At 21 years old Tracy Lussenhop-Caldwell learned to walk, talk, read and write and just about everything else most people take for granted.
Caldwell, studying veterinarian medicine at the University of Illinois, was driving to a part-time job on Nov. 5, 1990 when she crashed her new Mustang GT. It was an accident that would change the course of the rest of her life.
“I assume I was going over the speed limit,” Caldwell said. “My tires hit a puddle and the car was wrapped around a telephone poll.”
The car was equipped with airbags, but the bag exploded, throwing Caldwell into the back of the vehicle. She ended up in a coma at Olympia Fields Hospital.
She underwent the first of five brain surgeries, a tracheotomy and had a feeding tube put in. She later was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she underwent more brain surgery.
“My brain was like a ball flattened on the side,” she said. “The left hemisphere was damaged. That has math and science skills, all of your knowledge.”
To add to her troubles her brother died of an accident on the day she awoke from a 20-day coma.
He was just the first member of her family who would die during her years of recovery.
A cousin died in 1993 and her mother died from breast cancer in 1995.
“One year, one month, one day later I get a call from the Richton Park Police that they were looking for my father. Nine days later the Chicago Police found his body.”
A cousin died just two years later, in 1998.
But with all of that, Caldwell had her own recovery to deal with.
Tests at Northwestern after Caldwell came out of the coma showed that her general knowledge was at an eighth-grade level. In college she had been an honor-roll student, but all of that was gone.
“They were able to save my life, but they couldn’t continue my life. I had to learn how to talk, to stand. I had to learn everything again at age 21.
“I was a very physical, a very strong, very active person. I had always been a tomboy,” Caldwell said.
Now, more than 15 years later, Caldwell has come to terms with her injury and the life she has led since.
She suffers from grand mal seizures and severe depression, but at the same time she has tried to use her experiences to help other people.
She is married with two children and still has the love of animals that led her into veterinary medicine in college.
She is preparing to take part in this fall’s Chicago marathon with an eye toward raising money for the Brain Injury Association of America and PAWS (Pets are Worth Saving).
As part of her preparation Caldwell plans to take part Sunday in the Morton Grove Park District’s annual Prairie View 5K Run/Fun Walk.
In addition, she walks between 8 and 10 miles a day with her Saint Bernard Cubby.
On the advice of her doctors, Caldwell’s husband Jim will accompany her on the marathon. It’s something he would likely do anyway.
He’s protective of his wife, coming home from work during an interview and warning her about her doctor’s advice when she says she may try running rather than walking in the Prairie View 5K.
He also is one of her biggest boosters. “I’m very proud of her,” Jim Caldwell said.
As part of her recovery Caldwell has attended a support group for people with brain injuries at Lutheran General Hospital.
She went to her first meeting in December 2002 and more than three years later has “grown into a mentor role,” said Nancy Landre, who leads the Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group.
“She enjoys being in the role where she can give advice and be helpful to others,” Landre said. “She’s always willing to extend herself to other people in the group.”
Caldwell also has tried to help other people better understand what a severe brain injury means to its victims. She has spoken to Sociology of Family classes at DePaul University and Biology classes at Truman College.
“I do as much as I can for everybody,” Caldwell said.
She also has tried to learn more about herself, spending hours at the Morton Grove Public Library studying about traumatic brain injuries.
“I’m fascinated with the brain and how I became what I am,” Caldwell said. “I just on my own want to learn.”