How My Girlfriend’s Near-Fatal Accident Saved Our Lives

An accident on an American road trip nearly killed Paul Connolly's girlfriend, Donna. But the trauma made this high-achieving couple reassess their priorities. Was there more to life than work and money?

Paul Connolly's girlfriend, Donna
The author's girlfriend, Donna, in Nevada, United States.

The lowest point of my life was in Boise, Idaho on a road trip in the deep north-west of the United States.

My girlfriend, Donna, suffering from the aftereffects of a brain trauma, had just tried to attack me in our hotel room and I had fled to a nearby diner to call my mum.

I was in tears on the phone. I couldn’t see any way through this.

I just didn’t know Donna anymore.

She was unrecognisable from the woman I’d fallen in love with ten years previously.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost and alone and knew Donna must be terrified too.

That such unhappiness would manifest itself in America was a deep and unwelcome irony because Donna and I lived for our American road trips.

We both worked stupidly long hours for UK national newspapers and our reward to ourselves was an annual three-week road trip across the United States. We hired the biggest car available, stayed at the best hotels we could find and ate (and occasionally drank) like royalty.

Donna hit her head so hard I was sure she was dead

We obsessed over our route each year. We loved America – not just its great cities but its people and wildernesses too. We were happier in the splendid desolation of rural Nevada than we were in the indelicate rowdiness of Las Vegas.

This year, we’d planned to drive across the far north of the US on route 2. We would start in Boston, head up to Detroit and then onwards to Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Our flight home to London was from Seattle. Three weeks would be plenty.

But we didn’t return home for more than two months.

In North Dakota, on the way back to our hotel from a restaurant, Donna collapsed and smashed her head against the concrete path. She hit her head so hard I was sure she was dead. An ambulance was called and by the time we reached ER she was back and chatting. She seemed so chirpy in fact that she was discharged without a further examination.

The next morning however she started to be violently sick. As we drove west on Route 2, she lay in the back seat of the car and covered her head. The light hurt her eyes.

How My Girlfriend's Near-Fatal Accident Saved Our Lives - how an american road trip nearly killed my girlfriend but ended up saving our lives 300x156
Downtown Kalispell, Montana

So I stopped at another ER, this time in eastern Montana. They said she had picked up a bug and was dehydrated. I tried to insist that they give her a scan. No, it was just a bug they said and they hooked her up to a saline drip for an hour and then sent us on our way.

By the time we reached Kalispell, Montana, Donna was in a really bad way.

I took her straight to the local ER and insisted they admit her immediately. They took one look at her and agreed. They performed a scan. She had a ruptured brain aneurysm.

The doctor told me she would have died within 24 hours if we hadn’t sought treatment.

Donna spent four weeks in intensive care. Her collapse had been precipitated by a very low heart rate. An exercise fanatic (well, one of us has to be), she was literally too fit.

The doctors warned me that her behaviour might be affected by the brain trauma

So they implanted a pacemaker. (During that operation they also managed to puncture one of her lungs.)

The doctors warned me that her behaviour might be affected by the brain trauma.

As Donna very slowly recovered in hospital she would hallucinate. She told me that she was regularly visited by a woman who told her to remove her drip. She tried occasionally to follow that advice and it would take two hospital staff to subdue her.

That was disturbing enough. Donna is normally a very placid character.

But I’d seen nothing yet.

Donna was finally discharged seven weeks’ later.

I’d been staying in a hotel in Kalispell and Donna joined me for one night before we set off on the rest of our journey. That night, I popped out briefly to pick up some food.

When I walked back in the room Donna came charging at me wielding a corkscrew. She didn’t recognise me and thought I was an intruder.

I tried to get her to sit on the bed but she fled the room, screaming.

We left the next day for our hotel in Boise. We still needed to get to Seattle to fly home.

Donna seemed a bit brighter in the car, although she still had a ferocious headache and had absolutely no recollection of the previous night’s incident.

She picked up a butter knife from the room service tray and charged at me again

Perhaps unwisely we popped down to the Boise hotel bar for a cocktail to celebrate being back on the road. I should have known something was up when Donna was emphatically certain that she’d seen and chatted to America Ferrera, the star of Ugly Betty, at the bar. I’d seen the conversation. The woman didn’t even vaguely resemble Ferrera.

We were back in our room an hour later watching TV and indulging in room service.

I went to the bathroom for a pee and when I returned Donna immediately started screaming at me: “Get out, get out of my room!”

And she charged at me again.

Again there was no placating her – she was clearly utterly terrified. I eased my way out of the room and went to the nearby diner to call my mum, who used to be a nurse.

I couldn’t handle this. I was with a near-stranger. And we weren’t allowed to fly home until she was stable. I have never felt so low and alone.

My mum was, as always, a font of great advice and told me to just be patient. Normal Donna would slowly return as the brain injury healed.

Over the next few days, as we drove west towards Seattle, Donna’s episodes became less frequent and less intense.

Working 10-12 hour days to further our careers no longer seemed very important

We had time to ourselves in Seattle as British Airways wanted to wait until Donna’s brain trauma and pacemaker were stable before allowing her to fly.

As the days passed and Donna returned to something resembling normality, we started to to discuss the future. Donna still didn’t remember any of the blackouts. The accident, and the aftermath, had scared the hell out of both of us. Life really was too short.

Working 10-12 hour days to further our careers no longer seemed very important. Indeed it seemed faintly ridiculous. We weren’t even really enjoying our work. Maybe it was time for a change. We were becoming desperate for kids and that was never going to happen if we kept the pedal to the metal on our careers.

After ten days in Seattle we were allowed to fly back to the UK.

And we were 99 percent certain that we needed a change.

I was the first to break. I left my office-bound job and went freelance

We just didn’t know how to do it. The idea kept percolating as Donna gradually eased back into work.

I was the first to break. I left my office-bound job and went freelance. I simply couldn’t bear office life anymore. I wanted out.

Donna was less sure but, a few months later, on impulse, we took a week’s holiday and went on a road trip around Scandinavia.

Up in deepest northern Sweden, standing on a frozen lake, we watched in awe as the Aurora Borealis danced above us.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a place like this?

Sweden is famously liberal and we were becoming a little disenchanted with the way the UK was headed. And this was before Brexit.

The whole world seemed to open up to us then

We checked house prices. And couldn’t quite believe our eyes.

At first we assumed that some strange Swedish pricing convention meant that a zero was missing from the price.

Surely, we thought, everything in Sweden was expensive?

But no, there really were houses for sale for the equivalent of £20,000 ($26,400).

We could sell our house in the UK and buy a house outright with no mortgage.

We wouldn’t have to work 10-12 hour days. We could live in beautiful countryside.

We could maybe have kids.

The whole world seemed to open up to us then.

Our cloistered, work-obsessed world just seemed stupid.

We could do so much more with our time. We wouldn’t just live for our three-week road trip. We could have a better, calmer life.

Six years later, we live in a northern Swedish house on three acres overlooking a lake (with 100 metres of lake frontage). We both work from home. It’s occasionally been tough but it’s been worth it.

And the best thing? We have five-year-old twin daughters.

Within five months of starting our new life Donna became pregnant with twins.

And we’ve already told them that for their fourteenth birthday we’ll arrange a special present.

An American road trip.