Accident victim writes first novel to escape chronic pain
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By KIM UNDERWOOD
Jan 11, 2003 : 1:32 am ET

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Barbara Hammonds became an FBI agent to take her mind off her chronic pain.

When a fall from a ladder snapped both of Hammonds' legs, she had to tie one foot on with a scarf before she could crawl to a telephone to call for help. The recovery process from the 1992 accident has been long and painful. In the midst of it all, Hammonds decided to write a novel.

She dreamed up an FBI agent named River Bryyst, sent her off on a series of adventures and, four years of writing through the pain later, Hammonds had herself a novel -- "Truth or Dare: A River Bryyst Novel."

Hammonds credits Dr. William McKinney of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center with putting her on the path that led to the novel.

Until she went to see McKinney in 1995 for a consultation about her chronic pain, she had been concentrating on the process of trying to save her feet and dealing with the pain, which could be overwhelming at times.

Along with his medical recommendations, McKinney, who is a neurologist, offered some suggestions about how to approach life with a healing attitude.

"Dr. McKinney changed the focus," Hammonds said. "He saw me as a person -- not just a patient who had medical problems. He saw me as a person who wanted to move forward with her life.

"He told me to do things I liked to do."

When she looked around inside for what that might be, she found fiction writing.
As a neurologist, McKinney said, part of what he does is help people learn to concentrate on what works rather than what does not work.

"You really have to focus on the islands of function," McKinney said.

Given what Hammonds has accomplished, he said, she clearly had a novel in her. He simply encouraged her to let it out.

"If I have been even a small part, I would say, 'Thank you, Barbara,'" McKinny said.

McKinney is now an emeritus professor of neurology. For him, that means he still works -- just not as many hours as he once did.

Hammonds, 51, lives in Lumberton. At the time of the accident, she lived near Burlington.

On Dec. 5, 1992, she woke up and fixed coffee. Because of a death in the family and other troubles, she hadn't been feeling in the holiday spirit. But on this particular morning, she was pleasantly surprised to find herself in the mood to decorate for Christmas.

She put her coffee cup down on the counter and went outside. She set a ladder against a tree and climbed up to look around and figure out the best way to go about stringing lights.

After that, her memories are patchy. She may have slipped. All she remembers is being on the ground when she came to. When she tried to get up, the lower half of her body wouldn't move. She looked down and could plainly see the tibias and fibulas of both legs poking through the fabric of her blue jeans. To reach the open air, they had to punch through two pairs of sweat socks, her thermal
underwear and the jeans.

Hammonds was divorced and living on her own, so no one was around to help. She began praying as she took off her scarf and used it to tie one foot to its leg.

She repositioned the other leg and started clawing her way toward a phone.

Medics took her to Danville Regional Medical Center in southern Virginia.

Because of the extent of her injuries, she was immediately transferred to WFU Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. She remained at Baptist until March of 1993.

Early on, it was not clear that her lower legs and feet could be saved.

"They had to reconnect my legs to my feet with pins and screws," she said.

The years that followed were an ordeal -- mentally as well as physically.
"Chronic pain incapacitates the mind and the body," she said.

It was particularly hard, she said, to feel as though she were no longer in control of her life.

"I had always been a person who thought I could practice positive thinking," she said.

Before the accident, she thought that, if she relaxed and concentrated, her body would do what she wanted it to.

She found out otherwise.

After leaving the hospital, Hammonds moved to Lumberton where family members could help her. She continued to return to Winston-Salem for various forms of treatment and therapy.

Hammonds had enjoyed writing when she was young. As an adult, she had written grant proposals and such for work. But she hadn't done any fiction writing.

After the accident, she had started keeping a journal. For a long time, it was primarily a log of her pain, she said. She also started writing poetry a bit.

When Hammonds decided to start a novel after talking with McKinney, her initial effort had a protagonist who used a wheelchair.

"It really got depressing," she said. "It was too much like real life, and I couldn't figure out how to get her out of situations I got her into."

She abandoned that story. Once she switched to River Bryyst in 1997, the writing flowed more smoothly.

Hammonds took River's name from the lyrics "cry me a river," something she feels as if she has done since the accident.

"There were a lot of tears inside," she said.

When she started the novel, she was able to focus on it for no more than a half-hour or so at a time. She wrote in bed on a laptop computer. As she improved, she began writing at a desk. She eventually could write for up to four hours at a stretch, with breaks for the exercises she has to do regularly for her legs.

Writing helped distract her from her pain. But she could never fully forget it, and sometimes the pain would demand her full attention. It could be particularly
frustrating when it derailed her writing, she said.

Overall, though, writing felt like healing, Hammonds said. It felt good to have her mind focused on something outside of her situation.

It was particularly exciting when she would wake up with an idea for how to express something a little better and realize that her brain had kept working on the book as she slept.

Although Hammonds moved away from a protagonist using a wheelchair -- as she was -- she did incorporate bits and pieces of her life in the book. Characters have connections to Winston-Salem and Wake Forest.

For vivid descriptions of the pain inflicted on her characters, she said, she didn't have to resort to her imagination. In one scene, the pain slaps one of the characters awake. Hammonds knew exactly what that felt like.

"That happened to me," she said.

Hammonds also called on her extensive experience with various aspects of the criminal-justice system. Before the accident, she had worked with programs that helped teenage women under criminal-justice-system supervision who were pregnant or who had young children.

She started her career in New Jersey where she earned her undergraduate degree and master's degree in criminal justice from Rutgers -- The State University of New Jersey.

She moved to North Carolina in the early 1980s, in large part to be closer to her mother, who was not in good health. The move went smoothly -- she had a job in the same field before she arrived.

She has two children and three grandchildren.

Hammonds describes "Truth or Dare" as a mystery/romance. In the book, Bryyst has several adventures. In one, a close friend of her mentor threatens her life. In another, she investigates a mystery about a North Carolina minister's past.

Hammonds published the book through a self-publishing arm of Random House that prints books on demand.

Except for trips to see doctors and such, she has largely been housebound since the accident.

"I have been out of circulation for 10 years," she said.

That is not only because of her lack of mobility but also because she has been unable to tolerate cold, wind and damp as they make the pain worse. Heat helps ease the pain, and she keeps her house hotter than many people find comfortable.
At one time, she routinely kept it as hot as 90 degrees.

But, as she has healed, she doesn't need it to be so hot. It is easier to go out, and it is easier to move around when she does.

For a long time, she was able to take only a few steps away from the wheelchair. In 2002, she was able to stop using her wheelchair. She now walks with the help of leg braces and a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator) that stimulates the muscles in the legs.

Hammonds feels that, at long last, she is beginning to re-enter the larger world.

She has been going to church and family gatherings a bit. And she has been able to get out for some readings and signings for her book.

Hammonds is staying busy. She is working on a book about dealing with chronic pain and she is toying with the idea of writing her autobiography. And not only is she working on another River Bryyst novel, but she also is in the midst of programming a video game based on River.

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