, as well as witnesses and passers-by. One lovely lady who’d been waiting in her car when I was hit was a nurse; she pulled a blanket from her car and stayed by my side, making sure I didn’t pass out. I held her hand so tight I think she may have been in pain herself. When I explained how my disability made me incredibly sensitive to sound, the fireman on the scene gave me their (amazing) earmuffs to block out the cacophony. The ambulance arrived in quick time, took good care of me and rushed me to hospital.
I was incredibly impressed by the trauma team at the Canberra Hospital who listened to me, and changed their regular routine to accommodate my sensory sensitivity. I was scanned and x-rayed quick smart, each of my damaged extremities imaged and assessed. Lucy, the trauma nurse, looked after me incredibly well. The whole team made me feel safe, secure and calm, despite the crazy situation. When I asked, for sentimental reasons, if they could not cut off the t-shirt I was wearing, they didn’t even bat an eye. I thought that showed great kindness. I told them it was a shirt I bought when I travelled Africa with one of my high school girlfriends, when my life was better. We did, however, cut off my bra.
The only bone that was broken was my right thumb, but everything hurt and the only limb that worked properly was my left arm. I am right handed. While I guessed getting hit by a car would hurt, after a week when my legs still didn’t work and the pain in my thighs woke me screaming in the night, I started to wonder what exactly was wrong in my body. Bones aren’t the only things that can break in the body, but I hadn’t realised the ‘soft tissue’ in my thighs had such depth that it could be the source of such deep pain! A few days later, I thought the pain must surely start to dissipate, but it just kept evolving like some cruel sorcerer.
Upon reflection, I can see that the consequences or impact of that accident were profoundly affected by my privilege and disadvantage. As with all of us, I have an intersectional identity that includes both privilege and disadvantage. My privileges include the fact that I am white, Anglo-Saxon, highly educated, and heterosexual. I was once able-bodied (I even served some time in the Army) and I am also well connected in the community. I have the power to communicate with the written word, access to platforms on which I can share my writing, and networks of allies who have been able to help me in such times of need. But my disadvantages come from the fact that I am a woman, living in poverty, with a disability, and have survived domestic violence.
I live on the income from the Disability Support Pension. I have to spend over 70% of that pension to hold onto my apartment, knowing that women with disabilities are the group most vulnerable to homelessness. I have no discretionary spending and no insurance that would have replaced the scooter. When I cried out to those around me that day, they said ‘the NDIS will get you a new scooter, that’s what they’re for.’ I only cried harder in frustration. How on earth would I get around now if this scooter was damaged?
I need one. I suffer from a debilitating neurological condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis, a type of chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Seventy five percent of those diagnosed with this condition are womenand we all struggle with recognition and access to help. The condition leaves me incredibly sensitive to sound, cognitive overload and too much physical activity. Each of these triggers leaves me unable to walk, talk and even think. I wear noise cancelling headphones to help manage that sensory input, but construction sounds set off an acute physical reaction in my body, reducing my capacity to absorb information and make decisions.
That day, riding my scooter down the footpath beside Northbourne Avenue, I had passed an angle grinder, a concrete saw and an electric edge trimmer. I knew my body wasn’t functioning well. I had traversed many detours and intersections altered by roadworks. When I approached the intersection at which I needed to cross, I was confused by where I was supposed to cross and where the lights were. I observed the traffic: two lanes of stationary cars were waiting to travel across my path. The nearest lane was empty. When a pedestrian crossed ahead of me, I crossed the intersection.
I was barely a meter out from the island when I saw the white van that was about to hit me. Then it hit me. If the van’s windscreen/bonnet formed an angle at one o’clock, I remember it at noon, my body travelling through till about ten o’clock. That time frame is the scene that ran in instant replay in my dreams in the following weeks. I don’t remember much more until I was on the road – I wonder if I bounced, before landing on my back with my knees up. The driver ran out. I remember he asked if I was okay and somehow, possibly sarcastically, I said ‘NO! Call an ambulance!’ when he started repeatedly telling everyone he’d been driving at 60km/h.
Much later, I looked up the stats. People who are hit at 60km/h have an eighty five percent chance of dying. I only broke my thumb. Don’t get me wrong, my pain and suffering have been intense. But I also feel incredibly lucky. Wonderful friends, family, feminists and colleagues have all been generous in the support they have shown. A complete stranger even cut my hair in my hospital room so I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to keep the birds’ nests out of it and wash it when my body was so pained.
But I had diminished capacity when I crossed that intersection and the investigators have recorded the accident as my fault. I was led to believe I would not be able to claim the government insurance scheme designed to cover pedestrians and other third parties in road accidents. I broke down when the policeman told me the driver would not be charged for the accident and was shocked when he added that I wouldn’t be either. Isn’t the basic premise of safe driving ‘don’t hit pedestrians’?
A key problem with my disease is the lack of bodily autonomy. Since I first got sick, I have been terrified that at those times my body fails me, something bad would happen. I never imagined that ‘something bad’ to be getting hit by a car. But it really has fed into my need to feel safe, to be in safe spaces, with people I trust when I’m not well. We know that women with disability face particular and sustained challenges in achieving everyday safety and security. We are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual violence as well as other forms of abuse such as coercive control, emotional abuse, financial abuse, and physical and social isolation. We are also subject to unique violence such withholding required medications or aids or limiting access to disability support services.
The first time I heard a nurse ask, ‘If she only has a broken thumb, what is she still doing here?’ I was flabbergasted. It hit a bullseye straight to the feminist concern of women needing to justify the space they occupy. In fact, this came up time and again. It was especially traumatic given my existence had already been so entirely ignored as to be hit by a car that hadn’t even left skid marks on the road. Women’s experience of pain is often dismissed.One night, I rang my buzzer four times over 90 minutes for the nurse to give me pain killers I’d been prescribed.
I understand the public hospital system is overstretched. Several days during my time in that ward, I understood the hospital was at complete capacity; there was not a free bed in the place. But, as a patient not well enough to go home, I should not have needed to justify my presence to the staff charged with my care.
I explained over and again to staff that my pre-existing condition meant I was incredibly sensitive to sound; that it effected my mobility. If I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do the physiotherapy I needed to be able to get home. But my illness and needs were invisible to them; they wouldn’t listen and refused to shift me to a smaller room.
I spent countless hours incapacitated by the noise of beeping machines, floor cleaners, loud television sets, static speakers, and dozens of simultaneous guest conversations. It wasn’t until I was finally transferred to in-patient rehabilitation that I was able to start getting better. In a quieter space, with more considered staff, my nervous system could begin reverting to parasympathetic function, taking me out of fight or flight and allowing my body to heal.
In addition to needing to heal from the crash, spending weeks in hospital, and then post hospital treatment (for which I still cannot pay), I have lost the key tools that help me exist in the world, exist with a disability and still participate and contribute to society. My mobility scooter was donated to me by a small businessman when the one I inherited was flooded earlier in the year. My noise cancelling headphones were destroyed. I have no money and no insurance.
An old friend of mine has started a gofundme page to help get me back on my feet, so to speak. That scooter was worth $6000, new headphones cost $400. Post-hospital osteopathy will cost an average of $140 per session (per week). I need to move out of my third floor flat into a ground floor place with disability access and have no money for removalists or the standard ‘deep clean.’ The gofundme page aims to raise $10000. Please help, donate if you can and spread the word.
Susan Hutchinson regularly publishes on gendered issues, including in The Conversation, on SBS, BroadAgenda and HuffPost as well as her own ishoblog. She is the architect of the prosecute; don’t perpetrate campaign to end impunity for conflict related sexual violence and creator of felted furry friends. Susan is an advocate for sustainable, ethical food, writing on Susan’s Sumptuous Suppers, and taking tours teaching people about foraging for edible weeds. Her twitter handle is @SusansOpine