Real Life

REAL LIFE: A car crash gave me amnesia

I woke to discover that everything had changed.

By As told to Take 5

Tarli Bogtstra, 41, Surrey Hills, Vic, shares her shocking true life story;

Drowsily opening my eyes, I peered out the window of the four-wheel drive which was zooming up the dusty highway.
"What time is it?" I asked, nudging my friend Emily* who was snoozing next to me.
"It's 8am," replied our friend Kaitlin* from the driver's seat.
It had been dark when we'd piled into the car, returning from a music festival in Finke, a town two hours outside of Alice Springs, where we'd caught up with our former classmate, Stephanie*, who'd travelled back with us.
Hanging out with my besties was exactly what I'd needed after my recent marriage breakdown, which had left me throwing myself into my work as a genetic counsellor at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital.
Still tired from our big night, I drifted back to sleep.
The next time I woke, I was surrounded by bright lights, tubes and beeping machines.
I had no idea where I was.People I didn't recognise were talking to me about how our car had careered off the highway, rolling repeatedly.
The impact had torn the doors off and thrown me 20 metres across the dusty earth where I lay clinging to life, trapped under the car's mangled roof.
It was two hours before blue and red lights appeared on the remote road and an ambulance rushed me to a paddock so I could be airlifted to Alice Springs, where I was stabilised.
Then I was airlifted again to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Me before the accident.
My mind reeled. What are they talking about?
I had no recollection of any of this.
By some miracle, Kaitlin and Stephanie had escaped unharmed from the front of the car.
Emily had sustained spinal injuries, while I'd suffered life-threatening head injuries, a broken neck and injured spine, and damage to my face and eye.
The doctor turned to the other people in the room.
"Even if Tarli survives, it's impossible to know if she'll have permanent brain damage or if she'll ever walk again," he said.
For the next three weeks I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to recall anything about the accident or my old life.
"Who are you again?" I asked my parents repeatedly, forgetting as soon as they told me.
They'd flown over to be with me, but I hadn't recognised them at first.
One day, a young male visitor entered the room.
"Who's he?" I asked, staring vacantly at the stranger.
He looked at me in bewilderment, explaining that he was my ex-husband of three years.
"It's OK," my younger sister, Tenille, assured him as I closed my eyes again. "She keeps forgetting us, too."
Me with Dad, Mum and Tenille four months after the accident.
The doctor advised my family not to prompt my memory, but to allow it to return on its own.
"Tarli, do you remember what your job is?" a man asked a few days later.
"Of course," I answered brightly. "I'm a famous entertainer – I dance and sing and have lots of fans."
I watched my mother choke back tears.
"The old Tarli's still in there somewhere," she whispered optimistically.
Six weeks after the accident, I was airlifted to a bigger hospital in Melbourne where my childhood memories slowly returned, but the faces of my friends and the accident remained a big blank.
Although nothing could be done to restore my short-term memory, surgeons fought to save my injured eye.
Concerned the severed C2 vertebra at the top of my spine was dangerously close to my brain stem, they prepared to fit me with a halo thoracic brace to keep my head and neck upright.
It was agony being fitted with his brace while awake.
But because of my brain injury, general anaesthetic was out of the question. Instead, they gave me loads of painkillers and drilled holes into my skull then fitted the device while I was awake.
My mother had nightmares over my agonised screams, which echoed from the operating theatre.
I spent years in rehab, later moving back in with my parents where my mother cared for me and organised a roster of friends to cover for her when she had to duck out.
Over the next two years I had four eye operations and re-learned the life skills I'd forgotten – from walking and talking to washing my hair and putting on make-up.
But my memories never returned.
Determined to regain my independence, I began walking to the shops armed with a list so I didn't forget what I'd gone out for.
Me and Omar.
Although it took me ages, I even began preparing the odd meal.
As my strength slowly returned, I put on my runners and joined Mum for slow jogs around the Botanical Gardens.
Eventually, I returned to part-time work, and though I vaguely recalled my office, I no longer remembered the faces of some of my colleagues who'd gathered around to welcome me back.
One day, I was at a bar when I spotted a handsome man who introduced himself as Omar.
It turned out that Omar's best friend had once dated my good friend Kaitlin at uni and he'd even met me once before!
"Sorry," I said, embarrassed and hurriedly explained about the accident.
"I don't remember the old Tarli."
As weeks passed, our love for each other grew.
On our first anniversary, I arrived home to find the house filled with flowers.
"We're going out for dinner," announced Omar, ushering me into the car.
After a candlelit meal at our favourite Japanese restaurant, we headed to the top of Melbourne's tallest building and as I admired the city lights, Omar held me close and proposed.
There wasn't a dry eye at our outdoor wedding in Albert Park, when my mother and father walked me down the aisle to exchange vows with the kind, patient man I adored.
If only the doctors could see me now, I thought when we embarked on a honeymoon overseas.
Me with my beautiful family - Judd, Omar and Freya.
Shortly after the wedding I was offered a new job, sharing my experience with other crash survivors as a road trauma survivor and alerting young drivers to the long-term impact of crashes.
Feeling stronger every day, I now had a new dream – to have a child.
"Are you strong enough to carry a baby?" Mum asked, worrying my old back injury might be a problem.
Thankfully, doctors said I was.
Giving birth to our beautiful baby daughter, Freya, brought tears to my eyes.
With the help of reminder lists, I muddled my way through late-night feeds and nappy changes, enjoying every minute of being a mum.
Years later, I gave birth to our son, Judd, and our happiness was complete.
Today, I still have no memory of the crash that changed my life.
But I'm proof that miracles do happen and I know I survived that day because a whole new happy life full of memories was waiting for me.

read more from