It was the middle of the night, August 10, 2017, when Marissa Rotenberry’s mother got the call every parent dreads. Marissa had been in a car accident. The Stephen F. Austin State University student was stabilized at a Nacogdoches hospital and transferred by ambulance to Harris Health System’s Ben Taub Hospital.
Doctors referred to Marissa’s right arm, which took the accident’s major impact, as a “mangled extremity,” meaning severe damage to skin, muscle and bones. Her arm was immediately amputated, then doctors addressed other injuries: a lacerated liver, collapsed lung, fractured discs and internal chest degloving (this is soft-tissue trauma that separates tissue from underlying fascia).
Marissa was in Ben Taub for 34 days and had three surgeries each week to attend to the amputation area.
The pain was almost more than she could bear. The internal degloving was extremely painful, as was the chest tube in her lung. And just as she began to recover from each surgery, it was time for the next one.
Hardest to manage was the pain in her phantom limb. “At first, as I was in and out of consciousness, I thought my arm was there. It felt like my hand was on a hot stove. I’m a talker, but I couldn’t talk, so I panicked. Thanks to my family and friends, I was surrounded by love and support. People, games and music helped me handle the pain.”
Marissa got a special insight into Ben Taub — as a patient during Hurricane Harvey, she developed a special bond with the staff. “The nurses were amazing, so nice, so caring. We became very close.
“It says a lot that my accident was 120 miles away, and the ambulance drove me to Ben Taub.”
Regaining her independence without an arm was a challenge. Marissa recently completed her master’s degree in statistics, and she’s grateful for that. “I don’t need an arm for statistics. I need my brain.” Even so, she was right-handed, so she now depends on a touch-screen computer, and she’s learning to write with her left hand.
Returning to school was also difficult. "It would have been easy to give up, but I never want to lose sight of my goals. Having an arm or not doesn’t make me who I am. Trauma doesn’t define me.”