August 5, 2004
Northwest Rankin teacher back in classroom after devastating car crash
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
RANKIN COUNTY, Miss.—After 11 years of teaching, you would think the first day of school would be old hat for Bridget Walker.
But this year the Northwest Rankin Middle School teacher savored every last ritual—from assigning seats to calling roll.
Monday was the Rankin County resident’s first time in front of a class since a Feb. 14 car crash left her wondering if she would ever be able to teach again. “I’m ready to be back,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to the kids coming and getting started.”
Walker’s comeback says a lot about her constitution. She had to be gutsier than a class cut-up to triumph over the physical and emotional challenges put before her. The wreck killed one of Walker’s best friends and very nearly took her own life.
“I had my seat belt on, but the dashboard came in on me,” she said. The impact battered her brain, punctured her right lung and broke bones in her face and left arm and leg.
Rehabilitation meant 12 days of daily therapy at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, followed by more than four months of three-day-a-week sessions at the hospital’s outpatient Quest program.
Quest is a comprehensive community re-integration program that helps brain injury survivors make the transition back to school, work or community life. And staff there said Walker was fiercely determined to return to her students.
“She was always challenging herself,” said Quest occupational therapist Charlene Toney. “She would come in and say: “Guess what I did this weekend?”
“She had an incredibly positive attitude,” said Quest physical therapist Rachel Dear. “She had lots to overcome, and she still always had a smile on her face. She was willing to do whatever we asked and it really paid off.”
Walker made steady progress, moving from wheelchair to walker to her own two feet. Now she’s working hard with Quest occupational therapist Nik Carnathan to improve the range of motion in her left shoulder. “She’s very motivated and has come a long way. She always has a great attitude and is a very hard worker,” he said.
While Walker says she has always been upbeat, she credits family and friends with keeping her on task. “I wouldn’t be able to be ready if not for my husband Tim. My girls (daughters Katelin, 14, and Megan, 17) were like cheerleaders, and so were the kids at school. I got so many cards and little notes.” And Walker says she won’t soon forget the boost she got in March when she was able to visit her then fifth grade English class. “We drove up to the playground and the kids were running for the car.”
Walker said her recovery also was made easier by all the people who rallied to her family’s side. “I owe thanks to the whole community for their prayers, the food—just everything. The people at Northwest Middle School donated sick leave days so my salary would be covered until the end of the school year. They also set up an account at AmSouth bank to cover medical expenses.”
Northwest assistant principal Homer Burns said when news of the wreck reached the school “it knocked us off our feet.”
“Everyone was in a state of shock for weeks. The children missed her, we missed her and the beginning teachers missed her because she is a mentor for them.”
The last thing Walker remembers from before the wreck was being at school. Her next cognizant thought came when she woke to find herself being wheeled to surgery to have her mouth wired shut. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was worried I had been in a wreck with my students.”
Walker later learned that a crash had occurred as she and Northwest Rankin Elementary secretary Kathy Hall were on their way home from a jaunt to Vicksburg. Hall didn’t survive the wreck, and it was initially touch-and-go for Walker. The blow to her head had everyone worrying about the extent of damage to her brain. But her brain injury turned out to be less serious than it first seemed. “I was really lucky,” she said.
Still, there were adjustments to be made, and Walker said she was glad to have professional help from the Quest team—especially after her father died of a heart attack on March 31. “It was very emotional, but the people at Quest were wonderful. They’ve been very supportive of everything. They’ve become like family.”
On a recent Thursday, the Quest “family,” along with Walker’s real-life relatives, gathered to celebrate her graduation from the program. “For my mom (Margaret Rogers of Louisville), it was like I was graduating from school again,” Walker said. “She was so excited.”
Although Walker will be adjusting to teaching sixth grade instead of fifth, Toney said she has no doubt she’ll do fine in the classroom. She said one factor in Walker’s favor is she has the school administration’s support. “They’ve wanted to do all they could.”
“We’re excited about having her back,” Burns said. “Bridget is an outstanding teacher who has a genuine love for her students and a caring attitude for all around her. And we don’t have a single teacher more prepared for this year than she is. She had been working for months to get ready for Monday.”
Quest occupational therapist Nik Carnathan works with Northwest Rankin Middle School teacher Bridget Walker to improve her grip strength.