I am a survivor of a major accident caused by someone driving terribly drunk. Please always think twice. It can change everything.
4:30 in the Morning of January 6, 2017
It is the first day in two years I am no longer working from home. I get ready for the day and load all my computer equipment into the passenger seat of a beige Ford station wagon. My shift starts at 5:30 am. From my home in Kannapolis, NC I have about an hour drive deep into Charlotte, NC. The I-85 highway is the best option for the first part of my journey. I am awake with a Mountain Dew in the drink holder and have everything i need for the day; or so I thought.
I've never been one to talk on the phone socially, so when I got in the car that day I lacked the one thing you should always have on the road: a Cell Phone.
A Moment of Warning
The road was empty as I drove my way south to work. The music was up on my favorite rock station and caffeine helped me stay alert in the predawn darkness. Construction had been going on since before I moved to North Carolina here and it was a relief to drive out of the zone and see four open lanes in front of me. A large part of me was grumbling at having to drive so early and yet... I looked forward to seeing my co-workers. I had people I liked working with. I had a career I was happy to be in. This company was one of the few where I truly appreciated my management.
Since moving to North Carolina I had built up a life for myself. I married the love of my life. My three kids where in an environment where they could flourish. My bills where paid on time, which is something I had struggled doing for years prior. I can remember times when the thought of picking up a breakfast burrito from McDonalds was a sinful pleasure of self indulgence that I couldn't afford. (But did anyways at times)
In the distance behind me I noticed headlights coming up fast, much faster than the speed limit. Speeding on the highway was common enough and they where in another lane. Some part of me felt uneasy though, a sense that something wasn't right as they grew close. Then in a moment they where moving into my lane! I felt the bump against my rear passenger side as the station wagon begun to spin. I gripped the steering wheel hard as I tried to regain control of the spinning car. The brake couldn't respond fast enough for my need but I did stop.
I was facing the dip of the shoulder, just barely on the far right lane looking out into grass curving gently away and down past my high beams. I was hyper aware as I felt the seat belt press into me and I tried to figure out if I was okay. Never before had I wanted a cell phone so bad. I looked at the rear view mirror and could see the other car sitting there perpendicular in the middle of the highway as two cars dove between us, each narrowly missing my fate.
Did I watch that other car for minutes? Or where the seconds drawn out over my rapidly beating heart? I couldn't tell. I knew I needed to call the police. I hoped the other person had a phone. I saw no movement though. No one got out of the car and the car wasn't moving out of it's dangerous position. Traffic would be picking up soon as countless hundreds is not thousands would begin pouring into Charlotte for their daily commute. Time was of essence.
A Decision to Act
I felt no pain as I watched the other car in the rear view. Adrenaline does that. It is the chemical of survival; where fight or flight kicks in and everyone reacts to it differently. My reaction; I stepped out of the vehicle. My thoughts: They might have a cell phone; They might be too injured to get to safety; I had a responsibility to make sure they were safe and to call the police; I had a responsibility to make this crash as safe as possible to oncoming traffic. I could move and so I did. I approached the car from its passenger side, which placed the car between me and potential oncoming traffic.
That's when I saw her. She was awake and trying to turn the ignition of her car. I could see the light of a cell phone on the passenger seat. At first I felt relief that I wouldn't be trying to move an injured person to safety. Relief... that with a phone we could call police. I called to her and waved my hands where she could see me but I was ignored as she continued turning the ignition in an almost robotic fashion. I can not tell how long I stood there. I thought it was a minute. While calling to her it occurred to me to check for traffic and I looked away from her to see through the car windows. That's when I saw headlights glaring towards me. That's when everything went dark.
Why Am I Here?
I awake like my consciousness is swimming to the surface from a deep pool. My eyes open and all is blurry. Not surprising at first, I wear glasses to see, but the pattern of lights above me is odd. I feel pain. I feel my body is very straight with pressure on it at various points. A blur of a person made shadowy from the light above stands over me. By these things I can deduce that I am in an ambulance. I can't remember why but I feel pain in my face, my shoulder, my lower back, my right ankle more predominantly than the rest of my aches. Something clearly happened to me.
I test wiggling my fingers and toes. Both work to my immense relief. Having determined for myself that I don't have to worry about a major spinal issue for the moment I begin to speak. I give my name, my date of birth and where I feel pain and state I have no allergies. Meanwhile I am rapidly searching my mind for what happened and drawing a blank. "Is it January 6, 2017?" I ask with uncertainty. The EMT's there say it's correct and suddenly everything that happened comes back like a switch flipped. "I was in accident! Is everyone okay?" They assure me that I'm the worse case here. Strangely I find relief in that, cause if I'm alive then so is everyone else. I pass back out before we get to the hospital.
Later that day I left the hospital with crutches. My nose had been broken, I had several fractures in the right side of my face. My front teeth where broken. My left thumb was broken and splinted. I had two fractures in my lower vertebrae that the hospital forgot to go over. (I find them when I look over the discharge papers). I also had stitches, road rash, contusions and a concussion. No internal bleeding, thankfully.
Next are weeks of appointments and x-rays. I have surgery done on my broken thumb and they place pins in it. I find out that my spinal injuries are minor. Just the tips of two vertebrae where broken but that I might have some swelling not seen via x-ray. I'm grateful to see my kids and my husband. It is months before I can lay down in a bed without pain or my head spinning wildly. The couch becomes my new home.
I get on FMLA with work so I can keep my job. That works until the end of March when the money runs out. Meanwhile laywers for myself and two insurance companies are in heavy debate of things like fault and who's footing the bill. My tax return gives me enough money to have my other vehicle repaired, which had been overheating. I go to work, the cast off my thumb but in need of physical therapy. I make it two days before the car over heats again. Turns out my repair people thought I wasn't getting a new radiator. Go figures.
So I get a rental car for a month, meanwhile my work demands mean I miss out on physical therapy. In April my body is still weak and I contract Pneumonia. So I call out of work. Day two of Pneumonia, I wake up to my youngest child yelling "FIRE! FIRE DADDY!" And sure enough, my son's room was on fire. So while my husband tries to slow it down I'm ushering our children out of the house and calling 911. The firemen are very close to us and it takes them no time to come in and put it out, but the home is unlivable. My renter's insurance has a hard time finding a hotel for five people and a cat but they do it.
After a week of Pneumonia made complicated from smoke inhalation I am back to work. I'm living out of a hotel and driving a rental car. The car that I own was overheated so bad it warped the head gasket and I'm told to buy another car. So I find another used car and make payments on it because that is much cheaper than renting a vehicle and with missing work I have little money. I start doing my own version of physical therapy, taking small weights to work and using a backpack loaded with documents for exercise. It takes a while. For the longest time I couldn't even hold a plate of food in my left hand.
I was far from recovered, but I was working, dealing with a fire, and having to get another car. Still sleeping on the couch because anything else was too painful. Time passes and in July I can finally sleep next to my husband carefully. We get ourselves in another home, most of our stuff still held by the cleaning service that took them, though we would have them back soon.
Then in August a new symptom emerges. I awake in excruciating pain all over. It is as if every nerve in my body is connected to an electrical socket! The pain was so debilitating that I couldn't dress myself or walk to the restroom without support. Once again I am in an ambulance. The hospital can't find anything triggering it, only that my White Blood Cell count is off the roof. I go through blood tests and other exams in search for the cause. They threw everything at me from Fibromyalgia to Parasites as a possible cause. Slowly over the week I begin to feel better, but it's missed days that count against me. After all, my FMLA had run out back in March. While the doctors fail to find out what is triggering them, the episodes come back, though recovery is quicker. Sometimes hours, sometimes the day. The nerves are so sensitive though that I can't grip a steering wheel. By October my employer has had enough of my delays, my schedule can't be changed to later and I resign with a heavy heart.
No longer insured, I can not continue my doctor visits. I can't get the cause of these episodes as I have come to call them. I try different things at home to alleviate them. I get a work at home job where I can curl up in pain and no one see me. I can't afford the insurance though so I have no help medically and my medical debt is sky high until I can get a settlement. The job carries me through to April of 2018. Whatever was causing the episodes now only happens maybe once a month or less. The car I bought is paid off and working. I try to go back to my former employer, but they don't seem to want me.
So I start Ubering for funds. It is yet another job I can't afford medical on but it pays the bills. My kids go back on Medicaid instead of Anthem. Foodstamps are applied for. I had been so proud to make enough that I didn't need these services anymore, but I wasn't too proud to go back them when I needed it. My husband looks for work, so far employers over look him because it's been years since his last job. He has dutifully taken care of our children, one of which is Special Needs.
As for my hand, I can use it almost as good as before. Not giving up when things got hard and pursuing my own exercises got me back to using it. I can even play guitar. Last year in May, I took the biggest test I could take on my recovery, I walked back into an MMA Gym for the first time in years. I was worried about it, but I did it and kept going back. I can't always afford to walk in, but I do every time I get the chance.
My tax return this year was the smallest one I had in the past decade. Turns out I made less than 12,000 last year. Before the accident I was making 34,000 yearly. I got my settlement in October of 2018. What would have been around 30,000 was eaten up by paying Anthem back as well as other medical expenses. My lawyer even took a dip in her cut because there was so little left. By the time I paid past due bills and paid for things we needed but couldn't afford before, it was gone. The last of it went to repairs on the place we live now, because lease to own makes you responsible for repairs. We had to get new stairs for our entryway, a water heater, and a section of roof fixed as well as the closet below it due to mold.
Surgery Leaves a Scar
I can safely say that life has been a downward spiral since my accident. There have been multiple things to complicate matters along the way, but I feel that if the accident hadn't happened, I would have been better prepared to meet them head on. Loosing my job was the final nail in the coffin of my old life.
While I do UBER and other things to make income, I still have pain when I sit. Something didn't heal quite right in my lower back or tail bone area. It limits how much time I spend in a car and what positions I take when practicing martial arts. I am also careful with my hand, for though I have great functionality with it, too much strain makes me immediately aware of it. My activities are modified to suit how my body is. I could never afford to have my teeth fixed. I had one extracted that I paid out of pocket for because I could barely eat. I have an incisor that needs to be pulled but I can't afford it and am dealing with an abscess as best I can. Turns out I do have an allergy to Keflex. I found that out during my recovery when the stitches in my elbow became infected.
I am seeking other work but the condition of my teeth makes speech odd at times which is not good for communication and I have to focus on being very clear. Getting into an accident with a drunk driver changed everything. The woman who hit me blew a .2 according to the police report. I have no idea how she was handled by the court. While I am finally starting to pull out of the spiral of decline I have been in, I have a long way to go before things are similar to how they were before. They will never be the same again.
So before you decide to get behind the wheel. Please consider people around you. There are many options these days for people to travel if they plan to have a good night out drinking or spend an evening with buddies. If you drive drunk, you may or may not kill someone, but that doesn't mean their life will ever be the same again.
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© 2019 Elaine Palentier