The Crash that Changed Everything
Warning: There are a few pictures that may cause distress to individuals with a sensitivity to car crashes.
Where am I? What happened? Why can’t I move? Are these tubes going in my body? What is happening??? I’m in a dark room, with machines all around me. A nurse is standing over me, telling me there is a tube in my chest that is helping me breathe, and I just got out of surgery – about to go into another one. I fall back asleep.
I’m 12. It is December 21, 1997. I see my older brother Ryan is sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. The TV is on, and I distinctly remember the Denver Broncos were playing the San Diego Chargers and were up 24-3. I am so confused. Ryan turns around and sees I am awake, and calls to my parents.
I am surrounded by my family and nurses. They tell me I was in a car crash. I have been in a coma since December 14th. I have had multiple surgeries to reduce pressure in my head and to help my fractured face. It’s a lot for me to take in.
I look around and realize I am in a room full of cards, flowers, and stuffed animals. I am constantly being poked and prodded and people are always in this room. There are purple monkeys on the walls, seemingly to brighten it up, but one night I have a nightmare about them coming alive. I woke up frantic, and my Aunt Ginny, who was staying with me that night to give my parents a break, had to run and get the nurses to calm me down. Every time I fell asleep it seemed another nightmare occurred – one time I woke up trying to take my splint off my arm because I thought spiders were crawling in it.
One afternoon, I get a special visit from Colorado Avalanche players Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, and Claude Lemieux. Somehow, they found out I had a cat named Lemieux and was a huge Avalanche fan. I also get a visit and a personal performance from the Colorado Ballet… which is where this all began.
December 14th, 1997, I was going on a special outing with my Aunt Julie. She loved to take me and my siblings out and spoil us rotten. With no kids of her own, she treated us as her own. We went to Avalanche games, Rockies games, she was always coming to our sports events and school plays. This year, I was playing Herr Drosselmeyer in a production of The Nutcracker for my dance academy. My Aunt surprised me with tickets to go see the production live on a Sunday evening.
I put on my best purple sweater, black pants, and brand-new high heels. We got into my Aunt’s car, and she told me to put on my seat belt. I told her to put her belt on too but she told me it was broken. I didn’t think twice about this and off we went.
The show was everything I thought it would be and more. Afterwards, we went into the lobby where Aunt Julie told me to pick out whatever I would like to get. It took me such a long time to decide – in fact, by the time we left the lobby, there were only a few people mingling. I decided on an ornament of ballet slippers and a t-shirt.
We were listening to Spice Girls… “Tell me what you want, what you really really want!” and singing at the top of our lungs. I commented that we were hitting every green light on Broadway – how lucky! We got off onto the road home and that is where everything changed.
We were just about a mile from my parents’ house when a driver, whose blood alcohol level was determined to be .087, crossed the median and struck my Aunt’s car head on, at about 50 mph.
The road, Santa Fe, was under construction at the time, and while there should have been concrete barriers dividing the road, there were only construction cones. The driver plowed right through those.
The sound of crunching metal is more disgusting than you imagine it to be. It sounds like the organs of a robot being ripped out. After the hit, it was silent. We were still moving, though, in what felt like a slow-motion action scene in a movie. When the car came to a stop, I was looking out through the empty spot where the windshield used to be. The warm tears mixing with the blood on my face and running down my cheeks is a feeling I will never forget.
I looked over and saw my aunt’s curly brown hair covered in blood. Her head was on the steering wheel, and I started screaming for her to wake up.
The sound of crunching metal is more disgusting than you imagine it to be.
I was told my Aunt died on impact. I would like to think that was true and that she did not suffer.
I then heard commotion and realized a firefighter was looking at me through the windshield.
He said, “I’m going to put this blanket over you, and there will be a lot of noise, but we are going to get you out of here.” I remember the sound of metal-on-metal, again, which I later learned were the jaws of life trying to cut me out of the car. The firefighters could not get me out, and into the flight for life – because my door was stuck. I would later learn that this saved my life.
I remember a lot of yelling, and more sirens. I was finally freed from the car and put into the ambulance. Once in the ambulance, I was very angry at the paramedic for cutting off my pants and sweater. I demanded that he go get my shoes and items my Aunt bought me. The lights in the ambulance were bright, there were people standing over me talking about things I couldn’t understand. Equipment started swaying in the ambulance as I looked up at the ceiling. We got to the hospital, and a nice man with kind brown eyes asked me what my name was. I knew my name. But I was so scared. I didn’t answer him and was wheeled into a room with bright lights. That is the last thing I remember that night.
That is what I was remembered about the crash. Here is what I was told and read in the years following.
Here's What Happened
It was a Sunday night. The driver who would hit us had just left the bar with two friends. Once he hit our car head-on, my Aunt’s VW was hit by two other cars. The firefighters arrived on scene and the plan was to get me out of the car and into the flight for life, as my injuries were the most life threatening. However, my car door would not open and I was trapped in the car.
The decision was made to put the driver who hit us into the flight for life. Upon liftoff, something went wrong. The helicopter’s blades hit power lines, fell to the ground, and everyone on board died – the pilot, two nurses, and the drunk driver.
I truly believe that my Aunt did not leave right away, but was looking out for me, making sure I was going to make it. I know, by some divine intervention, that I was not supposed to be in that helicopter.
My life was saved for a reason.
I remember waking up once in the ICU. A nurse was in the room. It was dark except for the lights from the machines surrounding me. There were tubes going in my arms and down my throat. The nurse told me that I was okay, and I was going into a surgery. This surgery, I would later learn, would be to repair the extensive damage done to my face.
I was put into an induced coma due to the severe swelling in my brain.
When I woke up from my induced coma, seven days later, I learned that much of my face had been fractured – cheekbones crushed, nose broken, top of the mouth broken, forehead bone exposed. My collarbone was broken. Fingers broken. Foot and toes broken. But that was it. I was alive. One of the state’s top facial reconstruction specialists was on call that night, and he did wonders for me.
Two plates were placed in my cheekbones, and one on top of my mouth. I asked for a mirror in the hospital and did not recognize myself. I was devastated, broken, hurt, and did not know what to do or feel. I was lost. My parents broke the news about my Aunt to me, and I didn’t believe them. I refused to believe them.
On December 24th, ten days after the crash, the doctor came in and wanted to move me to Children’s Hospital. Another doctor argued that it was Christmas Eve, that I should be home, and I will heal more if I am in my own bed. That doc won. I got to go home.
I did not want to get in the minivan. I put on a brave face and was excited to go home- and I could see the excitement in my brothers’ faces too. But I was scared. I had just been in a car and thought I was safe. What is going to happen this time?
We didn’t go down the same road that the crash happened on, at least I don’t think we did. My parents got me in the house and settled in my bed. My road to recovery – physically and mentally- however, was just beginning. I didn’t go to my Aunt’s funeral. I didn’t want to. This was my fault. I couldn’t have all my family and my Aunt’s friends looking at me, feeling sorry for me. I was embarrassed.
The Road to Recovery
I didn’t like special treatment. My parents were waiting on me hand and foot, and I hated it. I was angry. I was in a wheelchair, because I couldn’t use crutches, I needed physical therapy on my hand and foot, and didn’t want to talk about anything crash related. I just wanted to be myself again.
Perhaps this is why I retreated so much. Retreated into myself, not wanting to talk about what happened. Even when I was brought to a therapist I refused to talk. Somehow, for some reason, I felt as though this was all my fault and talking about it would only bring more pain to those it affected. My Aunt passed away because I wanted to see the Nutcracker, because I had decided to dance, and because I did not press the issue of the broken seat belt.
Is that true? Was it all my fault? No. I recently discovered, and recently being 2018, that this is not my fault and I don’t need to think of it in this manner. Yes, it took me a long time to realize this, even as a grown adult who realistically should know that this was not my fault. However, when you think a thought and start telling it to yourself over and over and over, you will start to perceive that as your truth. It will take everything you have to start to see the situation differently. What my therapist helped me discover, is what happened was tragic, but my thoughts or actions certainly did not have anything to do with the outcome of that night.
When you think a thought and start telling it to yourself over and over and over, you will start to perceive that as your truth.
However, throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I hung on to this heavy feeling that people were angry with me because of what happened, that I did this to myself, and I would be stuck with scars on my face as a punishment.
I was in middle school at the time of the crash. Middle school sucks! Kids are mean! The crash happened in 6th grade. While the second half of 6th grade was okay – people remembered what happened , felt sorry for me, 7th and 8th grade were awful. I was called many names, including Scarface. My scars were fresh, very visible. I wanted to hide. I did the best that I could in making new friends, but I was quiet and scared of what others would think of me. I didn’t want to put my trust in someone who would ultimately make fun of me. It happened to my face and behind my back. Bullying made me feel small, and that if I opened my mouth and said anything, that I would be made fun of for it. I hated middle school. Thinking back, I consider myself lucky that social media wasn’t around at this time.
High school was slightly better. Freshman year, so many kids are trying to figure out where they fit in and who they are, that they didn’t have time to make fun of my scars, at least not to my face. By this time, they were still very noticeable, but I had started covering them up with makeup. I was shy, though. Painfully shy. That kind of shy that makes you look down when someone looks at you, and you are scared to raise your hand in class because you are afraid others are going to judge you. My peers had judged me to my face for the past three years, so I didn’t know any different. Dance helped, and I had confidence when I was on the dance floor. But no one truly knew me. No one knew the hurt I was going through every day when I looked in the mirror.
20 years after the crash, I met a woman who was a therapist and she was willing to help me alleviate the distress that the crash caused, and the traumatic memories associated with it. I did EMDR therapy, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and is a powerful short-term therapy that speeds up the processing of normal therapy. In layman’s terms, it unlocks the memories that the nervous system is hiding from you, protecting you.
After EMDR, I started to see portions of the crash, memories I had never seen before. Some memories flooded back, and others took a few sessions. In fact, sometimes I will be going on with my day and I will be hit with a memory – the actual hitting of the car came back to me while I was watching a tv show.
Through therapy, I was able to see that the crash was not my fault. Also, no one else believes it was my fault. I also was able to see that, while I see my scars daily, others don’t. In fact, my scars are barely visible. It is what I see every day that is a constant reminder of the pain and suffering I have been through.
Due to pain in my hips from the impact, and the screw in my foot from the break, I had to quit dance after high school. The pain was too great. My dreams of becoming a professional dancer were dashed when I was told that I would never be able to do pointe ballet, because of the loss of flexibility in my foot. My 12-year-old self lost all visions of a normal childhood because this man didn’t call a cab, a friend, or his mom.
While I am using this experience to help others, I know that not everyone is as lucky as I was, or am, to have the courage and vulnerability to talk to others. Besides MADD, I have also talked in high school classrooms on responsible drinking and the importance of mental health, and to middle schools – focusing more on bullying, and getting to know someone before you judge them. This experience has taught me that life is short, and the slightest decision, such as a decision to drive after a night out, even if you “feel okay,” can alter the course of another’s life in more ways than one can imagine.
Each time we speak of the dangers of drinking and driving, or stop someone from drinking and driving, we can save a life. We can save heartbreak for the family and for the survivors. I can’t imagine what my family was feeling – what my parents were feeling – when the officers figured out who I was, and had to let them know that their daughter was in critical condition at the hospital.
A few years after the crash, my dad was enrolled in a Citizen’s Academy with the Littleton Police Department. One of their sessions was on DUI’s. The department was using my crash as an example in their class. My dad got up and left, explaining when the class came out on a break to the instructor what happened. Another citizen overheard him, and later came up to him and told him that it happened three years ago – and he should be over it by now. I am surprised my dad didn’t punch that guy in the face. He’s too gentle of a human being to do that.
My family is still not “over it,” and neither am I. I’ll never be. But it is who I am, and I intend to make the best of what I have now. And I truly hope that you and your family will never have to deal with what mine did, what the family of the man who caused the crash had to deal with, or what the families of those first responders in the helicopter had to deal with.