A Message That Can't Wait
Karla Dougan is determined to keep recovering from her injuries — and to keep spreading the message about texting and driving.
Painful as it can be, Karla Dougan, 21, wants to share her story. All of it, no holds barred.
Over the course of an hour’s conversation, she does just that. She starts by explaining that her car accident on New Year’s Eve 2016 happened because she was looking down at her phone, texting friends. She calmly details how her car rolled over three times, finally coming to a stop upside down — its full weight on top of her — squeezing the breath from her chest. She even shares how much she misses all the activities she can’t do anymore and how slow the road to recovery has been.
But when Karla tries to talk about the impact her injury has had on those she loves most, that’s when tears come more easily than words.
“It really wasn’t until I was back home, probably a year after my injury, that it hit me what others went through because of all this,” she says. “It’s really hard to process all the stuff your parents went through — that I put them through. My brother was just starting high school, and he had to go through so much.”
The tears flow. Karla pauses, but only for a moment. It’s important for her to share her story, she says, because she wants there to be fewer stories like hers. That motivation compelled her to create a memorable public service announcement for Shepherd Center in 2018 as part of the “Heads UP Georgia” campaign to end distracted driving.
“Before the accident, my friends and I didn’t think anything about texting and driving,” she says in the video. “Calling, Snapchatting, checking Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, it was fun. It’s just what we did. Nobody ever got hurt until I did.”
Karla’s injuries were severe: She sustained an anoxic brain injury, injuries to her C-7, T-1 and T-12 vertebrae, a right femur fracture and a pelvic rim fracture, and a lacerated liver. She’d even gone into cardiac arrest before EMTs arrived on the scene to shock her heart back into rhythm and take her to Grady Memorial Hospital.
“It’s incredible to see where she was back then and where she is now,” says Andrew Dennison, M.D., medical director of Shepherd Center’s Acquired Brain Injury Program. “Even just while she was with us, she went from being totally dependent on help for everything to really participating in her own care.”
Pathway to Independence
Indeed, at Shepherd Center, Karla had to relearn how to talk, swallow and eat — nearly every activity of daily living. Her progress was slowed by myoclonus, a condition that includes ongoing and involuntary muscle spasms, likely caused by the lack of oxygen her brain received while she was pinned under her car.
During most of her time in physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapy at Shepherd Center, Karla’s brain was still healing. There’s a lot she doesn’t remember from the six months she initially spent in 2017 in Shepherd Center’s Adolescent Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program and at Shepherd Pathways, the hospital’s comprehensive day and outpatient rehabilitation program for people recovering from brain injury.
But Karla returned to Shepherd Pathways in 2018 for another round of rehabilitation, commuting twice a week with her mom from Athens, Georgia, to continue working on her independence and using high-tech tools like the Lokomat® treadmill to condition her lower body to walk again. She also participated in Project Rollway, the hospital’s annual fashion show fundraiser that benefits adolescent rehabilitation programs at Shepherd Center.
“I still have my dress from that event,” Karla says. “A really good friend of mine rolled me down the runway. That was really fun, and I have lots of pictures from that event that I’m thankful for.”
Today, Karla is a third-year student at the University of Georgia. She’s majoring in exercise and sports science, and she will likely add either a minor or second major in nutrition. She’s been living at home with her parents, who both work at UGA, but hopes to move out in the next year and live independently.
Karla’s already well engaged in the campus community as a member of a sorority and as a member of UGA Food-2Kids, a student-run nonprofit that partners with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.
An athlete at heart who played soccer, swam and did gymnastics in high school, Karla continues to push herself in ongoing outpatient physical and occupational therapy in Athens.
“I’m doing really well now; it’s just a slow process to adjust to,” she says. “Before, I was athletic enough that if I stuck with something long enough, I could get pretty good at it, pretty fast. That’s how I thought rehab would go, but that’s not always the case. Especially with a brain injury, my mind is learning slower than my muscles are. So, I can’t do everything yet, but I’m on my way!”
Karla also continues to spread her message about safe driving.
“You can live your life, but not at anyone else’s expense,” Karla says. “When you text and drive, it’s not just your life that can change. My experience changed so many other peoples’ lives, and I could have put someone else in physical danger. I didn’t, but I could have.
“I still have a pity party for myself from time to time, but I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d hurt somebody else in that accident.”
Karla’s message is something the care teams at Shepherd Center deeply appreciate.
“She’s such a great ambassador,” Dr. Dennison says. “We’re so honored to help patients like Karla through these really challenging situations. But she’s right. These situations are preventable. We certainly hope others hear her message and learn from it."
Written by Phillip Jordan
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.