Near-fatal accident at Electric Boat changed her life

Waterford ― A near-death workplace accident at Electric Boat in Groton has forever altered the life of 26-year-old Tanessa Pabon.

But more than four years after waking up from an induced coma in the intensive care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital facing years of rehabilitation, Pabon is optimistic about her future.

During an interview at her Waterford home on Dec. 29, Pabon talked about the highs and lows of her recovery and future goals, some of which she has already achieved. She recently earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut. It’s no small accomplishment considering her limited exposure to the outside world and struggle to maintain normalcy in the face of lingering physical and mental health issues.

“A lot of it was a learning process for me, trying to figure out how to navigate life with the things I didn’t have to deal with before,” Pabon said.

She doesn’t remember stepping into an uncovered opening while power washing the dimly lit interior of a submarine at Electric Boat in Groton on May 7, 2019, falling more than 20 feet to the floor or being found lying face down in a pool of wastewater.

Pabon, who was 22 at the time of the accident and ha and in an outpatient rehabilitation facility with doctor"

Pabon suffered from a traumatic brain injury, among other injuries, in the fall inside the sonar dome of the submarine USS John Warner and was in a neck brace for the better part of a year. She was treated for a hairline fracture in her jaw. She attended vision therapy to retrain her eyes to work together, a troublesome issue she said affected the way she walked, her posture and led to headaches when she read.

She still has neurological issues. She is now being treated for vestibular dysfunction, a disturbance in the body’s balance system that can cause everything from dizziness and anxiety to visual disturbances and light sensitivity. It’s affected her ability to do what many women her age take for granted, like drive. She hasn’t driven since the accident, and must prove to doctors she won’t have a dizzy spell before she can again. She has also had tremors in her hands, making tasks that require fine motor skills a chore.

“I was decorating Christmas ornaments with my family and I was really struggling to put the beads on strings and kept dropping them,” Pabon said. She’s working with an occupational therapist to improve the dexterity in her hands.

She’s relied on her family for support. Her mother and younger sister provide rides to and from appointments and college classes. Pabon has fought through some of the worst aftereffects of the injury, said Eric Schoenberg, Pabon’s lawyer, who remembers meeting Pabon when she was still in a neck brace and undergoing inpatient physical therapy.

Schoenberg, of the Hartford-based Freeman Law Firm, said he went back and forth with EB over testing of the water that Pabon aspirated while lying on the floor of the submarine, which Pabon said led to an aspiration pneumonia diagnosis. There were questions about what was in the water and whether it might lead to future health issues.

Pabon recalls that other than doctor’s appointments and therapy, she spent many months at home, sleeping. “It’s hard to be home at this age,” she said. “ A lot of people my age are either finishing school or starting a professional career. I’m just
trying to do stupid things again, like going to the grocery store and not look like I’m drunk because I’m walking all over the place. I had to kind of build up the mental fortitude to accept I have to do the smaller things first.”

After transitioning from part-time, remote schoolwork to in-person classes at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton, Pabon finished her first year living at UConn’s Storrs campus and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech, language and hearing sciences.

“It’s a big pain that I can’t drive right now, especially since I’m trying to get into professional work soon,” Pabon said She has applied to several colleges for a master’s degree program needed to complete her quest to become a speech pathologist. She
has her sights set on working with people with communication disorders in a one-on-one setting.

A six-month investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration led to fines against EB for a “serious workplace violation,” for failing to properly guard the area where Pabon fell. EB, OSHA records show, corrected the issue and
implemented upgrades to its safety and health processes and a training program for hundreds of employees.

“The safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Daniel McFadden, a spokesman for EB, said this week. “We continually evaluate our procedures and the shipyard working environment to identify and reduce risks to our workforce. While
any injury is one too many, our focus on lessons learned, process improvement, and safety conscious culture has helped drive our workplace injury rate down year-over-year to a historic low,” McFadden said.

Reported injuries at EB’s Groton shipyard were not immediately available from OSHA.

Since she was hurt on the job, Pabon’s salary and medical bills are covered by workers compensation. Schoenberg said there are no plans to file any civil complaints against the company.

“In my opinion, (EB) has gone above and beyond. They’ve really been really good to her,” Schoenberg said.

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