Rebecca Tripp remembers everything until the point of impact.

Police reports from October 2007 say her Honda Accord hit a tree head-on, partially ejecting her through the passenger-side front door. She was transported by LifeFlight to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where she remained for several months. Tripp, who was 27 at the time, suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Seeing another side

There is another side of Rebecca Tripp that has nothing to do with hospitals or wheelchairs. A creative side that enjoys photography, storytelling and music. She is also passionate about environmental issues and is an advocate for animal rights.

Her photos have appeared in Downeast Magazine and on National Resources Council of Maine's website and she has authored articles about biological research on tardigrades, a type of microscopic invertebrate, in the forest canopies of the Amazon.

“I love to write and I love language and I love to read but a lot of times words just don't quite hit you the way a photograph can,” she said. “It’s really powerful.”  As a kid, she confessed, she always wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic magazine. “It would be the best job.”

Tripp completed her bachelor's degree in psychology at University of Maine and in 2013, applied and was accepted to a field research internship at Baker University in Kansas. The program was funded by the National Science Foundation and designed for able-bodied and disabled participants.

The scientists who spearheaded the program were actively recruiting students with physical disabilities, she said. “I applied for so many different things, as a volunteer even, and as soon as I disclosed my use of a wheelchair, I was immediately met with rejection."

As part of the program, she climbed trees using ropes and a harness to ascend to the forest canopy, collecting and studying tardigrades. “They kind of look like little manatees or something with claws,” she said.

As a result of her biological field research in Kansas, Tripp was featured in a children's book called “Scientists Get Dressed,” by Deborah Lee Rose.

The internship in Kansas also led her to meet Meg Lowman, a scientist who would, two years later, invite her on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest to continue research on tardigrades. Tripp said she still keeps in contact with Lowman and has edited a book by her, and contributed the foreword to the book. She has also written several pieces for Lowman’s TREE Foundation website.

In an essay for the foundation about her experiences in the Amazon, she writes, "The brief time I spent in the Amazon had a profound, and undoubtedly lasting, impact on me, reinforcing my commitment to living simply, being fully present, and living with an awareness of the rippling effect my words and actions have on the world around me."

In an interview with The Republican Journal Sept. 26, the Searsport resident said that while at EMMC, she did not receive quality care, the hospital showed “carelessness and apathy” toward patients and also failed to give her basic information and tools so she could properly take care of herself at home.

Looking back over the 13 years since her injury, Tripp sees hers not as an isolated case, but rather a pervasive problem with Maine’s health care system, where the quality of treatment and aftercare, she feels, depends on the ZIP code where a patient resides.

“I was treated on the floor that had earned the nickname the ‘forgotten floor,’” she said, remembering attempts to alert the nursing staff, and waiting as she watched nurses “standing around at the nursing station.”

Tripp noted that one of the first things taught to spinal cord injury patients is how to catheterize themselves to drain their bladder intermittently throughout the day. “I was not taught this,” she said, “and instead had an indwelling catheter placed that has been draining my bladder continuously for the past 13 years.”

An indwelling catheter, or one that is left in place, increases a person’s chances of developing bladder cancer, she said, and also causes the bladder to shrink significantly.

Tripp pored over her medical records trying to figure out why nobody had told her about catheters. “I found in the records that a nurse had come in to teach me and said that I couldn't stay awake, so they didn't bother,” she said, “instead of coming back when I could stay alert.”

“Instead of being taught the basics, I was sent home with a reference book on spinal cord injuries, and that was my education,” Tripp said. “So it's been a lot of trial-and-error and unfortunately some pretty serious errors.”

While she was fitted for her first wheelchair, her second chair, which she has had for the last eight years, was not a good fit, and as a result, she developed sores. “I did not realize,” she said, “it's extremely important to be carefully fitted for a wheelchair.”

People who are paralyzed are always at high risk of developing pressure ulcers, she said, because they are constantly putting pressure on their behind. “You have to be very mindful,” Tripp said, “of relieving pressure somehow.”

Lifting yourself up off the seat of the chair, or getting into bed and lying on one side, or even using a device she called a standing frame that puts you in a standing upright position, all help to relieve pressure. “These are not things that I was educated about,” she said.

After developing pressure ulcers in 2017, she was ordered on strict bed rest, with home health workers coming in three times a week to dress and keep an eye on her wounds.  Because she lives alone and takes care of herself she was not able to fully follow her bed rest regimen.  “I have to get up to eat and make my meals and I don't have the luxury of being able to afford someone to come in and take care of me,” she said.

“I was going to St. Joseph Wound Care from 2017 until earlier this year, 2020,” she said, and was seeing them for one wound that was not healing. She was told her wound would most likely remain open and that she would have to “deal with it” the rest of her life and keep it covered.

This did not make sense to Tripp, who consulted other nurses and doctors who said that is absolutely not the case and that these wounds must be closed.

By March her wounds did not get better and she was directed to have an MRI at Waldo County General Hospital. Doctors there discovered she had osteomyelitis, which is an infection in the bone, and she was admitted to the hospital.

Three days later, because of the prolonged infection, her doctors decided she required major reconstructive surgery and debridement of a bone. They felt WCGH was not equipped for such a procedure, so Tripp was sent to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she was treated until August.

While in Portland, Tripp experienced what she described as “terrible fevers and chills” and doctors had a hard time diagnosing what was wrong. She was given three X-rays and tested for COVID-19 more than once, before the surgeon, who had intended to wait until her antibiotics cleared the infection, decided to do an exploratory surgery.

“She found old gauze in my wound, which had been left in there from nursing,” she said, “and that's what caused the horrible infection.”

The infection had eaten away a lot of the natural tissue and Tripp was given a flap surgery procedure, which takes muscle from another area of the body and fills in the cavity. Doctors also removed a sizable section of her pelvic bone because it had died from the infection and could not recover, she said.

“It was eye-opening when I went to Maine Med, because the contrast in the quality of care that I received down there compared to what I've received up this way in the past 13 years was pretty significant,” Tripp said.

“Because I was not taught a simple yet critical component of my care when I was first injured 13 years ago,” she said, “I will be undergoing another major reconstructive surgery in the relatively near future,” to augment her bladder.

While at EMMC, Tripp was seen by a rehabilitation doctor, but was never directed to rehabilitation. “The nurses and doctors in Portland were just flabbergasted by that,” she said. “When I would bring things up to him (the EMMC doctor)about my concerns in relation to my spinal cord injury, he would just brush me off.”

Since being at Maine Medical Center, Tripp has a new rehabilitation doctor and feels she can take better care of herself and is better informed about her condition. In her current regimen to avoid future pressure sores, Tripp has to lift herself off her seat and hold it for at least one minute every 15 minutes for the rest of her life.

Currently, Tripp is considering moving to the Portland area to be closer to her medical team. She has applied to 20 or so places for housing, but said nothing is available. One place she contacted told her she was number 138 on the waiting list, while Bath Housing Authority said the average wait time is two years.

The search is preliminary, she said, “I'm not ready for that yet just because I still have to be off my butt so much — I am just seeing what’s available.”

One of the most important lessons Tripp has learned in her experiences is the importance of having an advocate. “There are some people that have family members who can act as advocates, but again, not all of us have that,” she said, and added it is virtually impossible to be your own advocate when you are in that situation.

In addition to having strong advocates, she said, there needs to be a change in the health care system itself, with better trained, more caring medical professionals.

Tripp said the physical problems she has endured over the last 13 years stem from her lack of education, and she feels they could have been prevented. “So it's not only a detriment to me in my health and my quality of life, but I can't even imagine how much it has cost,” she said. “I imagine it's been a substantial burden to the state.”

In her research, Tripp has found that wound care as a whole costs the country billions and billions of dollars and the subset — pressure wound care — costs upwards of $11 billion annually.

“That was mind-blowing to me,” she said, “when for the vast majority of cases it can be prevented if you're just properly educated and also do your part once you have the education,” Tripp said. “Every 15 minutes making sure I'm offloading.”

Spinal cord injury patients are a small population in the grand scheme of things, she said, “but where I hate to refer to us as a burden, there's a lot of medical costs associated with our condition, especially when you develop wounds like this.”

Tripp’s uncle, John Larrabee, a Belfast native now living in North Carolina and also a Crosby High School alumnus, is rallying to help with his niece's expenses. He has published a book, "Precious Were the Hours," Poems and Reminiscences from an Old Baby Boomer, and all profits go to a trust fund he has established for her.

The cover features a photo of a hummingbird outside Tripp’s Searsport window. The book can be purchased through Amazon or directly from Larrabee at preciouswerethehours@gmail.com.