Like every young child, Tristen Sharp went through that toddler phase of incessantly asking ‘why.’ Now as a young woman, the question is one she has every reason to ponder.
Why did she suffer a traumatic brain injury when hit by a car while a high school junior? Why was her recovery thwarted months later when a car crash caused a second brain bleed weeks after graduation? Neither accident was her fault, but both radically changed her life. She now walks a different and extremely difficult path, one that involves navigating life with a brain that will never be whole.
“Why didn’t it happen to me? It’s just as legitimate a question,” counters Tristen, a sophomore criminal justice sciences major. “There is a reason, and there is a plan. Good things will come out of this.”
The words reflect the solid faith in God that has strengthened Tristen, her parents, and two siblings as they have all endured a range of pain beyond description—from physical to emotional and psychological. It was, in fact, while walking into a Wednesday evening church event on October 14 in 2015 that the first accident happened in Tristen’s Southern Illinois hometown of Mt. Vernon.
“I was just crossing the street and beyond that, I don’t remember,” Tristen said. Phone records show that she was not using her phone, and witnesses confirm she looked for cars before crossing.
The fact she has no memory of being launched by one vehicle into another stopped in traffic is a blessing. Her mother has vivid recall of every harrowing detail.
“I remember getting the call from a woman at the church and just screaming,” Brandy Sharp said. “I asked if Tristen was going to be OK. She just said to get to the hospital.”
An emergency helicopter was en route for Tristen, who was airlifted to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis without Brandy having very much time with her. At age 16, Tristen was admitted to a pediatric trauma care unit.
“They didn’t even guarantee Tristen would make it through the flight,” Brandy said. Tristen’s injuries included a punctured lung, three pelvic fractures, a fractured sinus cavity, and a brain bleed so severe emergency surgery was needed to remove the right side of her skull to allow for swelling.
Even with that procedure, there was still no guarantee Tristen would survive. The first 72 hours were the most tenuous, with the initial 21 made more tense for Brandy because her husband and Tristen’s dad, Sean, was on the road. A truck driver with a load in Texas, he needed almost a full day to reach the hospital.
They and their other children, Haley and Trey, were joined by extended family and friends in keeping vigil as Tristen remained in a coma nearly a month. No brain stimulation was allowed, meaning no touching Tristen or speaking to her.
She remained on a ventilator for several weeks, and suffered a setback when it was removed. Tristen could not breathe without the support of a machine. With time, she began to respond with limited movement. When she did finally open her eyes, there was a blank stare. She could not speak.
“The doctors said there was a very good possibility we may have to accept what function she had at that point,” Brandy recalled. “It was an emotional roller coaster. We were brought to our knees very quickly.”
Hope returned when Tristen was transferred for rehabilitation to Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
“I had to learn how to walk, talk and swallow all over again,” Tristen said. “At first, I was just in shock. Then I was in tears from pain, frustration and anger. I had to work to regain who I was before.”
Tristen had been an exceptional high school student with enormous aspirations well within reach because of her determination, work ethic and incredible intelligence. A community volunteer and friend to all, she was ranked at the top of her class and on track to complete an associate’s degree with her diploma.
“I loved to learn,” Tristen said. Classes were easy, requiring minimal study time to grasp material in advanced placement courses at Mount Vernon Township High School or Rend Lake College.
By contrast, everything was a struggle after the accident. She was in physical, occupational and speech therapy for nine months. She worked with homebound tutors to complete her junior year. She needed 24-hour care because of dizziness and vomiting, the possibility of seizures, and an inability to be trusted with simple tasks such as turning off the stove.
“Tristen had the mentality of a 9-year-old when she came home,” Brandy said. Her daughter had very little memory of her previous life. The family patiently worked with her as she rebuilt her memories. She also had no ability to maintain her academic success.
“She could not write full sentences,” Brandy said, recalling Tristen working for three hours on an essay. The result was one sentence written at the level of an elementary student.
“School was suddenly hard work,” Tristen said. “My learning comprehension was damaged. I had to repeat information and repeat it again to get it in my long-term memory.”
Beyond the support of friends from school, church, and the community as a whole, Tristen’s motivating force was her passion for cheerleading. She cheered from age 4 on through high school. Competitive dance was another childhood joy, but cheer was her first love.
“The sport was the driving force in Tristen’s recovery,” Brandy said. She witnessed Tristen’s hard work to rebuild her physical strength, as she had dropped below 100 pounds and lost the majority of her muscle mass. She also had to overcome a mental block to cheer again, as she worried of another injury while performing flying stunts.
“I finally realized that I can’t live in fear,” Tristen said. “That’s not living.”
Tristen consequently had the courage and stamina to return to high school full-time as a senior. She was back on the cheer squad. Her schedule included advanced calculus and statistic classes, along with human anatomy.
She applied to five universities and was admitted to each. A visit to ISU convinced Tristen she wanted to be a Redbird. Just weeks after finishing high school, that plan was put in jeopardy when Tristen was in a second, equally devastating accident.
“What I’ve been told is that I was going to get ice cream with my best friend,” Tristen said. It was June 11, 2017. The shop was a 20-minute drive on a sunny afternoon by way of Interstate 57, which is where tragedy literally hit.
A driver, who has entered a guilty plea to being under the influence of drugs, crossed the interstate median and hit the vehicle in which Tristen was a passenger. The seatbelt kept her secure in the car that flipped and landed on its side down in a ditch.
“Devastating is an understatement,” said Brandy, who again raced to the hospital to see her daughter airlifted, this time to St. Louis University Hospital trauma center. The neurological team from the first accident was summoned.
This time the doctors found three brain bleeds on the opposite side of Tristen’s first injury. Her neck was broken just above the spot where paralysis would have occurred. She had cuts to her face and shoulder, with her nose broken in multiple places. Once again, a head injury compromised her memory.
“He tore my life apart all over again,” said Tristen, who has no memory of the accident. Her hospital stay was miraculously only nine days, with medicines controlling the brain swelling. A plastic surgeon repaired her face, and she wore a neck brace for 16 weeks. Back home she faced another round of extensive therapy to regain strength and simple life skills lost with the additional brain trauma.
“She did not know the basics, not even how to operate a shower,” Brandy said. She dropped down to the functional level of a 13-year-old, with the family noticing subtle changes.
“Most people don’t realize that brain injuries change your personality. For 16 years as Tristen’s mother, I knew everything about her. One day, I had to learn to love someone else because personality wise, the way she thinks, acts and talks, is different. Every single thing about her is different in so many ways.”
The explanation is simple. Brain trauma is lifelong and made more complicated because it is one of life’s most invisible injuries.
“Tristen’s scans show dead spots on her brain that will never live again. All of her functions are rerouted around those dead spots,” Brandy said. Titanium plates in Tristen’s head are there forever. The struggles are daily, which is why Brandy and Sean gave Tristen the option of delaying college.
“I never thought I wouldn’t go on to school,” said Tristen, who arrived as a freshman with a neck brace still in place. She worked through ISU’s Student Access and Accommodation Services to arrange a note-taker. During her first semester, she struggled to retain information from just one chapter of textbook reading. And yet, she was determined she would not quit.
“My professors were helpful, always looking at what’s best for me,” said Tristen, now 19. They allowed her to use notecards for exams and granted extra completion time, as she still has short-term memory issues. She joined Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at ISU, where she arrived with 22 credit hours completed. Despite all of her setbacks, Tristen will graduate in three years. Determined from a young age to be a lawyer, she envisions a career handling personal injury cases.
Unable to work during the recovery periods of both accidents, Tristen seeks scholarships to help fund her education. She is a recipient of ISU’s Redbird Scholarship, as well as numerous financial awards earned in national competitions.
“Defeat is not in my vocabulary,” Tristen said. She does not hold anger toward the drivers or seek pity, but rather focuses on helping others understand brain injuries. She also is very vocal about how individuals need to understand that their decisions can have devastating consequences that impact others as much as themselves.
“Mine is a sad story in that no one wins. I will have the effects of both accidents with me the rest of my life,” Tristen said. She makes the conscious choice to focus on the fact she still has life after being told she should not have survived either accident.
“I may never know why, but I know both happened for a reason,” Tristen said. “I look at the road ahead, and I know that something good is coming. God has a purpose for me.”
Learn more of Tristen’s story and follow her progress on Facebook at Tristen Tough.
Susan Marquardt Blystone can be reached at sjblyst@IllinoisState.edu.