Making New Memories After an Accident


Tahoe resident goes through months of recovery but gains his life back.

It sounds like a dramatic movie plot: weeks of your life wiped from memory, relying on those close to you to help you recall just what happened after a life-threatening accident.

Leigh Ann and David Cullen, shown on the deck of their Tahoe City home, survived a four-month medical emergency in which David was unconscious for weeks at a time.
Leigh Ann and David Cullen, shown on the deck of their Tahoe City home, survived a four-month medical emergency in which David was unconscious for weeks at a time.

Tahoe City resident David Cullen lived this script, but he’s regained his quality of life after a fall down some steep stairs in August. What he hasn’t regained, though, are many memories of the accident and his recovery.

“I remember just before the fall, and not much else,” David admits. “I feel like I officially woke up at Renown Rehabilitation Hospital weeks after the accident. Everything in between . . . there is nothing.”

It started when David, a retired Los Angeles police officer, and his wife, Leigh Ann, were visiting friends. Leigh Ann went home after nightfall to take care of their dog but received a chilling call 40 minutes later: David had fallen down their neighbors’ steep stairs leading out to the street. She raced back to her husband.

“He was sprawled out and there was blood running down the driveway,” Leigh Ann recalls. “He was not responsive but he was breathing, so we hollered for our friends or the neighbors to call 911.”

In the dark, David had tumbled from the last six steps and landed on his head. Leigh Ann says when paramedics arrived, “they took one look at him and called for the helicopter.” As the only Trauma Center between Sacramento and Salt Lake City, he was immediately flown to the ER at Renown Regional Medical Center.

David went into trauma surgery around midnight. The surgery took close to five hours and David was then moved to the Intensive Care Unit. “The doctors said we were very lucky that the brain was not swollen,” Leigh Ann says. “At this point, he was still not responsive but was breathing. One of the doctors said, ‘It’s his brain, and it will just take time.’”

Patience was indeed required for the Cullens. David didn’t open his eyes until 12 days later and remained in Intensive Care for 18 days. Leigh Ann remembers that he “finally woke up” on Labor Day weekend. “He was cognitive and his eyes were open,” she continues. “He was aware – he knew me and recognized me. There were some very bad days during all of this, but that was a really good day.”

That is when David’s rigorous road to recovery began. He was admitted to Renown Rehabilitation Hospital for intense physical therapy. As they recall it, the Cullens finish each other’s sentences and show why they’ve been a couple for more than 30 years.

Leigh Ann: “He missed the first four days at Renown Rehab.”

David chuckles and says: “I don’t remember going there. I was in a wheelchair when I arrived there and wasn’t allowed out of bed, so I was working toward getting out of that wheelchair so I could go home early.”

David clearly remembers one end goal: the orange wristband that Renown Rehab gives patients when they are able to move around without nursing assistance.

“I could walk out to the nurses’ station in the middle of the night and say, ‘Can I have a couple of cookies?’ ” David says with a sly smile that he flashes often during his interview. “Once I wasn’t restricted to bed . . . boy, I was walking all over the hospital! I got to that stage where I realized, ‘Oh, it’s getting shorter.’”

When he was discharged in mid-October, he said it was better than any birthday he’d ever had. “The conditions there were good and everyone was very nice to you, but it’s not home,” David adds. Still, both Cullens said that the entire experience was positive, despite its length.

“I really can’t say enough about how great the care was at all of the facilities, from the support staff to the doctors and nurses that took care of him,” Leigh Ann recalls. “Everyone was very concerned, and they took care of me as well.”

Once back in Tahoe City, David continued outpatient physical therapy as well as cognitive reasoning therapy. “Your brain has to tell your limbs, ‘Let’s start working,’ but my brain was ahead of my limbs,” David explains. “So I needed more therapy. It was only about three weeks.”

David said that he’s not quite back to 100 percent. He had a great memory before the accident but then came home to find that he couldn’t remember how to run household objects like the lawnmower. David continues to make progress, though, and now he is even cleared to drive.

Both he and Leigh Ann said that his being in good shape to start with – a holdover from his active lifestyle while a police officer – was a huge key to his successful recovery.

“If I wasn’t in good shape, I wouldn’t have made it,” David confirms with one of his frequent chuckles during his interview. “Really, I got lucky.”

Leigh Ann also had some lessons learned from being by her husband’s side. “What I tell people is, first of all, the most obvious thing is that your life can change in an instant.” She also tells people to discuss advance directives now instead of waiting to have that conversation – knowing what decisions David wanted made it easier for Leigh Ann.

Now, the Cullens can get back to a happy retirement together – they are planning trips to Hawaii and Germany this year.

“We were supposed to leave in September for Germany,” Leigh Ann says. “And at one point during all of this I had to tell David, ‘We aren’t going to Oktoberfest this year.’”

“But, we are this year,” David adds, with another one of those radiant smiles.