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Commencement is latest step on journey of rebirth for Eldersburg woman

Book, associate degree stem from tragic accident in 2000

By Bob Allen

7:31 PM EDT, May 19, 2012

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"Don't assume this is a two-hankie book. It is not. You will cry, but you will also laugh. You will experience not only anger, but also gratification. And in the end, you will be uplifted."

— Eileen Rudnick, from her book, "The Glass Between Us"

Eldersburg resident Eileen Rudnick is living proof that sometimes out of the worst, the best can come.

The evening of Oct. 3, 2000 was just another mild Tuesday, another relatively uneventful day ... until the moment that everything changed for Rudnick, a wife, mother of two, grandmother of two and an accountant.

At 6:20 p.m., while driving home from work on Route 140 near Old Gamber Road, her car was hit head-on by a pickup truck.

Seconds later, an SUV slammed into the back of her disabled vehicle.

Photos of the accident, which Rudnick, now 60, includes in her book, "The Glass Between Us," are excruciating to look at.

She suffered massive fractures and internal injuries, including severe brain injury.

In those first crucial minutes and hours, as she was flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, her survival was uncertain. And during gruelling months and years of surgery, therapy and recovery that followed, there were times when she found herself wondering why she had survived, and maybe even occasionally wishing she hadn't.

But looking back, Rudnick, whose therapy and recovery after 11 years is still a work in progress, calls her near-fatal crash "my rebirth."

That birth has led to a number of milestones — her book and the founding of a brain injury support group among them.

Another comes this week, as Eileen Rudnick completes her associate degree from Carroll Community College with a 4.0 grade-point average. She will attend Hood College this fall on a full scholarship.

In "The Glass Between Us," the Canadian-born writer relies on the recollections of others, including the emergency responders from the Reese Volunteer Fire Co., Carroll County Station 9, who extracted her from her vehicle, to recreate the accident.

She has no recollections of it herself.

"The torn and bloodied mess of my favorite dress was lying on the floor by my gurney with the rest of my clothing that had been cut from my body," she wrote in the book. "Just one hour ago I had been driving home from work. Now my life was on hold and my survival was in question. The excitement of my new job with a significant raise in salary was already over and I would never return."

Since that evening Rudnick's road has been long and torturous, with periods of darkness and light, despair and self-discovery.

As she vividly recounts in her intelligently crafted — and at times painfully candid and insightful — book, the journey took her through rage, depression and the sort of physical and emotional pain that most of us probably can't, and don't want to, imagine.

She has no love lost for her former insurance provider, but Rudnick expresses profound gratitude for her doctors, her therapists, the Reese Volunteer Fire Co., her adult children and Mike, her husband of 40 years.

But in an interview last week at Carroll Community College, where she plans to stay on as a math and writing tutor, she said it was also a process marked by personal growth, renewed faith and strengthened human connections.

"My faith was strengthened through this experience," said Rudnick, who is also a volunteer with the Brain Injury Association of Maryland, and who started a brain injury support group at St. Joseph's Church, in Eldersburg.

Network of family support

"Something that I've noticed when working with other individuals who are recovering from brain injury is that those who have the best recovery are those who have the most family support," she said. "I've been very fortunate in that regard."

Through the Brain Injury Association, Rudnick has spent much time helping brain-injured and traumatized soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find the specialized treatment they need.

"I feel like I have a lot in common with returning soldiers," she said. "I also have post traumatic stress disorder, and I do identify with them."

Rudnick, who is already working on her second book, a "fictional memoir" called "Whispering in the Dark," said writing "The Glass Between Us" and pursuing a college degree in her 50s has been part of her healing process.

"It was certainly cathartic, just like professional counselling," she said of the writing process and the encouragement she got from her instructors at CCC.

"Writing this book allowed me to get all my thoughts and feelings out in an organized fashion, so even I can go back and read it and get something out of it. It was quite a relief to get it all out and on paper. It left me feeling fresh and new and ready to begin again."

She also wrote the book to offer guidance and support for others who have suffered similar injuries. Even so, she discusses issues — such as loss and recovery of self-identity, self-esteem and even sexual desire — with such clarity that most all readers are likely to find a bit of themselves in its pages.

"I mention the stages of grief at the beginning of my book," she said. "Unfortunately, some people seem to get stuck in one of the stages and can't seem to find their way out of it.

"With the people I work with, I see anger quite frequently, and certainly depression that seems to be revisited over and over again. And self-medication, with alcohol or drugs, is certainly an issue when you're trying to get your life back together, because there's a lot of pain involved when you're recovering from a brain injury.

"There's enough physical pain, but there's also psychological pain."

'I'm a people person now'

Rudnick recollects how, as part of the healing process, she relived in her mind the physical abuse she suffered as a young child at the hands of her father.

"I came from an abusive family, unfortunately," she said. "And after the accident, when I when I was in a child-like state while I was in a coma and when I was newly emerged, I revisited those childhood experiences, which, unfortunately, was not a good experience.

"But what helped me with this book, too, was that I was able to revisit that, go through it, put it behind me and go forward," she said. "It was cathartic in that way. I was able to leave all that baggage behind.

"I can say now, after 11 years, that the brain injury, the accident, is probably the best thing that ever happened to me, and I'm convinced that I am an improved person," said Rudnick, who plans to continue as a volunteer for the Brain Injury Association of Maryland and an advocate for the brain-injured.

"I'm certainly happier post-injury than I was pre-injury," she said. "Part of that is because I am more spiritual, and that spirituality has brought me closer with people in general. I'm a people person now, and I wasn't before.

"I've also learned not to squander time, and I don't spend a lot of time looking into the future," she said softly, "because we never know if this is our last moment, our last day together.

"I just go with the big picture, which is, I feel good, I'm enjoying this moment and I'm going to make the most of it."