by Constance Garcia-Barrio and Len Lear
One article in the Local that several people have asked about over the years was that of Susan Bovell of Mt. Airy who now works in the Chestnut Hill Rite Aid. We reported on Susan in January of 2016, and since then people have asked us from time to time if we knew her current status, so we reached out to Susan last week to find out.
It is completely understandable that Susan’s story would stick in readers’ minds. It is unforgettable. Twenty-four years ago Bovell, now 52, riding to a concert in Wildwood with friends, had no chance to brace herself during a catastrophic car accident. Airlifted to the Cooper Medical Center with a horrific head injury, the Mt. Airy resident had a one-in-10 chance of survival, the neurologists said. “Doctors told my parents and three brothers that even if survived, I would be a vegetable,” Sue said.
The doctors’ prognosis seemed accurate at first because Sue remained comatose for 30 days. Her family kept a bedside vigil. “My mom said that I got restless when I had longer periods of consciousness, but that time is still foggy for me,” she said.
As Sue grew stronger, she seemed eager for freedom. “My parents told me that I would try to climb out of bed. I don’t remember that.” Sue’s efforts seem all the more remarkable because the accident had left her almost totally blind.
The head trauma had inflicted even more damage. “My brain was like scrambled eggs,” said Sue, who was a receptionist at the Chestnut Hill Health and Fitness Center — now closed — before the accident.
“I couldn’t communicate and didn’t have comprehension. I had to learn everything again, how to get dressed, even how to swallow because I’d had a tracheotomy. Nurses taught me to swallow by giving me sorbets. I guess that’s why I like sorbets so much now, mostly in the summertime.”
When doctors deemed her strong enough, Sue returned home and began outpatient rehabilitation care at Einstein Hospital. A glimmer of hope came amid the tedium of relearning tasks of daily living. By following her movements, the staff at Einstein suspected that Sue might have a tiny bit of vision.
Tests at Wills Eye Hospital confirmed that Sue had regained five percent of the vision in her right eye. “I have tunnel vision in the right eye now. I can see clearly things that are directly in front of me. For example, I can recognize a person’s face,” said the lifelong Mt. Airy resident at the time. “My biggest fear is losing what little eyesight I have.” But Susan told us last week that she has retained five percent in her right eye, “not much of a change.”
But Sue also had to run a gauntlet of agencies and spend months on a waiting list for mobility training so that she could get around. “I was housebound while my friends were going on with their lives,” she said. “My mom would read me news stories and the funnies from the newspapers to lift my spirits, but it was hard just staying home.” Gradually, Sue taught herself to read again by sounding out words, a process that took patience.
Help for Sue’s tough times came from an unexpected source. “It was the cats who got me out of my shell,” she said. “I’ve always liked cats, and I would watch our two cats and tell my mom what they had done when she came home.”
As to the obvious question about why she does not have a guide dog, Susan replied last week, “I never considered a guide dog. I’m a cat person!”
It also cheered Sue when employees and members of the Chestnut Hill Health and Fitness Center took up a collection to help pay for her medical bills. “They were so kind,” she said. “I’ll always be grateful to them.”
In time, the Delco Blind & Sight Center provided a mobility trainer. “I learned how to use one of those red and white canes to get around,” Sue said. “That’s important because I can’t see the curb or peripheral objects. The instructor taught me how to get from home to the train station near Gowen Street on the Chestnut Hill East line.
“The conductor on the train made friends with me. He would sit and talk with me. I would get off at Suburban Station and catch the subway to West Philly. It was great to get out and be with people after all that time at home.”
At the Elwyn Institute campus in West Philadelphia, Sue, who had attended Cardinal Dougherty High School and graduated from the Parkway Program, updated her clerical skills and learned how to use computers.
Since her training at Elwyn, Sue has had clerical jobs, but “It can be hard to get work because people assume that my impairment makes me unqualified or unable to do things, but I do have clerical and people skills,” said Sue, who did volunteer at local hospitals doing filing and mass mailings but no longer does.
In the spring of 2018, Susan was hired as a cashier at the Rite Aid store in Market Square in Chestnut Hill. “I like it because it keeps me in touch with local people,” she said.
Sue insisted that her limited sight has actually sharpened some of her other senses. “My hearing is phenomenal. I hear little things that other people don’t notice at all. I also like to walk, listen to music and run on my treadmill.” She also enjoys baseball and has a wide enough view to follow the game if she sits well back from the television.
Sue can be contacted at email@example.com.