People stare at her, wondering why a bandana covers her head, and ask if she has cancer and where she’s getting treatment.
But Shelbi Crouch, 20, didn’t lose her hair from chemotherapy treatments, and it won’t grow back.
The long, curly strawberry blonde locks that got Crouch voted Best Hair in high school never will return after she lost 80 percent of her scalp in a race-kart accident six months ago.
“It would have been hard for me no matter what, because I had so much of it. But at the same time, it was that much harder because, what’s there to know me by now? That’s what people knew me for was my hair, and now it’s gone,” Crouch said.
THE CROUCH FILE
Name: Shelbi Crouch
Education: Graduated from Perry Meridian High School, attending IUPUI
Favorite TV shows: “Grey’s Anatomy” and “My Strange Addiction”
Favorite music: Country, modern worship, Matchbox Twenty, Justin Nozuka
On July 8, Crouch was seriously injured in an accident at Whiteland Raceway Park. She doesn’t remember what happened, but emergency workers told her she most likely hit a bump that caused her head to jerk back and her hair to get caught in the kart’s rear axle.
The spinning axle then pulled Crouch’s hair and a majority of her scalp from her head.
Crouch suffered a traumatic brain injury, a skull fracture, short-term memory loss and partial facial paralysis. Crouch since has undergone two surgeries to help tissue grow back over her scalp and two other procedures to replace skin she lost. In coming months, Crouch will have to have at least one more skin graft procedure to replace skin on her scalp before doctors say she has fully recovered.
Her family still hasn’t received all of the bills they’ll have to pay and have had one fundraiser, which raised about $2,400 toward the expenses.
The family’s insurance is paying part of Crouch’s costs, which most likely will top $250,000, and the family will have another fundraiser in the coming months to help with more of the medical bills.
Crouch measures her recovery differently than the doctors she has been seeing for months.
With the brain injury, Crouch struggles to remember information immediately and has to reread pages in books to make sure she understands. And with the loss of her hair, Crouch also lost part of her confidence that she doesn’t think will ever come back, she said.
Before the accident, Crouch was outgoing. She was president of the Key Club at Perry Meridian High School.
She loved to go shopping with her friends and was always willing to meet new people.
Now, Crouch is more reserved. She was seeing a therapist to deal with feelings of loss and depression. She spends more time at home, watching television with her boyfriend and doesn’t make small talk with her classmates at IUPUI.
As Crouch continues to heal, some of her outgoing nature is coming back, said her mom, Sherri Crouch-Wilson. But Crouch-Wilson doesn’t know if her daughter will ever be as adventurous as she once was.
“I can see it at times. But it’s just the times are fewer and far between. Before, she was never at home. She was always so happy. Now she really struggles with the whole self-image thing with her hair. We still have times where she’ll be crying, or she’ll see somebody who has pretty hair and say, ‘Oh, Mom, look at her hair,’” Crouch-Wilson said.
The day of the accident, Crouch didn’t want to go to the raceway, which she viewed as a masculine activity, she said.
But her boyfriend, Jimmy Williams, had a friend in town, and they wanted her to go. Crouch didn’t want to let them down, so she went.
At the raceway, Crouch said she asked an employee if she should put her hair up before getting in a kart. The employee said no.
An attorney for Whiteland Raceway Park owner Mike Swails declined to discuss details of the accident.
Attorney Kerry Mann said Swails has made policy changes since Crouch’s accident but declined to discuss them.
“The owner and his staff are wishing the best for Shelbi and her continual recovery. The owner takes safety very seriously and will continue to make improvements for all those involved in the motorsport of go-karting,” Mann said.
Crouch said she was nervous when she got into the kart at the track.
After that, her memory goes blank.
Williams has told her the details he remembers, but Crouch still asks him questions about what happened. Not remembering makes Crouch feel guilty. No one should have to see a scalping, she said. It wasn’t fair that they had to remember it, and she didn’t.
“It’s not like getting in a car accident and having your bone sticking out. It was like a horror story,” Crouch said.
Williams saw Crouch out of her kart, running away from the course. Williams got out of his kart and called to Crouch, who turned around and ran to him before collapsing, he has told Crouch.
When members of the Whiteland Volunteer Fire Department arrived, Crouch was lying on the track, awake, and a shirt was wrapped around her head to stop the bleeding.
Larry Kephart, a firefighter and EMT with the department, said the firefighters had thought Crouch had just hit her head and didn’t realize her injury was worse until they saw her hair tangled in the kart. After that, Kephart told Crouch to keep her eyes on him as he worked. He wanted to make sure she stayed awake and was worried she would go into shock.
“I told her to focus on me as I was running around, trying to get everything, and she never took her eyes off of me. It looked like she had all the faith in the world,” Kephart said.
Whiteland firefighters called for a medical helicopter to take Crouch to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, and Williams stayed with her to calm her down as she went in and out of consciousness.
Emergency workers were calming him, too, because he was afraid of getting in the way, Whiteland Volunteer Fire Department Safety Coordinator Jason Kephart said.
When they first saw Crouch, emergency workers didn’t know if she would survive. Her injury was one of the most traumatic they’d seen, firefighter and EMT Kathy Kephart said.
But they have kept in touch with Crouch and her family, visited her in the hospital and followed her recovery, which they don’t often get to do with patients.
“It’s just amazing to see the strength she has. It’s been wonderful. She’s been a real big inspiration to all of us at the fire department,” firefighter and EMT Curtis Skaggs said.
After the accident, Crouch spent 22 days at IU Health Methodist Hospital. Doctors kept her sedated for the first three days, and Crouch underwent her first surgery to clean her scalp four days after being admitted.
At first, Crouch didn’t want any visitors at the hospital, because she didn’t want her family and friends to see her without hair. But she eventually opened up and allowed them to come.
Crouch had a second surgery a week after the first and returned to the hospital in September and November to have skin grafts, where doctors took skin from her legs and arm and put them on her head so her scalp would regrow.
Because the skin was taken from other areas of her body, it doesn’t have hair follicles and Crouch will not be able to regrow her hair, Crouch-Wilson said.
The pain from the grafts — like a burn or road rash — was worse than the pain she felt after the accident. Her legs hurt when she moved them, and she tried to stay still. But not moving her legs meant her skin wouldn’t stretch, and the areas wouldn’t heal, Crouch said.
After the first 22 days in the hospital, Crouch was transferred to the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, where she spent eight days doing speech therapy and relearning how to use facial muscles, Crouch-Wilson said.
Her brain injury had caused short-term memory loss that made her forget what questions she asked and new information she learned, as well as some facial paralysis that made part of her mouth droop and her left eye not close all the way.
At night, nurses had to tape down her eye so she could sleep, Crouch said.
As her nerve-endings regrew, Crouch was able to reuse her facial muscles, but she doesn’t know if all of her muscles will return to normal. Right now, Crouch still can’t cry out of her left eye, and her right eye doesn’t close when she yawns.
Crouch also did therapy to help with the memory loss, including counting backward from 100 by seven, naming a vegetable that starts with p and listing as many animals as she could in two minutes.
“I’d list five animals then stop, because I was distracted. But it wasn’t like I was distracted by a noise or something in the room; it was like I was distracted by my own brain. I couldn’t think of anything,” Crouch said.
Crouch was in the top 5 percent of her graduating high school class and worries she’ll never be able to remember information like she used to. She can’t read as quickly as she could before the accident and had to cut back her course load at IUPUI to two classes a semester.
“Before when I was reading, I preferred to be in a quiet room or a quiet place. But now, I have to read things over a few times to make sure I comprehend them,” Crouch said.
Crouch took a semester off from college after the accident, and recently began taking classes again for a degree in nursing.
In her classes, Crouch is not as open to making friends as she was before and said she does not talk to the classmates sitting around her.
Before the accident, Crouch would make small talk with the other students in her class. But now, her classmates try to ask her what happened. She tells them she got in an accident, and ends the discussion.
Crouch has always wanted to be a nurse, because she wants to be a comforting figure for children in the hospital, and believes she will be able to have a better relationship with cancer patients by being able to relate to part of what they’ve been through.
“If I’m on a floor where teenage girls have cancer, they’ll say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to lose your hair.’ And I can say, ‘Yeah, I do,’” Crouch said, pointing to her head.
But having that connection doesn’t make up for the hair she lost, and when she hears other girls in class complaining about their hair, she dwells on the fact that hers will never come back.
“My psychotherapist said I’ve acquired this perspective on life that normally people don’t get until they’re way older, and some people don’t get it at all. But I’d so much rather have hair than that perspective,” Crouch said.