Bridge collapse survivor searches for touch of healing

Practitioner Holly Busse places her hand on Lindsay Petterson's wrist during a reiki treatment.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Lindsay Petterson says she remembers the fall most clearly in her dreams. She could be dreaming just about leaning back in her chair, and the ground comes out from under her, and she's in a deep abyss.

When she wakes up, her heart is pounding.

"I feel like I've been through a battle when I wake up. I'm exhausted," Petterson said. "It's just terrifying to be there again, and then to wake up and tell yourself it was a dream, because it felt so real. And it's something that only a few people get."

Lindsay Petterson
Lindsay Petterson, 25, of St. Louis Park, is slowly putting the pieces together one year after the I-35W bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Petterson is 25. She broke her back when her Volkwagen Passat plunged to the bottom of the Mississippi River. She was laid up in a hospital for five days and wore a brace for several months.

While her physical injury has mostly healed, she says she still suffers from irrational fears and intense waves of sadness.

Even in the most everyday situations, Petterson's mind races as if she were a professional escape artist.

When she's standing in an elevator or driving through a tunnel, she's plotting her way out. When she meets with other bridge collapse survivors, they regularly tell similar stories.

Sitting in her St. Louis Park apartment, she says she realizes how, in an instant, she became fearful of the world around her.

"I basically lost all trust in anything that humans had a part in making."

"I basically lost all trust in anything that humans had a part in making," said Petterson. "If there was the possibility of human error, I lost trust in it. And I still don't have trust in a lot of things."

One thing that has helped her relax is a kind of therapy known as reiki. Petterson walks into a sunlit room at the Courage Center in Golden Valley and lies down on a massage table. Her practitioner, Holly Busse, greets her like a caring aunt. Busse gently touches Petterson's temples.

"Are you getting enough sleep?" Busse asked.

"Last night, not really," Petterson responded.

"Do you think it has come on stronger, with this whole one-year (anniversary)?"

Reiki treatment
Petterson regularly receives reiki treatment at the Courage Center in Golden Valley. The therapy uses gentle touch to help people relax. Petterson says she's become edgier and depressed since the bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"Yeah, probably," Petterson said. "It's been definitely the last month that sleeping has been hard."

Petterson tells her about a recurring dream, in which people tell her she needs to get over the bridge collapse. Even in real life, she's heard some of the same criticisms as public sympathy for the survivors has diminished.

Busse asks Petterson how she responds.

"Not very well. I was talking in therapy about how that's going to continue to come up. I have to get my battle gear on, and have my shield ready. So far, it feels like somebody has punched me in the stomach," Petterson said.

The anniversary of the collapse has crept up on her. Like other survivors, Petterson busied herself earlier this year with testifying at the state Capitol in support of a victims' compensation package.

Gentle touch
Reiki practitioner Holly Busse applies a gentle touch to Lindsay Petterson, a survivor of the I-35W bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But after the group won that fight, Petterson's life felt amiss.

Going back to work at a children's group home was one of her most difficult tasks. She says she wasn't emotionally strong enough to be there for the kids. One of them even reminded her that she had been away for months, and now they do things differently.

Petterson says it was the first time she realized how much she had changed -- and how much the world had changed while she was gone.

She ended up quitting her job. Insurance is paying her medical bills, and she expects some settlement money from the state eventually.

But for someone who was always a go-getter, being unemployed has left a void in her life.

Petterson's mother, Jean, says that to some extent, the bridge collapse robbed her daughter of her innocence.

"How could it not?" said Jean Petterson of Lake Lillian, Minn. "Something like that happening to you out of the blue -- just wondering, 'Why, why me?' -- as we all did, family as well. We wondered, just wondered how it could happen."

Slowly, the pieces of Lindsay Petterson's life are falling into place. She'll start a new job this month, again working with children.

But she says she still has many hurdles to clear. She knows it was just one year ago today when she was trapped in her car underwater and came to peace with her death. Petterson says it's the part she remembers most vividly, and the one she most desperately wants to forget.

She also recalls a promise she made to herself once she finally escaped. As she waited for the paramedics to arrive, she told herself -- a little naively -- that she wasn't going to let this experience affect her.

"I was like, 'Nope, I'm going to come back from this and I'm going to be great, and this is not going to change who I am,'" she recalled.

Petterson says she still hopes that at her core, that much is true.

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