It was three days after her final day of eighth grade, and Angela Carlow was excited for a summer of fun and sun.
She was going to hang out with friends. There was a family reunion coming up in South Dakota. Shopping adventures. Maybe even a trip to Cheyenne Frontier Days.
As she rode in the backseat of her sister’s 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier near her home in Thornton, Colo., the possibilities for the summer before her freshman year of high school seemed endless.
Then the world went black.
“I woke up saying, ‘I had this really weird dream that I got in a car wreck,’” Carlow recalls. “My family was there saying, ‘You did and you’re in the ICU.’”
That freak car accident, caused by a mechanical failure in the vehicle and not negligence, did more than alter Carlow’s summer plans. It changed the course of her life, planting the seeds for an unlikely career choice that has brought her to the University of Wyoming.
Forced to be in medical care for nearly 3 ½ weeks with myriad injuries that included 32 broken bones and significant damage to some of her internal organs—“Besides my head and my legs, everything was broken somewhere,” she says—Carlow, then 14, became dependent on nurses for her daily survival.
It was an eye-opening experience for Carlow, who had developed an extreme dislike of hospitals and health care professionals during her early years. Her fears were so pronounced that she says she would sometimes lock herself in her room to avoid a simple dental cleaning or sports physical.
“I just hated doctors and everything about doctors,” Carlow says.
At the hospital, though, Carlow’s fears subsided along with the trauma of an accident that had also rattled her short-term memory.
“When I was in the hospital, I thought, ‘These nurses are amazing!’” says Carlow, who also credits the accident for saving her life. Doctors discovered a heart defect from birth that was potentially fatal if not corrected. “I remember one nurse. She only had two or three patients, so she’d sit there at night with me, because I would never sleep, and we’d watch the Friends marathon on TV and she’d braid my hair.” Other nurses, she says, brought her makeup to help cover bruises on her face.
“They just really touched me. They made it so I wasn’t scared anymore,” says Carlow. “What I want to be is the person who made me feel so good about myself. I’ll never forget my nurses, and I want to be that person to somebody else.”
Now 21 and a junior in UW’s Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing, Carlow is working toward realizing her dream. Though she doesn’t have normal use of her dominant right hand—her right arm, marked with jagged scars, suffered the worst of the damage in the accident—Carlow says UW faculty members have worked together to help her learn alternative methods for some techniques.
“I just have to do things a little bit differently,” says Carlow, who regained full use of her right shoulder, elbow and wrist but only partial use of her hand and fingers following a nerve graft from both of her legs. “I don’t even know how I do it, I just do it.”
No matter, Carlow is excelling. Her budding career was buoyed this summer through Poudre Valley Health System’s Nursing Student Training Affiliate Role (STAR) Program, an 11-week paid internship during which she shadowed a nurse at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colo.
“My senior quote for high school was, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ As cliché as it is, it really does. Who knows if I’d even be here, because of my heart defect, if I hadn’t been in that car wreck,” the blonde-haired student says.
And she certainly wouldn’t have pursued a career in nursing.
“If somebody would have told me that, I would have been like, ‘Yeah, right!’” Carlow says with a laugh. “But it’s everything I want to do and everything I want to be. My whole life sort of revolves around nursing now.”