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TEDxDU 2011

Ramona Pierson: An unexpected place of healing

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Views 371,687

When Ramona Pierson was 22, she was hit by a drunk driver and spent 18 months in a coma. In this talk, she tells the remarkable story of her recovery -- drawing on the collective skills and wisdom of a senior citizens' home.

- Education innovator
Ramona Pierson develops tools to revolutionize learning management and assessment systems -- her fourth career after aviation, neuropsychology and software development. Full bio

I'm actually going to share something with you
00:15
I haven't talked about probably in more than 10 years.
00:17
So bear with me
00:20
as I take you through this journey.
00:22
When I was 22 years old,
00:24
I came home from work, put a leash on my dog
00:26
and went for my usual run.
00:29
I had no idea that at that moment
00:32
my life was going to change forever.
00:34
While I was preparing my dog for the run,
00:36
a man was finishing drinking at a bar,
00:39
picked up his car keys, got into a car
00:43
and headed south,
00:45
or wherever he was.
00:47
I was running across the street,
00:49
and the only thing that I actually remember
00:51
is feeling like a grenade went off in my head.
00:53
And I remember putting my hands on the ground
00:56
and feeling my life's blood
01:00
emptying out of my neck
01:02
and my mouth.
01:04
What had happened
01:07
is he ran a red light and hit me and my dog.
01:09
She ended up underneath the car.
01:12
I flew out in front of the car,
01:15
and then he ran over my legs.
01:17
My left leg got caught up in the wheel well --
01:19
spun it around.
01:21
The bumper of the car hit my throat,
01:25
slicing it open.
01:28
I ended up with blunt chest trauma.
01:30
Your aorta comes up behind your heart.
01:33
It's your major artery, and it was severed,
01:35
so my blood was gurgling out of my mouth.
01:38
It foamed,
01:41
and horrible things were happening to me.
01:43
I had no idea what was going on,
01:47
but strangers intervened,
01:49
kept my heart moving, beating.
01:52
I say moving because it was quivering
01:55
and they were trying to put a beat back into it.
01:57
Somebody was smart and put a Bic pen in my neck
02:00
to open up my airway so that I could get some air in there.
02:03
And my lung collapsed,
02:06
so somebody cut me open and put a pin in there as well
02:08
to stop that catastrophic event from happening.
02:11
Somehow I ended up at the hospital.
02:18
I was wrapped in ice
02:20
and then eventually put into a drug-induced coma.
02:22
18 months later I woke up.
02:26
I was blind, I couldn't speak,
02:30
and I couldn't walk.
02:32
I was 64 lbs.
02:34
The hospital really has no idea
02:40
what to do with people like that.
02:42
And in fact, they started to call me a Gomer.
02:44
That's another story we won't even get into.
02:47
I had so many surgeries to put my neck back together,
02:51
to repair my heart a few times.
02:54
Some things worked, some things didn't.
02:56
I had lots of titanium put in me,
02:58
cadaver bones
03:00
to try to get my feet moving the right way.
03:02
And I ended up with a plastic nose, porcelain teeth
03:05
and all kinds of other things.
03:07
But eventually I started to look human again.
03:09
But it's hard sometimes to talk about these things,
03:18
so bear with me.
03:20
I had more than 50 surgeries.
03:23
But who's counting?
03:25
So eventually, the hospital decided
03:28
it was time for me to go.
03:30
They needed to open up space
03:32
for somebody else that they thought could come back
03:34
from whatever they were going through.
03:38
Everybody lost faith in me being able to recover.
03:41
So they basically put a map up on the wall, threw a dart,
03:44
and it landed at a senior home here in Colorado.
03:47
And I know all of you are scratching your head:
03:52
"A senior citizens' home? What in the world are you going to do there?"
03:54
But if you think about
03:57
all of the skills and talent that are in this room right now,
03:59
that's what a senior home has.
04:02
So there were all these skills and talents
04:04
that these seniors had.
04:06
The one advantage that they had over most of you
04:09
is wisdom,
04:11
because they had a long life.
04:13
And I needed that wisdom at that moment in my life.
04:16
But imagine what it was like for them
04:18
when I showed up at their doorstep?
04:20
At that point, I had gained four pounds,
04:23
so I was 68 lbs.
04:25
I was bald.
04:27
I was wearing hospital scrubs.
04:29
And somebody donated tennis shoes for me.
04:31
And I had a white cane in one hand
04:34
and a suitcase full of medical records in another hand.
04:37
And so the senior citizens realized
04:40
that they needed to have an emergency meeting.
04:43
(Laughter)
04:45
So they pulled back and they were looking at each other,
04:47
and they were going, "Okay, what skills do we have in this room?
04:50
This kid needs a lot of work."
04:54
So they eventually started
04:57
matching their talents and skills
04:59
to all of my needs.
05:01
But one of the first things they needed to do
05:03
was assess what I needed right away.
05:05
I needed to figure out
05:07
how to eat like a normal human being,
05:09
since I'd been eating through a tube in my chest
05:11
and through my veins.
05:14
So I had to go through trying to eat again.
05:16
And they went through that process.
05:19
And then they had to figure out:
05:21
"Well she needs furniture.
05:23
She is sleeping in the corner of this apartment."
05:25
So they went to their storage lockers
05:28
and all gathered their extra furniture --
05:30
gave me pots and pans, blankets,
05:32
everything.
05:35
And then the next thing that I needed
05:38
was a makeover.
05:40
So out went the green scrubs
05:43
and in came the polyester and floral prints.
05:45
(Laughter)
05:48
We're not going to talk about the hairstyles that they tried to force on me
05:53
once my hair grew back.
05:56
But I did say no to the blue hair.
05:58
(Laughter)
06:00
So eventually what went on
06:04
is they decided that, well I need to learn to speak.
06:07
So you can't be an independent person
06:10
if you're not able to speak and can't see.
06:12
So they figured not being able to see is one thing,
06:15
but they need to get me to talk.
06:18
So while Sally, the office manager,
06:20
was teaching me to speak in the day --
06:23
it's hard, because when you're a kid,
06:25
you take things for granted.
06:27
You learn things unconsciously.
06:29
But for me, I was an adult and it was embarrassing,
06:31
and I had to learn how to coordinate
06:34
my new throat with my tongue
06:36
and my new teeth and my lips,
06:38
and capture the air and get the word out.
06:41
So I acted like a two-year-old
06:44
and refused to work.
06:46
But the men had a better idea.
06:48
They were going to make it fun for me.
06:51
So they were teaching me cuss word Scrabble at night,
06:53
(Laughter)
06:57
and then, secretly,
07:01
how to swear like a sailor.
07:03
So I'm going to just leave it to your imagination
07:06
as to what my first words were
07:10
when Sally finally got my confidence built.
07:14
(Laughter)
07:17
So I moved on from there.
07:19
And a former teacher who happened to have Alzheimer's
07:21
took on the task of teaching me to write.
07:24
The redundancy was actually good for me.
07:28
So we'll just keep moving on.
07:30
(Laughter)
07:32
One of the pivotal times for me
07:38
was actually learning to cross a street again
07:41
as a blind person.
07:44
So close your eyes.
07:46
Now imagine you have to cross a street.
07:49
You don't know how far that street is
07:51
and you don't know if you're going straight
07:55
and you hear cars whizzing back and forth,
07:58
and you had a horrible accident
08:01
that landed you in this situation.
08:03
So there were two obstacles I had to get through.
08:06
One was post-traumatic stress disorder.
08:09
And every time I approached the corner or the curb
08:12
I would panic.
08:16
And the second one
08:18
was actually trying to figure out how to cross that street.
08:20
So one of the seniors just came up to me,
08:23
and she pushed me up to the corner and she said,
08:26
"When you think it's time to go, just stick the cane out there.
08:29
If it's hit, don't cross the street."
08:32
(Laughter)
08:34
Made perfect sense.
08:39
But by the third cane
08:42
that went whizzing across the road,
08:44
they realized that they needed to put the resources together,
08:47
and they raised funds
08:50
so that I could go to the Braille Institute
08:52
and actually gain the skills
08:54
to be a blind person,
08:56
and also to go get a guide dog
08:58
who transformed my life.
09:00
And I was able to return to college
09:02
because of the senior citizens who invested in me,
09:04
and also the guide dog and skill set I had gained.
09:08
10 years later I gained my sight back.
09:12
Not magically.
09:14
I opted in for three surgeries,
09:16
and one of them was experimental.
09:19
It was actually robotic surgery.
09:21
They removed a hematoma from behind my eye.
09:23
The biggest change for me
09:27
was that the world moved forward,
09:29
that there were innovations
09:32
and all kinds of new things --
09:34
cellphones, laptops,
09:36
all these things that I had never seen before.
09:38
And as a blind person,
09:41
your visual memory fades
09:43
and is replaced with how you feel about things
09:45
and how things sound
09:48
and how things smell.
09:51
So one day I was in my room
09:54
and I saw this thing sitting in my room
09:56
and I thought it was a monster.
09:58
So I was walking around it.
10:00
And I go, "I'm just going to touch it."
10:02
And I touched it and I went,
10:04
"Oh my God, it's a laundry basket."
10:06
(Laughter)
10:08
So everything is different
10:12
when you're a sighted person
10:14
because you take that for granted.
10:16
But when you're blind,
10:18
you have the tactile memory for things.
10:20
The biggest change for me was looking down at my hands
10:23
and seeing that I'd lost 10 years of my life.
10:26
I thought that time had stood still for some reason
10:30
and moved on for family and friends.
10:33
But when I looked down,
10:35
I realized that time marched on for me too
10:37
and that I needed to get caught up,
10:39
so I got going on it.
10:41
We didn't have words like crowd-sourcing and radical collaboration
10:43
when I had my accident.
10:47
But the concept held true --
10:49
people working with people to rebuild me;
10:51
people working with people to re-educate me.
10:54
I wouldn't be standing here today
10:56
if it wasn't for extreme radical collaboration.
10:58
Thank you so much.
11:02
(Applause)
11:04

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About the speaker:

Ramona Pierson - Education innovator
Ramona Pierson develops tools to revolutionize learning management and assessment systems -- her fourth career after aviation, neuropsychology and software development.

Why you should listen

Ramona Pierson first built careers in aviation, neuropsychology and software development. While studying and examining and learning the details of such diverse disciplines, she became interested in the act of learning itself. She volunteered in a San Francisco school while working full-time in Silicon Valley and, just like that, a fourth career was born.

Pierson completed a master’s degree in education in California, then headed north to take the reins of the education technology department for Seattle Public Schools. She combined her passions and expertise to create software that, in a nutshell, helps teachers teach better. In 2007, Ramona launched a private company with the same goal. SynapticMash Inc. was launched to revolutionize the learning management and assessment systems in education.  

A self-described “data geek,” Pierson contemplated ways to push education and technology through a paradigm shift — to move from web 2.0 to web 3.0. Now the CEO of Declara, Ramona continues to study the act of learning and to explore ways to make our education system work better for students.

 

More profile about the speaker
Ramona Pierson | Speaker | TED.com