Tatyana Shterenberg was on her way home to her apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one snowy day in March 2005 when her life changed in an instant.
She was waiting at a crosswalk when two cars collided in front of her. One of them spun around and struck her, slamming her into a mailbox. When she came to moments later, she was lying on the ground, motionless.
“When I realized I was alive, I tried to get up,” Ms. Shterenberg, 53, recalled.
But she could not move. People who were watching from their apartment windows overlooking the intersection screamed at her to stay on the ground until an ambulance arrived. Her right leg was broken and infected, and the blood vessels in it had ruptured. She was rushed to a hospital for the first of eight operations to repair it.
Fourteen years later, Ms. Shterenberg is still dealing with the aftermath of the accident that nearly killed her.
Before the collision, Ms. Shterenberg had established a career as an ultrasound technician after moving to the United States from Ukraine. She loved her job, and was earning enough to afford rent and private school tuition for her son Simon.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Ms. Shterenberg grew up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism was rampant. Ms. Shterenberg, who is Jewish, said her classmates used to taunt her at school: “Go to Israel. Go to America. You don’t belong here.”
Her mother, a pediatrician, was denied entry to medical school for five years because of her religion. She was accepted only after she complained to administrators, Ms. Shterenberg said.
It was that inhospitable environment that drove Ms. Shterenberg and her parents to immigrate to the United States in 1995 under the family reunification program. Her brother, who she said had been denied admission to a military school in Ukraine because of his religion, had left five years earlier and settled in Brooklyn.
She had planned to come to the United States with her husband, Vadim, and to try to start a family, but he died of heart failure months before the move.
Ms. Shterenberg said she gained weight and isolated herself from her family and friends. “For three months, I did not even go outside of my apartment,” she said.
She and her family ultimately settled in Bensonhurst. One day, she and a friend were walking on West Sixth Street when she met the man who would become her second husband.
She had struggled with infertility during her first marriage, so she was shocked when she became pregnant with Simon, whom she calls a “miracle,” in 1998.
Ms. Shterenberg’s relationship with Simon’s father did not last. They divorced in 2002.
She supported her son by babysitting and cleaning houses, but wanted to follow her mother into a career in medicine.
From 1999 to 2001, Ms. Shterenberg trained to become an ultrasound technician, a job she grew to love because of the patients she worked with and the financial independence it provided her.
But the car accident in 2005 upended that, and left Ms. Shterenberg with no choice but to quit her job. The decision, she said, destroyed her way of life.
During the initial recovery period, she moved in temporarily with her parents because she could not walk up the stairs to her second-floor apartment. She shared a room with Simon, who she said cried at the sight of his mother in pain.
After the operations on her leg, Ms. Shterenberg said, she struggled to perform simple tasks, such as dressing herself, without help from her parents. She developed back and shoulder pain, and had shoulder replacement surgery.
Ms. Shterenberg said she received a $10,000 insurance settlement for the accident in 2007, but the money did not last, and there were times when she could not pay her rent.
She found out she was pregnant with her son Samuel the same year she received the settlement. Samuel is “her little star” who helped her through a period of depression, Ms. Shterenberg said. Samuel’s father is not in his life, she said.
Ms. Shterenberg’s lingering health complications from the accident — she has a hematoma in her leg from the damaged blood vessels, and she cannot sit up or stand for long periods — keep her from being able to work. “I’m still suffering,” she said.
Public assistance is Ms. Shterenberg’s primary source of income. Each month she receives $908 in Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, $219 in Social Security benefits for her younger son and $353 through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In May, Ms. Shterenberg’s dentist told her that she needed an implant to replace a missing tooth, but Medicaid would not cover the procedure. She reached out to Selfhelp Community Services, a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. Selfhelp gave her $1,000 for the implant.
Ms. Shterenberg faced another setback this summer: She could afford only a portion of her rent. The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, another UJA-Federation beneficiary, gave her a $1,036 grant from The Neediest Cases Fund to pay her rent for July.
“I was always working for money and for everything, so I was ashamed a little bit to ask for help,” Ms. Shterenberg said. The organizations that provided the assistance “understand people and really listen,” she added.
Despite her ongoing health and financial problems, she finds joy in raising her children and playing the piano. She particularly enjoys Russian romance songs, she said.
Simon, 20, is studying chemistry and engineering at Brooklyn College, and Samuel, 11, is in the sixth grade.
Ms. Shterenberg tries not to dwell on the past and encourages others to do the same.
“Try to find something good in your life now,” she said. “I have to be happy for my kids.”
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