Jennifer Turner – a life in dentistry
Jennifer Turner shares her inspiring story of surviving a life-changing car crash to recovery and building her career in dentistry.
It was 22 August, 1991. I was driving alone in my sporty red Acura Integra on my way to Niagara Falls.
I remember having dance music on in my car, not too loud but it was fun music. At the time I was thinking about how great that summer had been and that I needed to wash my favourite capri jeans so I could wear them out that weekend.
I was driving on Highway #20. And I had been on this road thousands of times, but that night the drive would change me forever. I was a happy 19 year old. Life was good, yet I had not quite figured out what I was going to do when I grew up.
As I approached the intersection ironically called ‘Turner’s Corners’, I was in the right-hand lane and the stop light was green. Numerous cars that were in front of me had been going through the stop light at a pretty good speed.
It was my turn to go through the intersection, but I never made it through. That is the last thing that I remember.
The moment that changed my life
Apparently, just as I was going through the intersection, out of nowhere, the male driver of an oncoming light blue Volkswagon minibus decided to try and turn right in front of me. He ended up hitting me head on at 80kph or 50mph.
The driver of the Volkswagon minibus was a drunk driver.
The crash was so intense and loud that people came running from local businesses around the intersection to see what had happened and if the person in the red car was alive.
And the impact of the crash forced the left side of my head into the middle portion of the car where the passenger window and front window meet. Apparently all glass in the vehicle had shattered.
It split my forehead wide open. I was wearing my seat belt, yet the impact had crushed the car right into my legs. I was instantly knocked into a coma.
The paramedics ended up bringing me to a hospital in a bigger nearby town so I could receive treatment in the ICU. The police closed off the intersection to recreate the accident scene and gather evidence.
My friends and family were shocked and devastated that this had happened. They took turns, in shifts, staying with me around the clock. All of them waiting to see if there would be any sign of improvement. Yet day after day, there was none.
I am not sure my parents were prepared to have the doctor tell them that they should begin to make my funeral arrangements. The doctor did not see how I would survive that horrific car accident.
Almost two weeks later, I could hear someone calling my name. ‘Jennifer, Jennifer, how many fingers do you see?’
My eyes slowly opened, and I saw someone standing at the foot of my bed. His arms were waving, and he was wearing a crisp white lab coat.
I had no idea where I was. Over his right shoulder all I could see was the brightest round white light that I have ever seen in my life. I honestly remember thinking it was my time to die.
I was focused on the light and not the number of fingers the doctor was waving around. The light was slowly getting smaller and smaller and that is when suddenly, the light got so small that it vanished. All I could see was the doctor waving two fingers around on each hand. It was not my time to go. I find it amazing that I remember this so clearly.
I do not remember anything after waking up that day for a very long time.
Time to recover
After discharging from the hospital, I went back home to where I lived with my mum.
I had to learn how to get dressed, wash my hair, tie my shoes again and brush my teeth. I had a superb team of healthcare professionals that worked with me to rehabilitate me.
This included occupational therapists, speech therapists, massage therapists – you name it and I had it.
My family was amazing. When my mum went to work my grandma and great aunt would come to babysit me. I still could not be alone, I constantly needed help. It must have been so draining to my family.
In the blink of an eye my world had changed, yet the worst part was I lost my memory. I had support from the Brain Injury Clinic. I could remember things from long ago, but I could not remember anything short term.
That is really difficulty when you are trying to rehabilitate and cannot remember what you were just taught. I remember having a pen and paper around me all the time to jot things down.
The ironic thing was that when family and friends came to visit me at home, my mom had a small landing at the front door that had tile flooring.
My brain worked in a way that when a visitor came over and stepped in that front landing area, I could sometimes remember who they were but the minute they crossed over onto the carpet, I could not remember them. It was like a light switch, but I had no control over it.
The good news is I did not worry about it because I did not remember anything.
My body was exhausted as it tried to heal. I’m sure I was depressed, but did not know it.
I think I slept for almost a year, mostly on the couch during the day with my cat snuggled up beside me and then at night in my bed.
I had countless doctors’ appointments, therapy appointments and visitors who cared about me. My mum made sure I was well taken care of and supported me the whole time.
Then one day a miraculous miracle happened.
I remembered people, things, and stuff. I do not know why or how this happened, but my brain was healing.
But following this I could remember who it was when they came over. It meant I was able to have telephone conversations, real conversations, I began to read again, and I remembered the words to songs from the past.
I remember, one day my mum and I were out on a car ride to get out of the house and I looked through the car window thinking that I was given the gift of life.
A tear streamed down my right cheek and I told myself that I was going to make the most out of my life. I did not know what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to make a difference in this world.
Finding something I loved
People often ask when I talk about my accident if I was scared to drive again. My answer is always no. Because I do not remember getting hit.
For years following the accident, I can share that when I would go through that intersection at ‘Turner’s Corners’ my knees would feel weak. It must have been a subconscious reaction to what happened.
A lesson that I learned from my accident is to never judge a book by its cover. Almost everyone has a story to tell. Yet human beings are sometimes so quick to judge others.
We need to all be kind and supportive to one another.
When I was progressing very well in 1993, I got a part time job at Canadian Tyre and quickly realised that I needed to go back to school. I wanted to do something in healthcare to help others. Yet I was not sure what that was going to be.
I went to dental assisting school and loved it. Whilst there I worked for a fabulous husband and wife dentist team.
The female dentist pushed me to go back to school. I completed Health Science Prep, then after my second attempt I got accepted into the dental hygiene program at multiple schools.
I remember my first two dental hygiene jobs, I got paid $25.00 and $28.00 per hour. But I had never felt so grateful to do what I loved to do. After this I continued before completing my bachelor of science degree and am still a lifelong learner.
Every day is a gift
I get bored easily, need a challenge and quickly realised that there is a great big world out there.
Following this I took a leap of faith after running into a former professor in the grocery store. She asked me if I was interested in interviewing for a part-time clinical teaching position at my alma mater.
That was the beginning for me to start spreading my wings and believe in myself that anything is possible.
There have been many times in my career where the thought of making a move scares me. That is exactly when I would tell you to make your move.
Challenge yourself. I have never regretted one avenue of my professional career.
I have been fortunate to have one of the best mentors, Jo-Anne Jones who believed in me, even when I did not believe in myself. For that I will be forever grateful.
I am proud to share that in 2013, I was honoured to be the recipient of the ‘Excellence in Teaching Award’ and in 2014, the recipient of the ‘Best Oral Health Promotion Award’ from the Canadian Dental Hygienists Assocation.
I was also humbled in 2018 to be the recipient of the Ontario Dental Hygienists Association, Elizabeth Craig Award of Distinction.
What we do is not who we are. Yet I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to serve as president and chief governance officer for the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario, the director of dental hygiene practice for the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association, professor, professional speaker, author… Now I am exactly where I was meant to be, at 123Dentist as vice president, dental hygiene operations.
Every single day is a gift. Make the most out of your life and remember anything is possible!
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