February 7, 2007 was the day that forever changed Karen Mertes’ life path. Karen, a Lieutenant Colonel serving in the United States Air Force, was driving the speed limit on the interstate when she was struck from behind by a drunk driver traveling over 100 mph.
He had a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit and the crash resulted in both vehicles being totaled. The axle in Karen’s car snapped in half, and her vehicle’s undercarriage dragged creating sparks on the interstate for several hundreds of feet.
Karen remembers being horrified at the smell of burning rubber in her vehicle. “During this time which seemed like an eternity to me, as my life hung in the balance, I made a bargain with God. I promised God that if I were blessed to live, I would spend the rest of my life helping others.”
Karen survived the crash but sustained multiple brain bleeds and was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her memory, cognitive functioning, and personality were all impacted. Karen remembers looking at herself in the mirror and no longer recognizing who she was. She underwent months of physical therapy, and after rehabilitation returned to work.
Karen holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and two Master’s Degrees in Business Administration, and Cost Estimating & Analysis. Her education and professional attributes provided her with the required experience to excel as a Lieutenant Colonel.
When Karen returned to work, she found that she could no longer perform the complex memory-driven cognitive tasks that her job required. She had to embark towards a different direction in her life, and though devastated that she had to leave a career that she loved and worked endlessly for, she made a commitment to use her story for others.
“In every situation we have a choice, to stay a victim or become victorious despite all odds. I chose to be better, not bitter.”
The driver that made the choice to drink and drive and injured Karen, continued to make choices that harmed her. Before the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) results came back, he fled the state. The news was heart breaking. As she continued to face new challenges head-on and find ways to embrace her TBI, the person that caused so much pain and suffering chose to flee his problems and not be accountable for his actions.
Karen lived years thinking that he would never be punished, and that the criminal justice system was not looking for him or making the case a priority. She became her own advocate and it was through building relationships in the community that the Sheriff’s Department reached out to the State Attorney General and worked with other law enforcement agencies to extradite the offender back to the State of Florida. Five years after the crash, justice was served.
Since the crash, Karen has become a professional speaker sharing her story of triumph through tragedy with thousands of people across our country, inspiring audiences to achieve their highest potential no matter what. She is the founder of Fulfill Your Destiny, a nonprofit organization whose signature program awards ‘Business Builder Grants’ to entrepreneurs who have experienced life changing events of their own and desire to take their businesses to the next level. Karen continues to deliver on her promise and inspires others.
“I have come to own my TBI, I am determined not to be owned by it. My TBI has taken me to positive directions that I never would have gone. I found what most would have deemed obstacles have in fact become opportunities for different kinds of success.”