The lasting effects of a rail tragedy: one survivor’s story

For more than 30 years, Lene Tonnisen has lived with the consequences of a rail tragedy. When she was just 18, she was on her way home from a basketball practice near her home in the small town of Thamesford, Ontario. She was critically injured when the car she was a passenger in failed to stop at a railway crossing and was hit by a train.
Today, Lene still lives with the physical and emotional effects of that incident. She shared her story with Operation Lifesaver.
What can you tell me about the accident?
It was my last year of high school and the second day of school. We'd had basketball practice so I was carpooling home with one of my teammates, Becky. It was just the two of us and her father. Her father was driving to my place, and I'm guessing he'd never been out that way before. I would tell everybody that they'd have to stop at the railway tracks and look both ways because it was just a crossbuck. (A crossbuck is a traffic sign that indicates a level railway crossing without any flashing lights, bells or gates. It is composed of two slats of wood or metal, fastened together to form an “X”.)
At this crossing, there were cornfields on either side of the tracks and you had to get pretty close to the tracks to even be able to see down them. I would always slow down when I was driving, and if it was night, I'd turn off the headlights to see if there were train lights visible. I’d then turn my lights back on, roll down my windows, go really slowly and listen for a train. Then before I crossed the tracks, I'd stop and look both ways to see if a train was coming.

The accident was one of those one-in-a-million things where we were slowly crossing the tracks just as the train was coming. It hit the driver's side. We weren't dragged on the tracks for very long at all before we kind of went off the tracks.
I wasn't wearing my lap belt because a friend of mine had said that by wearing one, you could become a quadriplegic or paraplegic if you were in a bad accident. I figure I hit the back of my head inside the car and then I was thrown from the vehicle and did a faceplant into a tree.
What happened to your friend and her father?
She was in serious condition with internal injuries, and he died. He may have passed away by the time the paramedics got there.
What injuries did you sustain?
I had a traumatic brain injury. I was in a coma for about 10 days. I don't really remember anything until day 12. I remember waking up and thinking that it was kind of bizarre, like I’d woken up in the Twilight Zone.
I also had knee injuries, elbow cuts and cuts on my rib cage, and I had shattered my cheekbone. I needed surgery to repair that, including a plate to hold it together.
What have been the lasting impacts of that accident?
I’m still dealing with the traumatic brain injury. The headaches didn't start for about a year and a half, but when they did, they were pretty intense.
A year after the accident, I was at university. But my second year of university was like a fog. I would have these brutal headaches 24/7. At night, I would think, “If I can just get to sleep, the headache will be gone in the morning.” But then I'd wake up and the headache would still be there. Those headaches would last four to six weeks at a time.
That year I also ended up getting hospitalized with orbital cellulitis [inflammation of the eye tissues]. And I've had more sinus issues since then.
For a long time, whenever I heard a train—even if I didn’t quite hear the whistle—there was like this fear that went through me.
What do you want people to think about when they come across a railway crossing with just a crossbuck?
I want them to realize that they need to stop. And if they're not going to stop, they need to at least slow down and look both ways. I mean, it is the law to stop and look both ways. And then not go until it's clear both ways. If there's more than one track, then make sure both tracks are clear when you cross. Because it’s not worth dying, it's not worth the injuries.
It’s been over 30 years now, and at times when I hear a train that catches me by surprise, I get a little bit of a fear response. And I still struggle with the traumatic brain injury, although it's by the grace of God that I survived. I should be a quadriplegic. I should be dead. Statistically speaking, considering what happened, nobody should have survived that accident. But two of us did, and I’ve had to live with the consequences of being hit by a train ever since.
It really frustrates me when I hear about people trying to race a train when the lights are going and the gates are down. It’s like, “Really, people? You have the benefit of the warning signals, please listen to them! They are protecting you. Your life is worth it!”