Perseverance and family support help her overcome a brain injury to find herself

Elizabeth Remington
By Elizabeth Remington April 26, 2018 06:02

Kathy Worotny showing one of her many awards.                 (Photo by Elle Remington)

By Elle Remington

Ask any child what two plus two equals and they easily answer four. But high school teacher Kathy Worotny could not answer this simple equation.

The explanation dates back to a typical day for Worotny in 1993 in Tecumseh.

She left St. Anne’s High School to run an errand and was making a left-hand turn when a driver in a Ford Bronco was speeding to beat the red light. He smashed into her vehicle at 75km/hr.

The Bronco destroyed Worotny’s small red Ford Escort and changed her life forever.

EMS attendants discovered Worotny’s head in the glove compartment and her feet out the window. She was bleeding from her head, nose and ears and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital where she lay in a coma for six weeks.

She awoke to multiple physical injuries including a broken tibia shinbone, a shattered knee and a fracture at the base of the skull.

Worotny’s sister, Pauline Shurak, said Worotny was frustrated and she blamed the world and even God for her injury.

Worotny was angry. Angry at the other driver, a young law student who used to be one of her pupils.

“I know he was a former student at St. Anne’s High School where I taught. For the longest time, I felt a lot of hatred towards the man. It took me a long time to say the man did not wake up that morning to cause problems for my life or anybody else’s life that day. He was distracted the same way I could be distracted,” Worotny said.

The medical personnel knew right away that Worotny had suffered a brain injury. Worotny accepts all the physical injuries but has had trouble accepting the reality of a brain injury.

“It was myself that did not want to accept that I had anything wrong and that was part of my brain injury that I could not accept that I had something wrong with me.”

“In my mind, I thought I was going back to teaching. Even though I was an educated woman and I couldn’t add, but I thought I was going back to teach,” said Worotny.

It took about two years to realize that she could not return to teaching.

“It made me feel defeated and it made me feel angry and it made me feel so incredibly sad, because teaching was something that I loved, that I loved dearly.”

At the time of the accident, Worotny, a former nun with the Sisters of the Holy Names, had been teaching religion for four years at St. Anne’s High School where she helped develop the life skills program for students with special needs. Her goal was to be the education coordinator of the program that serves three Catholic high schools, including Villanova and Cardinal Carter.

Most of us have career aspirations and Worotny had a dream too.

“I had dreams of becoming more than just a teacher in the classroom. I made my name known across the school board and I became a special education specialist and was one

of the only teachers in the Catholic school board that had training to deal with mentally challenged students,” said Worotny.

Worotny has faced many challenges and has new goals after the accident.

“I had a closed head injury and because of a closed head injury my brain moved around inside and there were areas of my life I had to learn all over again.”

She describes her recovery process as very hard.

“I had to learn how to talk, I had to learn how to walk, I had to learn how to dress myself. Had to learn how to put my shoes on. I had to learn how to cut my food and feed myself.”

It took more than 10 years for Worotny to accept what happened to her. It took the love of her family and the kind words of support from those around her.

“Kathy, live your life to the fullest. There are some people worse off than you,” said Shurak.

Worotny decided to do just that and focus on living her life. To find herself.

She has regained all those skills and even though she is not a teacher any longer she has a new direction in life.

Worotny is on the board of directors of the Ontario Brain Injury Association of Windsor-Essex. She is also on the peer support committee, social group committee, outreach committee and is actively involved in various workshops organized by the association.

She is excited when she talks about the PARTY program (Prevent Alcohol and Risk Related Trauma in Youth).

“I used to go to the PARTY program every Friday and share how my crash was caused from another person taking the risk of running a red light.”

Worotny hopes her words inspire young people to think about the responsibility of driving a car and the consequences of how many lives are affected when the rules of the road are not obeyed.

When she is not busy volunteering she takes care of her aging parents. Worotny said as soon as she got her driver’s license back she became her parents’ personal chauffeur.

Worotny is grateful for all the care from her parents during her recovery and says that she’s very happy to be able to drive them now.

Just as new parents anxiously wait for their babies to say ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy,’ Worotny’s parents anxiously waited by her hospital bed for her to say ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ She opened her eyes after three weeks in a coma and her first words two weeks later were indeed ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’

She also has a hobby that brings her joy and has become a business for her.

“I make birthday cards for Velocity Injury Law.” She said she won’t get rich from this, but the law firm pays for her expenses plus a dollar per card.

There is a sculpture dedicated to brain injury survivors on Windsor’s riverfront. It has names engraved of people who are survivors. Worotny wants her name to be added to the monument one day.

Anna Jurack, executive director of the association, said the memorial recognizes people who have an acquired brain injury. Some of the people are still alive so it’s in honour of them because of what they have gone through and their perseverance in getting back into society.

Others have died because of their brain injury or of natural causes.

“I’m going to have my name put on the monument. In honour, not in memory, but in honour of life,” Worotny said, with pride in her voice.

Jurack is one of Worotny’s biggest fans.

“She’s probably one of the greatest advocates and best example of how with perseverance and work you can function again after brain injury,” said Jurack.

She said many people ask if a patient can heal from a brain injury.

“It depends on the level of brain injury. Brain injury is rated as mild, medium or traumatic,” said Jurack.

“It depends on the kind of therapy you get. How quickly you are treated, and obviously your perseverance and support from other people,” said Jurack.

“So, yes you can,” Jurack said, with a smile.

Worotny would like people to know that a brain injury is something you cannot see and not to judge people so quickly. She gets frustrated when people cut her off in conversation and would like people to give her a few minutes to think about what she has to say.

It takes time for her to gather her thoughts before saying it, and she finds sometimes people are impatient with her.

“I think that sometimes because I take time to answer them, they turn around and start talking to somebody else and I’m like, ‘But you didn’t let me finish what I was saying,’” said Worotny. If the person interrupts, she will sometimes wait until they’re finished and then say, “Can I finish saying what I was saying?”

Worotny drives and has an accessible parking permit which she uses. She recalls an incident from a decade ago while she was parking her car and a woman in a pickup truck pulled up next to her, rolled down her window and said, “Get out of that parking spot. You don’t belong there, there’s nothing wrong with you. Why don’t you leave that spot for somebody who needs it! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

This verbal assault shocked Worotny into replying that the woman did not know any-thing about her and she proceeded to lift her pant leg and showed the lady all her scars and said, “That is the beginning of my problems!”

The woman rolled up her window and took off.

Worotny decided to write a letter to the Windsor Star and describe the encounter. This prompted many people to write letters to the editor. Some were in defense of Worotny and others questioned whether she should be driving a vehicle at all since she is a brain injury survivor.

“The ministry didn’t give me a parking permit because of my brain injury, but I use it because of my tibia bone and my shattered knee and my fused foot,” she said.

Once, she parked on a multi-floor parking garage in Toronto and did not remember where.

“I had to have someone from the information booth walk with me on two floors before I could find my car,” said Worotny.

The parking permit gives her an easy location to find her car.

Worotny’s accident was 25 years ago but, as she says, she’s a survivor. Life is different from what she planned, but she has been happily married for 11 years and has an active life as a volunteer and mentor.

Ask Worotny what two plus two equals now and she quickly answers four.

Elizabeth Remington
By Elizabeth Remington April 26, 2018 06:02

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