Car accident day

I was driving to work today and remembered it was July 9th— car accident day. Yesterday I forgot all about it, which is so typical, and didn’t remember until I was sitting at the light on Fairfield and Taylor today, on my way to the Boys & Girls Club. I looked at the clock and it was 10:15. Automatically I thought—wow, they would have still been cutting me out of the car. I was irritated in my memory that they hadn’t hurried it up already.

I texted Sprinky and said, “Do you know what today is?”
She texted back, “Oh yeah. Car accident day. Glad you are alive ☺”

I was glad too.

I was also really glad that I was not one of those emotional people who freak out over things like “anniversaries” or “flashbacks” and that I didn’t feel the need to call in to work or speak with anyone about it, that I was a triumphant, resilient enough person to just drive to work and say, “Oh yeah. That old accident?” and then flip the radio station.

But then, without my permission, Sprinky’s face popped into my head and I remembered her expression when she walked into the ER. I remembered trying to lift my head to tell her I was okay, but being held down by the neck brace and the Velcro on the backboard. I remembered tears pouring out, and the BGC staff standing around the corner behind the curtain. I remembered the guy pacing outside my car window calling everyone in my phone book, pulling at his hair and saying: fuckareyouokayshitfuckdon’tmoveshit! And I remembered those terrifying seconds between when the guy hit me and when the wheel of the semi came through my window. I remembered that panicky feeling of knowing I was going to die right there and that no one would even find out for, like, two hours. I remembered how scared I was after it all stopped and I was waiting for help to arrive.

The terror of that day—of 10:15 four years ago—clamped onto me, and before I knew it I was sobbing through the intersection—like, not a pretty little reasonable cry, but hiccupping and wailing and dry heaving, the kind where people in the car next to you mouth: are you okay? And you nod and then wipe your nose on your work shirt and breath in another staggery little cry.

When I got to the Club one second later, I sat there for a minute and called my dad (who was unavailable), sat there some more, breathed into a paper sac, wiped my face and went inside. I felt like I could pull it together. Then someone went and said “hello” to me. I lost it all over again and that caused a mild panic for the administrative staff, because they had never seen me act like this.

They tried to send me home, but I told them that I could not afford to go home, because my friends could not pay me an hourly rate to sit at home and console me. And then I told them, crying like a crazy person, “And I’m taking the kids swimming today. I love swimming.”

I think they were telepathically transmitting the number to Parkview Behavioral between them, but they offered nicely to work something else out so I could take some time if I needed to. They even said I could just leave and come back in a few hours.

Instead I told them (like any girl who knows her psyche) if they could just give me some good gossip, I think I could get my mind off it and I’d be fine.

They told me something juicy. Sure enough, that did the trick. An hour later we were discussing the van schedule and I didn’t shed another tear all day.

I ended up meeting Sprinky for lunch at the little downtown Starbucks, though, and after a few conversations about California and work and the price of gas—with a few random interjections like, “Then I got so scared when they started cutting the car” followed by, “Do you know how many calories are in this?” normal breathing was restored.

The experience itself seems so lonely, probably because I was the only one in the car and the other guy died. All I can do is try to explain it, which is never as satisfying as I think it’s gonna be. But lunch was great, and at closing time today when all was said and done, I felt like patting myself on the back and saying, as if I were 27 and 4 at the same time, “Yeah, that was scary. But it’s over. Let’s just go home.”

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Here is the original story, written in 2005, one year after the accident: July 9th 2004

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July 9th 2004

I jumped out of bed and stumbled to the shower twenty minutes late, as always. I got dressed to Katie Couric like I did every morning, hopped on one foot to get my shoe on and shoved half a bagel in my mouth with the other hand. I opened the blinds and cracked the sliding-glass door. I threw my hair into a ponytail and wrapped the rubber band around tightly, flicked the TV off, grabbed my purse and hurried downstairs into the bright July morning.

Which route should I take? I had only moved into these apartments five days ago and was still figuring out this side of town. I decided on the shorter route since I was running late. I don’t like driving on the expressway; I would rather drive through the city. But I was resistant to being resistant.

I turned onto the highway, flipped through the radio remembering it was Friday and smiled. Fridays were always easy, and Saturday I would drive to Indianapolis to visit my fam. Plus I was wearing my brand-new Gap jeans. I rolled the window down, flicked my turn signal on and eased into the right lane. What a perfect day, perfect weather, perfect moment.

Half a mile behind me was Michael Gray, mid-seizure, with two kids in the back seat speeding recklessly toward the exit ramp.
I slowed to turn.
He rounded the corner.
I braked.
He accelerated.
I breathed in happily.
He slammed into me—into my moment, into my entire life.

My seatbelt locked; my head jolted forward and bounced off the steering wheel. I skid to the left and adrenaline took over as I realized I’d been hit. I clenched the steering wheel and tried to regain control, but the wheel was locked. “Nononononono!” I screamed as my car lurched toward the semi in the left-hand lane. I yanked the steering wheel. It wouldn’t move. I tried not to panic. But I was going to hit the truck. The steering wheel wouldn’t move. “Help me help me help me help me!” I cried helplessly as my car slammed into the semi.

I was instantly pinned between the steering wheel and the window, and pinned against the rear tires of the truck as the truck continued to move forward. I could see the wheel coming toward my window. It occurred to me that I might not make it; that I would probably die, right there. I hadn’t even talk to a single person that morning. My mom would be sitting on the patio drinking coffee. My best friend was probably just waking up.

It would be hours before they even knew.

I began to whimper as the sound of crunching metal suffocated my own voice. The monstrous black tire crashed through the window devouring my leg and hip through the door.

This was it.

I lay there helplessly, alone and screaming, as my head slammed into the sharp folds of metal from the roof crashing down on top of me. Like fabric caught in a sewing machine, the semi dragged my car through the intersection, wrapping my car around its tire.

Brakes squealed. The truck began to slide sideways, popping and hissing. My car spun around and jolted forward. I closed my eyes as trees and cars flew in and out of my line of vision. The engine revved, the car stopped, everything shut down. Suddenly things were quiet.

I was conscious and frozen and bewildered flat on my back in the front seat. I was afraid to breathe. I opened my eyes.

People began to come from every direction, crying, panicking, shaking. “Oh, God!” they yelled, running toward the car.

The first person scrambled around the front and stood at my window. He dropped his hands to his knees and doubled over, staring at the ground for a moment. He looked up, wiped his mouth and yelled to somewhere I couldn’t see, “This one’s alive,” he yelled. “Shit. Shit! She’s alive, somebody call an ambulance!”

Six other cars had been hit. The highway was closed.

A string of people ran towards the window asking a million questions: What hurts? Is there someone we can call? Stay calm, now. Stay calm. What’s your name? How old are you? I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. Can you feel your legs, honey? Just stay still. Don’t move. Do you see her head? Shit! Stay calm, honey. You’re doing a good job. Give us some phone numbers, and we’ll start calling your family. Don’t move now. Just stay calm. You’re going to be okay. Do you remember what happened? That guy came out of nowhere. Shit! Did you see it? She’s a lucky one. Just don’t move, honey. They’re almost here.

The man who first came to the window grabbed my phone and started making calls, but he couldn’t finish his sentences. The only word he could say was F.

My head began to swell. My left hip and leg were stuck beneath the door. My knees were turned outward, pinned down by the steering wheel while my ankles were still in place on the floor. My right arm was swollen. My ribs ached. My hips, where the seatbelt came across, were numb. The most blinding, unrelenting, sharp, throbbing pain, however, was in my head. I could feel every single spot where my head hit into the roof, and slowly, the pain began to spread throughout my body. I closed my eyes. I could hear them yelling, “Stay awake, honey! Just stay awake. Can you look at us? Can you tell me what day it is?”

I was awakened by a scary noise and opened my eyes, trying to move, forgetting where I was and what had happened. The jaws of life, they told me.

“It’s okay,” the officer said. “We’re gonna get you out of here. Don’t be scared; they’re just cutting the car. We’re going to pull you out through the back, okay?”
I nodded.
“I just need to get some personal information from you,” he said.

I shook but automatically spewed out personal information to the officer at the window: my name, date of birth, address. I didn’t recognize the voice coming out of my mouth, but I thought it sounded smart. The officer kept telling me how well I was doing. He was proud of me for staying calm, but my teeth chattered as the officer cut my seatbelt. My arms and legs shook as they sawed through the roof and slid a backboard beneath me. I closed my eyes again and felt my body rocking back and forth.

“What hurts the most?” the EMS worker asked.
I opened my eyes. I was in an ambulance. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think my hip. Or maybe my head. Or my leg. I don’t know.” I reached around to squeeze my hip.
“Don’t move your leg!” he said, putting a hand on my ankle.
“Something just doesn’t feel right,” I said, “like my leg is hanging. I think it’s out of socket or something.”

He felt around my hip and grabbed a pair of scissors. He cut my jeans—my brand new jeans—from the ankle to the hip. He did the same thing to the other side. He cut both sides of my underwear. He cuts my socks off and my shoes, too.
I tried not to be embarrassed.

My hip was tingling, and I could feel his hands fumbling around. Finally, he found the spot and pushed. Pain tore through my body.
“It was dislocated,” he said. He layered ice packs on my head and around my body. “Try your best to hold still,” he said.
I nodded and fell asleep.

For 12 hours, I was strapped to a backboard in the emergency room. My co-workers came and went, even the one who didn’t like me. My best friend’s parents came and went. But my best friend came and stayed.

“I thought I was going to die.” I said quietly.”
“I know, I know,” Sprinky cried, laying her arm and face across me in the hospital bed. “It’s okay. I can’t even…I don’t even…I don’t know what I would do.”

Seconds later, a nurse brought the phone to my bed. “It’s your mom,” the nurse said, “we were able to get a hold of her. She just wants to hear your voice.”
“Mom?” I said, voice cracking.
“Hi sweetie,” she said, “I’m on my way.”
I tried to tell her that I was okay, but I couldn’t speak. I just cried.
“I know. The nurse says you’re doing great. I’m coming as fast as I can.”

I was rolled from room to room for X-rays, CAT scans and MRIs. No breaks, they said. But it might be too soon to tell with all the swelling. I spent the entire first day covered in ice, in a neck brace and strapped to a backboard. Chunks of my hair had been pulled out by Velcro and tape. You’re free to go, they said. My mom took me home to Indianapolis that night.

After a month of re-scanning, no solid breaks appeared in either leg, so the doctors gave me crutches and sent me to physical therapy. I returned to Fort Wayne, transferred physical therapy to a new doctor and arranged to stay with Bec for a few weeks until I could walk up the stairs.

I stayed for one night, woke up the next morning, took a shower, and began to put my hair up, just like I had done weeks earlier. I was alone for the first time in a month, looked at my reflection pulling the rubber band tight and froze in a flashback.

The entire accident began to play out in my mind, and I called my mom in a total panic.

“Mom,” I said, “I almost died! You have to come get me. I don’t want to live here anymore! It’s too unsafe. I’m just gonna quit my job and live with you guys forever.”

My mom was appropriately sympathetic. She did not tell me to calm down, did not say I was being unreasonable. Of course I could home, she said. She’d leave in an hour.

I spent another week curled up on the couch, recovering, this time, mentally and emotionally. I cherished the extra time spent with family and was ready to try again after a week. I no longer wanted to quit my job and definitely no longer wanted to live with my brothers.

My friends were prepared this time and welcomed me cautiously, protectively, with open arms and no sudden movements. They were patient and loving and understanding even in my whiniest moments. They took me to the scene of the accident. They showed me the newspaper clippings.

I returned to work after six weeks and called somebody each morning because I had decided that no one should die without having spoken to someone that day. I left voice mails to key people announcing that I’d made it safely to work.

In December I went in for my last MRI and no bones were broken. At the initial impact, we discovered, my seat broke and fell backwards causing me to lie flat as the semi ran over the car. The seat cradled me, protecting me from the brunt of the damage, though there were deep bruises.

I finished physical therapy in February.

There are days when I flip out, like yesterday, when I replay every single excruciating minute, sobbing and shaking, comparing every minute to where I was at that day, for example: It’s 9:15, I would have been leaving the house. 9:18, I would have been getting ready to turn…etc. The intersection gives me panic attacks. Also, when my knees hurt, I cry. I can’t explain it, but I think my body has a direct emotional line to my brain that’s faster than my rational one, and when my knees or hip ache, my brain automatically equates it. I am inconsolable.

But today, I am grateful. I had planned to take the day off work, you know, to maybe cry or go shopping. Maybe even go to the pool and eat cookies all day. But then I decided to go to work because I am physically able to, and that is a gift. Plus I didn’t really want to be alone, if you want the whole story.

I am just glad to be here.

Follow up 1(2006)  The guy who hit me

Follow up 2 (March 2007)  The settlement

Follow up 3 (July 2007)  More settlement

Follow up 4 (2008)  Pics