A Painful Recovery From a Harrowing Mid-air Accident

After a near-death experience, Radene Cook had to rebuild her life

On a cloudy day in March 2000, Radene Cook was finishing her regular shift as an airborne reporter for KFWB radio in Los Angeles when the Cessna 172 plane in which she was a passenger was slammed by a vertical wind shear, a violent atmospheric condition. It pushed the four-seater plane straight down.

“It was like a rear-end collision,” recalls Cook, who later learned the wind shear was moving at about 400 miles an hour. “We were being hit again and again by this wind pushing us down. The broadcast equipment in the back seats flew into the ceiling and the shrapnel from it was hitting me and the pilot. Our headsets flew off and struck the windshield, and anything that was loose–maps, binoculars–were flying around the plane and hitting us. I was being whipped back and forth, my head and body being flung forward and back as I was held down only by my lap seatbelt. Just when we thought we were going to crash–-we were only a couple hundred feet off the ground at this point–-the wind slipped under the plane and bounced us back up."

Miraculously, the pilot was able to land the plane at the Van Nuys airport, their home port.

What happened next makes Cook giggle now, even though in retrospect she should have made other choices. “I was used to handling some harrowing things,” says Cook. “Before this I had gone through fires and been shot at by robbers running away from a jewel heist. So although I was shaken up and this was definitely the scariest experience I had ever had, I was still running on adrenaline, and I drove to my nail salon for a 4 o’clock appointment. It was only a few hours later that I felt the pain of what I had been through, and I asked my sister to drive me to the hospital.”

Racked with pain, Cook struggled for four months before she understood the full scope of the physical injuries she’d sustained from the accident. In addition to suffering a concussion, she had severe chronic whiplash in her neck, a cracked vertebrae, and one disk in her lower back had split in half. “Beginning two weeks after the accident to this day [nearly 10 years later], I have not been able to sit,” says Cook. “I have to stand, lay down, or lean at an angle between 45 and 90 degrees in a chair.”

Ultimately Cook, who lives in Lancaster, California, underwent fusion surgery to correct her split disk and she received epidural steroid shots; but the treatments led to a condition called arachnoiditis, a painful chronic inflammation of the arachnoid lining—one of three linings that surround the brain and spinal cord. “Mornings are the worst,” says Cook. “My pain feels new every morning. Because it is in my nerves, it produces a burning sensation all over my skin. I usually wake up about 8:30 and the first thing I feel is a sharp stabbing sensation in my back, my head, and under my skin. I take my medication and rest for 45 minutes while it starts to work. That’s my time to do meditation and talk to God. Then I’ll get up and walk a little with my mobility dog; an Akita named Raja Yonv (Cherokee for `Bear’ ). I've had him for eight and a half years... If I’m in more pain than usual, he knows and he’ll just lay down on my bed beside me. Otherwise, we’ll walk around the block because I need to move every day. My husband made a rolling bed desk for me; so, after breakfast, I’ll typically go back to bed and work on the computer for a little while, writing, answering emails, or updating my website . I might also do some painting or make some beaded jewelry to sell on my site."

(Cook does collect some workman’s compensation, but she's not on disability, so she depends on those jewelry and painting sales and the support from her husband, Doug, who works as a technician at the Edwards Air Force Base.) Within three to four hours after breakfast, Cook says she starts feeling breakthrough pain, and it’s time to take more medication. In the afternoon, she has to take frequent breaks and rest. "Everything I do now I have to do much more slowly than before so that I don’t set off the pain signals,” she explains.

The accident that caused her so much pain also forced Cook to give up many of the dreams she used to have and to create new ones. “I used to be a sort of bubbly overachiever, and it took me a long time to accept that I can’t just power through this,” says Cook. “When something like this happens, you ask yourself, ‘Why did this happen? Why me?’ Then you get to a point where you realize that those questions don’t solve anything and you have to ask yourself, instead, ‘What do I do from here?’ I had to decide either my life ended when this crash happened or I would have to re-make myself, find out what my character was made of, what I really believed. I had to go back to the very core of me and decide that I’m here to learn and to love, and that I needed to find a new way to do that. So, I learned to paint lying upside down, and my painting became my outlet.”

Cook, now 43, also became an advocate for others with chronic pain by volunteering with the American Pain Foundation and joining a support group for people with arachnoiditis. Her advice to other women suffering with chronic pain? “Write down everything you feel about your pain because that’s going to help your doctor figure out the best treatment for you,” says Cook. “Fight for yourself and don’t give up hope. There is going to be a dark night; that’s when you get really honest and ask, ‘Am I going to stay or am I going to go?’ If you stay, then you call out, ‘I am here. Help!’ I promise, the universe will respond.”

More than 26 percent of Americans ages 20 or older live with pain at some point in their lives, according to the American Pain Foundation. To find out more information log onto their website.

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