My Life is Forever Changed – 12 Years After “Extreme Roadrash”

Twelve years ago, I was a passenger in a life-changing motorcycle accident. Photos of my injuries circulated the internet throughout the motorcycle community more times than anyone can count. There were aspects to my story that could not be photographed, like the healing process, personal change and emotional struggle. So, I wrote about my experience exactly a year after the crash. Little did I know that the article would go viral and forever dub me as “The Roadrash Queen.” That story continues to be used as a cautionary tale even today. However, what I wrote in 2006 is barely a fraction of my current reality.

The motorcycle accident that changed my life forever, 12 years later.

After years of painful recovery, I am left with physical scars you can see, and emotional damage a camera simply cannot capture. When I first wrote about my injuries a year after the crash, I was barely able to recount my experiences without feeling sick. I had no idea the extent of the battle that still lay ahead of me.

Regardless of the changes my body had already gone through, the true struggle was yet to come. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered I was no longer the person I once knew. I was different, unpredictable even to myself, and my body was more and more unfamiliar. I had to learn that, because of the crash, both life and limb would never be the same.

To this day, when interviewed, I am repeatedly asked about the crash and my accomplishments. “What happened? What have I done since the accident?” The question I am never asked, however, is, “HOW ARE YOU?” Rarely has anyone had the courage to dive deeply into the long-term effects on my psyche and spirit. Perhaps it’s because opening Pandora’s box to discover the true meaning of “lifelong consequences” is terrifying. Trust me, I get it. Instead, let’s embrace it. I believe the true power of my story exists in that place we are all afraid to explore.

The motorcycle accident that changed my life forever. Brittany out in the Ozarks.

For 10 years I have honed my skills as a safety instructor and public speaker to try to reach my fellow riders. Those who have attended my presentations get an in-depth account of my life since being skinned alive. I wish it was easy to explain what it’s like to establish a way of living that deals with daily pain; a state of being I’ve simply named my “new normal.”

I’m 32 and I have arthritis in more places than most people twice my age. There are things I can no longer do that I used to love and would still love if I hadn’t ripped my body apart. I struggle every day to accept my physical limitations and embrace the fact that I might never again be the extremely athletic girl I once was. In my mind I am still that person, but my body simply refuses to cooperate. For those who have never experienced long-term disability, there is no way to describe the feeling that you are trapped inside your own body. Beyond the physical pain, there is no instruction manual for how to handle those feelings. I’m still trying to figure it out.

The site of the motorcycle accident that changed my life forever.

There is a constant internal battle that rages inside me. I have lost so much of my memory surrounding the accident, and yet the horrible vision of the crash itself stays fresh in my mind. Sometimes when I least expect it, an irrational fear that never existed before, and that I cannot control, takes over. I have flashbacks that paralyze me, some for a few moments and others for several minutes. I used to find myself wondering if it would eventually go away. I am still reluctant to say “PTSD” out loud because I’m terrified of the implications and what it might mean for my future. One day I will have to confront it head on.

Before the accident, I was selfish and impulsive, focusing solely on the quickest and greatest rewards for myself. Now, I look back on the fear and despair I forced my parents through, and it hurts more than any physical pain I’ve endured. My choices that day took away my ability to have children. Much of my battle has been trying to accept that I did this to myself, although unintentionally. These thoughts cause strong feelings of shame and sorrow that I cannot shake. I like to think that I have no regrets, but that is a huge lie I tell myself to get by. Guilt is such a careful con artist and I’m still attempting to understand how much it has forever changed me.

The site of the motorcycle accident that changed my life forever. Brittany at the Grand Caynon.

The good news is that I now have more than just a survival story. Motorcycling is the greatest joy I have ever brought into my life. I share this part of my journey not so others will be afraid, but so my fellow riders might truly understand that the risk is real and safety should be taken seriously. I wake up everyday knowing that I can help motorcyclists not have to experience such things, and that truly keeps me going. I expose this part of my life as a way of connecting others to the reality of their choices both on and off the motorcycle. I urge my fellow riders to think about what matters most to them and make decisions based on those values. It is one of the reasons I am thrilled and grateful to be a guest editor and contributor with the WRN team.

Some days are harder than others, but I am always trying to learn more about my post-crash self. I have, hopefully, many years ahead of me, and I’m looking forward to more healing and a deeper understanding of this new normal. In the end, this is not the end for me. It is barely the beginning.

The story above was originally published on Women Riders Now.

To read my original article that went viral, you can click here.

About the Author
On September 25, 2005, Brittany was involved in a near-fatal accident as a passenger on a GSXR 750. Due to the overwhelming response to her story, Brittany has dedicated her life to the promotion of motorcycle safety, the use of safety apparel and the education of riders regarding these important aspects of the sport. Brittany is currently a professional motorcycle safety instructor, public speaker, writer, fundraiser and the National Director of the Women’s Sportbike Rally.

10 Years as The Roadrash Queen – I Have Found My Purpose

I never would have thought that looking different could earn me credibility, respect and opportunity… and yet, here I stand. Respected. Purpose built. Powerful.

Every day I look in the mirror at my scars that are over ten years old. I remember when I couldn’t imagine looking and feeling this way for the rest of my life. I no longer dream that at any moment I might wake up from this nightmare and be comfortable in my own skin once again. When I look at myself, I am reminded of my mistakes. When I touch the thick skin on my hands, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be alive. These scars have given my life purpose, but they come with a great responsibility. Earning them was the hard part, owning them has become my life’s work.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the air was unseasonably warm for September in New Mexico. I was excited to be going on a ride through the Jemez Mountains on the back of my new friend Shaun’s GSXR 750. Before we headed out that morning, I had shed my favorite cowboy hat in exchange for a borrowed (and very ugly) red helmet. I thought nothing of the fact that I had no other protection against the asphalt besides that hunk of foam and plastic. I figured that we couldn’t get into a wreck; it simply wouldn’t happen to me. I was nearly dead wrong.

As many of us have been told, motorcycle helmets are made to withstand an otherwise deadly impact to the head. When helmets are designed, their main duty is to disperse the force from a single crash and then become obsolete. They are put through rigorous testing to ensure they perform this task with certainty. Helmets are rated according to their protective abilities and are manufactured by thousands of companies all over the world. They range in price from $35 to over $1000, and a popular saying suggests the price of your helmet is proportional to the value of your head. They are available at every dealership in the country, at specialty shops, and online. Chances are, if you ride a motorcycle, you own a helmet. However, not all riders choose to wear their helmet on every ride.

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Shaun and I were going an estimated 120 mph when my borrowed, ugly red helmet was put to the ultimate test. When I hit the ground, it was as if every breath I had ever taken rushed out of me in an instant. I could feel every inch of my body hitting the road; tumbling, sliding and grinding into the unforgiving surface. In my helmet, I fought to breathe as I gave into the force of the asphalt ripping at my flesh. In a matter of seconds, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to die. My eyes were closed but I was awake as I finished tumbling down the highway. Later, the police would tell me I had traveled a total of 522 feet. Unimaginable, yes. Unlikely, absolutely. It happened to me.

I laid there on the road for what seemed like an eternity before emergency help arrived. Eternity, as it turns out, is exactly forty-five minutes. Every nerve ending in my body was on fire; tingling, scorching, stabbing and burning. I had not gone into shock for very long, and the adrenaline had worn off almost instantly. Not being able to move was the worst of it. I wanted to pull my arm out from underneath me. I wanted to get off that hot road. I wanted the sun to stop shining so brightly on my exposed back. I wanted everything to just go away, but it wouldn’t go away. I wanted to die, but the people who came to my rescue wouldn’t let me give up. I had skinned myself alive and was still breathing because of that ugly red helmet.

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My road rash was so severe that my skin was not going to grow back on its own. I had lost too much surface area for the doctors to simply suture me together and send me home. After the blood loss had been controlled, the skin loss needed to be addressed. I was to receive full thickness skin grafts on over 50% of my body. In order to help my open wounds heal, the doctors had to cut off a thick layer of healthy skin from my legs and place it over my burns, stapling the new skin in place. This was the only way to “fix” me. The word painful does not begin to describe the experience, and even ten years later the thought of my time in the hospital can turn my stomach at a moment’s notice. In the end, it took the doctors two months, three blood transfusions, 31 dressing changes, and nine surgeries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Near the end of my hospital stay I realized that I was forever changed in many ways. I was devastated about my scarred skin, but also thankful to be alive every day. I knew that what I had gone through proved I had the strength to survive anything else thrown at me in the future. I also knew that my outward appearance was extremely altered, and not for the better. It took me a long to time to accept my new skin and relinquish the hopes that I might one day be considered beautiful to the rest of the world’s standards. I thought looking the way I did would alienate me, but instead, it opened a door; people began asking me about my scars and I was given many opportunities to share my story.

Eight months after the day I skinned myself alive, I bought a brand new sportbike and a set of full gear with head-to-coverage . I learned some important things about myself in the months following my immersion into the sport and lifestyle that almost cost me my life. I realized how strong I really am, and that my parents weren’t lying to me when they said I could do anything I put my mind to. I learned that I never wanted to feel the way I did in the hospital again and I could actually do something to prevent it. I discovered that my appearance was now a tool to encourage riders to choose to wear full gear. And I learned that motorcycling safely was an attitude and a choice that I had to make every time I went riding. However, the most important thing I came to realize was that these lessons were not meant for me alone. I was newly and uniquely created to share what I had learned with the world.

Since this realization, my life and work has been dictated by choices that help to spread my message. In 2006 I wrote a full account of the accident and my experiences as a cautionary tale for riders. It was published online and embraced throughout the community, and began popping up on forums and websites in over 20 countries. I was invited to attend safety conferences and tell my story as a way to show riders what can happen and share information on how to help prevent it, and I brought that ugly red helmet as a tangible testimony. I was encouraged to do research on protective technologies and pursue a path of motorcycle safety education. I received a NAMS (National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety) grant to start a national non-profit web campaign for protective apparel awareness and education that became a household name for many riders. Three-and-a-half years after leaving the hospital, I became a certified RiderCoach for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to teach new and experienced riders alike the importance of attitude, skill, protective gear, and lifelong learning. I have effectively become the prodigal child of motorcycle safety education and protective apparel awareness.

I did not choose the scars that now adorn my body, but they do represent a matter of dire importance to the motorcycle community. So, like a conscious and deliberate bumper sticker placed on the back of a rusty pickup truck, I will use my scars as a way to get a message to the people who I believe need it desperately. I do not hide my scars, nor am I ashamed of them. I will always wear them proudly in the hopes that they stir up as much attention as possible. My scars do not define me, but they do allow me to take a public stance on an issue I care for deeply.

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I am following the path of motorcycle safety and safety apparel education, and it is a constant process that continues to mold me into who I want to be. Over the last two years, I fulfilled my desire and dream to work for an envelope-pushing industry-leading gear manufacturer. Before that, I reached my goal of becoming an MSF site manager while simultaneously serving those who serve as a US Navy contractor. My existence since the crash has been dedicated to helping others realize that they have the power to change their own lives and never experience what I did in 2005.

I know now that receiving my horrific scars actually makes me best suited for my role as a passionate motorcycle safety educator. I’ve become thankful for the way I look because it empowers me much more than blending into the sea of beautiful bodies on bikes ever could. I never would have thought that looking different could earn me credibility, respect and opportunity, but here I stand. My scars radiate a message of tragedy, survival, and triumph that cannot be denied, replaced or discounted. I’d say that makes me quite qualified to do what I do, and do it better than any others.

I keep that ugly red helmet on a shelf in my house where I can see it every day, and most importantly, every time I get ready to go on a ride. Once upon a time, it was available for purchase to anyone who was interested in wearing a red helmet. When put to the test, it did exactly what it was made to do; it saved my life. Now it is beaten and broken, but it serves a greater purpose, and that is to share a warning with anyone who sees it.

I suppose I have become like my ugly red helmet. Although battered and scarred, it is hard to ignore my outward appearance and the message that comes along with it. I carry around a story of caution and wisdom and share it with everyone I meet. I will continue to share it for the rest of my life. I have been perfectly molded and beautifully adorned to serve a purpose, and when put to the test, I do exactly what I am made to do: save lives.

Survivor – 7 years Later

Brittany explores the true meaning of “survivor” and connects her recovery to others who have experienced disfigurement trauma. Originally posted on her blog: Bee Behind Bars – The Survivor Ride

Anyone who knows me knows my story and understands why I care so much about educating and serving the motorcyclists of the world. Most of those who know me also remember my epic CONGA ride last year and what a passion I have for long-distance touring because of it.

NEW FOCUS

Thanks to my 4200-mile-long trip to Wyoming and back, I was able to contribute to a cause that raised nearly $50,000 to fight Breast Cancer in 2011.  While there, I met many amazing women, including Tamela Rich who has redefined what a “newbie rider” is truly capable of. In her most recent newsletter she challenged her readers (and, subsequently me) to consider other ways to contribute to the cause beyond just raising money. Tamela has chosen to spend her summer adventurecating (yes, I made that up) rather than fundraising. I’ve taken her cue to heart and have decided to narrow my focus as well.  I’ve always related to breast cancer survivors as a trauma survivor myself. After all, I did sheer-off half of my left breast during my crash in 2005. Although I have never been diagnosed with cancer, I know what it is like to go through surgeries, medical treatment, and physical therapy only to find myself staring a lifelong recovery in the face. I just didn’t know how to connect the dots until I did a little bit of research…

THE BREAST CANCER CONNECTION

Patricia Ganz, MD is the Director of the Division of Cancer Prevention & Control Research at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA, among many other things.  Patricia studies many of the aspects related to Breast Cancer Survivorship and the issues these women face post-treatment (both surgery and chemotherapy). In her study titled Breast cancer survivors: psychosocial concerns and quality of life, Patricia writes, “In spite of relatively good physical and emotional functioning on a generic measure of health status and quality of life, these breast cancer survivors reported a number of important and severe rehabilitation problems that persisted beyond one year after primary treatment. Especially frequent were problems associated with physical and recreational activities, body image, sexual interest, sexual function, and problems with dating for those who were single.”

Her study concluded that, “Breast cancer survivors appear to attain maximum recovery from the physical and psychological trauma of cancer treatment by one year after surgery. A number of aspects of quality of life and rehabilitation problems worsen after that time.”

In an article written by Margaret L. Polinski, much focus was placed on what she calls the “chronicity” of a breast cancer diagnosis. She writes, “For all cancer survivors what begins as a crisis involving diagnosis and treatment gradually becomes a chronic illness characterized by lifelong follow-up medical care, indelible psychological effects, and changes in social and employment relationships. In general, breast cancer survivorship is characterized by “mild morbidity” and non-life-threatening problems not likely to be mentioned to others. However, some studies have documented important longer-term effects of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.”

Margaret pointed readers in the direction of an International Support Network called Reach to Recovery. I was curious about the group as I had never heard of them before. I found some information on the American Cancer Society’s website, but wanted to know more. And then I found it: Reach to Recovery International‘s website. I spent about 10.5 seconds looking at the homepage before I was on the brink of tears. What pulled on my heartstrings so strongly, you ask? They publish an educational newsletter called BLOOM which “promotes the exchange of current information on training, advocacy, research, volunteer and peer support.” Sounds a little like Rock the Gear, eh?  To top it all off, their next conference is in South Africa, the childhood home of my late friend Natasha Louis, who was killed in a motorcycle crash at the Jennings track early this year. That was all the sign I needed to indicate that I was on the right path. With that, my summer mission was born. So, without further ado, I dub this year’s adventure…

THE SURVIVOR RIDE

In 2012, the sole purpose for my ride will be to bring attention to the often forgotten SURVIVORS of breast cancer who need ongoing medical attention, psychological care, hope and encouragement, and most of all: the help and support of others.  When it comes to awareness prevention and finding a cure are at the forefront, but we mustn’t ignore the challenges of breast cancer survivorship. The women who do survive this terrible disease have a lifelong battle ahead of them. I aim to bring attention to this issue and the many programs offered for these women. I also hope to show everyone how they each have an opportunity to help. As an example, I’ve included photos from a campaign called THE SCAR PROJECT which aims to empower young breast cancer survivors by allowing them to cope with their battle by sharing images of their scars with the world. I truly identify with this group of women, because I share their struggle to accept my disfigurement on a daily basis. The best part? There are many ways to get involved regardless of your experiences, and I aim to encourage others to explore new ways to help while I trek across the country this summer.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read through this entire post. I believe these women and I share a special connection and it’s time to shed some light on their struggle. I am truly honored to be partaking in such a mission and have charged myself with quite the task. I am confident that I am up for the challenge as a true survivor who knows there are no mountains too high, no valleys too low, no rivers too wide…  and if I have to cross a million of them to take a stand, you can bet I’m all in.

– Brittany Morrow