Kathleen Watson’s journey through pain, healing and recovery
“Set backs and tragedies are not the end, only the beginning of a new search in the ever changing, evolving life ahead…”
Dr. Kathleen Watson lives by this mantra each day. Following an accident that left her severely traumatised, she is unable to work and to live her life as she knew it. From her hospital bed, during months of recovery, she recorded her personal account of this life-changing experience.
The result is her book tilted The Road Back, an inspirational journey through pain, healing and recovery which she anticipates will give new insights and hope to persons struggling to overcome tragedy.
A successful rehabilitation physician, Watson worked in New York City for many years, helping patients recover from the pain of trauma. Her patients were primarily victims of accidents, strokes, amputees, and persons with problems associated with ageing.
“I enjoyed my work and thought of myself as a caring and generous person,” she told All Woman on her first visit back to Jamaica, having gone abroad for rehabilitative care following her near-death experience.
She had been called back to Jamaica to take up the position as director of the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre at UWI, Mona. A challenge she was eagerly anticipating. But what should have been a joyous occasion, turned instead, into a terrifying slide towards death.
In one split second during an afternoon walk in the neighbourhood where she grew up and loved, her life changed completely, and with it, all the experiences she had as a caregiver — she was now the one who needed care.
This is her account of that afternoon.
“I remember enjoying my late afternoon walk along a safe residential street in a well-to-do neighbourhood. I faced the rolling foothills near the base of the Blue Mountains, reminding me of the childhood times years ago in sight of these very mountains. I inhaled the cool, comfortable air that blew down off the mountains. I strolled along confidently, exuberantly. During my walk, a speeding motorbike came from behind and struck me, dragging and bouncing me along about 50 feet until the rider lost control. One of his wheels may have rolled over my leg.
“My brain started swelling when my head finally stopped banging along the ground. As my brain expanded with fluid, my neurons tore apart. I entered a twilight zone of disorientation and drifted in and out of consciousness. Blood poured out from lacerations on my left arm, head, right and left hands. I felt pain, but I didn’t know how much I was hurt. Blood covered me. No ambulance ever arrived. A bone protruded from my leg, causing a few bystanders to panic. They stopped a car and pleaded with the driver to run me to the hospital. Unaware of my fractures, the bystanders hauled me into the car in an effort to save my life.
“I arrived at the hospital approximately 6:00 pm. An orderly pulled me out of the back seat, onto the hospital stretcher and wheeled me into the hospital to the attending nurse. I could only presume that there were questions asked as to who I was, and if anybody knew me. Even though I knew other doctors in town, that fact did not matter because no one in the hospital recognised me.
“When I went outside to exercise, I usually carried my business card in my tennis shoes for basic identification. On this day, I wore a waist pouch, I carried my door key, asthma spray, tissue, a golf tee, and my business card that read: Kathleen R Watson MD.
“I did not look like a doctor to the autocratic nurse on duty, she apparently assumed I had the business card of another doctor, she had probably never seen a doctor brought to the hospital in such a traumatic condition. I did not have any other form of identification, and with no identification there appeared to be no medical insurance or anyone else who could pay for my medical expenses. The ER personnel may have quickly assumed that I had been just another prostitute who had probably been attacked by a customer so she could wait.
“Meanwhile, my swelling brain caused me to go in and out of delirium. My own brain connection had been destroyed. I could go into a coma at any time. Lacerations covered my forehead. There were broken bones. There had been obvious loss of blood. If my blood pressure dropped too much, I could die. I obviously needed medical treatment. I lay waiting for a doctor. Life slowly drained from me as I lay unconscious, unidentified and near death all night.”
At 7:00 am, 14 hours after the accident, Watson had not yet been treated by a doctor. Luckily, Professor Sir John Golding, with whom she was working closely, was doing his rounds that morning and saw her.
Watson continues her story.
“The startled doctors started working to resuscitate me, and my limbs were splinted. Next came blood tests, CT scans and X-rays. Nurses prepped me for the operating theatre. I had regained consciousness, but remained confused.
“The X-rays showed multiple injuries, including cerebral concussion, displaced fracture of the armbone, open fracture of the left forearm, lacerations across the left wrist forearms, segmental open fractures of the shin bone, fractured right thigh bone, multiple abrasions and lacerations across the right brow.”
Watson spent four months in hospital, including eight days in the intensive care unit. She underwent seven major surgeries to reset broken bones and to do skin grafting. But despite these physical repairs, her brain was barely functioning.
“I remained in a state of mental confusion. I felt semi-alert. I knew people were talking to me and I wanted to talk to them… My language had reverted to childlike babble. For me, life had been reduced to involuntary physiological functions — breathing, bladder and bowel movements,” Watson recalled painfully.
Somewhere in this confusion however, she realised that she would have to start life all over again. Having been discharged from hospital and recuperating slowly at home, Watson’s brain began to work slowly. She made arrangements to travel to New York for a neuropsycometric test which would indicate how much her brain had deteriorated. The test revealed severe memory loss, the inability to attend to details, limited reading, comprehension, and diminished literacy skills, poor word choices in speaking and writing, and lack of basic skills. Watson was deemed mentally unfit to continue practising medicine.
So badly damaged was her brain that she had problems performing even the most mundane tasks.
“I had lost all my taste buds, my brain and taste buds never reconnected, so in order to take nourishment I had to tell myself ‘Kathleen, it’s time to eat and you have to eat to have strength and get well’. A simple task as microwaving a meal required constant, repetitive practice,” Watson said.
Watson knew her road to recovery would be slow and painstaking, but she was determined to get back on track… somehow.
“As much as I preached to myself to be strong and go on, I still found it difficult to remain positive. I felt alone and depressed. However, I prevailed in my positive, confident outlook. I knew I had to re-establish my own independent life despite my disabilities and I pushed very hard to achieve this,” she said.
Today, after two years of struggle, Kathleen Watson has regained her sensibilities and is back on the path to leading a normal life. The real test came when she decided to attend an international hockey tournament in Brussels.
Watson had always been an active member of the Jamaica Hockey Association. She enjoyed and appreciated the sport and was a volunteer medical physician with the International Hockey Federation. For the past 10 years, she had been secretary for the medical committee.
“I felt determined to get to the Federation’s meetings and continue my work… My clothes covered the surgical scars on my arms and legs. My only limitations would be in my movements and my communicating,” Watson told All Woman.
She now had a new lease on life. She was elected chairperson of the International Hockey Foundation’s medical committee, and this meant she would have to be available for international meetings. Watson accepted the challenge, realising that despite her injuries, her colleagues had faith in her. She now works full-time with the hockey federation, and this exposure has helped her to gain confidence, and to re-establish herself as a functioning member of society.
“I am somewhat still in a state of transition, but I am looking towards the future, and imagining fulfilments that are to come. I still fight hard to be independent, but each day, I realise new fulfilments about myself. I think about my career, which I cannot count on now. Am I disappointed? Sure, especially after 40 years of dreaming and working as a doctor. Am I destined for something? I have to give a resounding, YES,” Watson said, confident and composed.
She is also actively promoting her book which is distributed online by The 1st Book Library, and at Direct Books, Brown’s Town, St Ann.