How can one event influence a life so completely? In a matter of minutes, an entire life, as well as countless lives around it warped irreversibly in a ripple that knows no end. Good intentions. A warm August afternoon. Grind of metal on metal. Serendipitous series of events. A life's course jumping tracks in more ways than I'll ever comprehend.
Eight years ago, I was a much different person than I am today. On August 19th, 2002, I was two days away from the final year of a twelve year prison sentence at Central Lee Community High School. Gainfully employed as a burger flipper under the golden arches in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, I worked for a man named Tom who's bald head turned various shades of crimson at any sign of misstep by his miscreant employees. My manager was a pale hollow eyed man who embodied what I imagined a vampire to look like (this is a pre-twighlight vampire, fyi) and nonchalantly shaved with a Bic razor as he wandered in for his shift, giving me razor burn just by watching. He, from what I could tell, hated everything, and took sadistic pleasure in railing against the idiocy of our customers from behind the food preparation line. He was rarely seen by the front counter.
In retrospect, I think I was dealing with an identity crisis during that portion of my life. I had hair down to my shoulders, enjoyed punk and ska music, drove a Ford Taurus, and weighed an incredible 125 pounds. It was as if I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a hippie, a badass, an old man, or a little girl. Don't get me wrong, I was content enough – not depressed or even 'emo' as it'd later be identified – I just didn't really fit into any one category.
On August 19th, 2002, I woke up at the mind numbing hour of 3:30 am to make my way to work for the opening shift. I worked my eight hours of hard labor folding eggs and flipping Mcburgers, and at about the sixth hour, my boss requested that I stay a few hours longer, to cover for a fellow McWaste-of-life who was MIA, soon to be KIA. I begrudgingly obliged, and stayed an extra three hours, through the lunch rush.
So about 3 pm I began the 23 mile trek home in my trusty Taurus. Listening to some brass infused punk CD in my discman with tape deck adapter, I drove, semi-catatonic towards the sleepy town of Donnellson, where my bed was calling my name. It would be three weeks till I saw that bed again.
Somewhere around mile marker 14, I nodded off. At least that is the conclusion I came to after looking at all the evidence. I remember bits and pieces of the next few hours, but much of the events from that day were relayed to me from friends and family, so my actual memories and the regurgitation of anecdotes have blurred. Here is the closest semblance of what happened:
Just before the “Salem Stub” a truck stop and convenience store, I fell asleep and crossed the center line of U.S. Highway 218, into oncoming traffic. The oncoming traffic in question was a 2002 Volvo Tractor-Trailer – A big rig Semi, probably on his way back north from a delivery to Saint Louis or Memphis.
The driver of the truck saw me coming and tried to avoid a collision by moving onto the shoulder of the road. He got as far over as possible, but my car continued its lateral movement and slammed into the front wheel well of the truck. The force of my car against the truck caused the cab to shift east and bring the trailer around into a jack knife. My old Taurus slid along the cab, shearing the massive lag bolts off the wheels, bouncing off the steel gas tank and slamming squarely into the rear axles of the trailer. The axle and four adjoined wheels came with me as I careened off the road and finally came to rest in the ditch. A few moments later, the semi tractor skidded to a halt in the opposite embankment.
What happened next is completely lost on me. I distinctly remember feeling the warm august sun on me, and the strongest desire to curl up and fall asleep. I can vaguely make out a spider-webbed windshield in that memory, but it does not strike me as being out of place. I would later learn that the first person on the scene was a friend of mine from Boy Scouts, a trained EMT. I do not know what he did to assuage my fears or assess the situation, but it comforts me to know that he was the one to come upon what was surely a grizzly sight.
The driver of the truck, a middle-Eastern man who evidently spoke very little English, had exited his vehicle and was frantic as he dashed about the highway, unsure as to what had happened or what to do. He was uninjured, but from what people have told me, he was as in as much shock as I was at that moment.
The first responders arrived upon the scene and began working to extract me from the shattered remains of my sedan. A sleeping bag left over from a camping trip earlier that summer was draped over my head to protect me from further injury as they used various power tools to first remove the crumpled roof of the car as if it were a can opener, then lift the dashboard off of my legs, and finally remove the seat belt. I recall them speaking to someone on the radio, describing me as a 21 year old male, 6 foot and approximately 100 lbs. I spoke up to correct them, “Excuse me, sir? I'm 17, not 21”.
Once in the ambulance, they asked me if I could feel any pain. I replied that I couldn't feel any pain, that I was fairly comfortable. They asked me for a number to reach a family member, and without blinking an eye, I gave them my home number, as well as my mothers cell phone, and both of her offices. As they rushed me to Mt. Pleasant's community hospital, they phoned my mother to tell her what had happened.
They had also contacted Iowa City, the largest medical facility in near proximity. Being a teaching hospital, The University of Iowa hospitals are synonymous with severe injury and mysterious diseases. A medical helicopter was landing at Mt. Pleasant as we pulled into the hospital. They transferred me to from the ambulance and in minutes we were off again, en route to the University.
When we arrived, two teams of physicians we ready for me. So was my mother, having been driven the hour and a half trek by our family priest, a volunteer firefighter. My priest, in the frenzied chase up to the hospital, had neglected to grab his sacramental emergency kit, and left his chrism in his other pants pockets. Being the utilitarian man of the cloth he was, he grabbed the nearest tube of medical lubricant and administered last rites to me. Just as a precaution, of course. I was then rushed into what would turn out to be two simultaneous eight hour surgeries: one team working on the internal injuries to my spleen and kidneys, the other team reassembling the pieces of my shattered left femur.
My condition was stabilized, and I was admitted to the hospital. It would be three days until they would finish repairing my crumpled limbs. Here is the laundry list of damage done, in order of altitude:
Scratch to the top of the head – No stitches required
Simple fracture to the right humerus – Titanium plate
Two fractures to the left humerus (one compound, one simple at the elbow) – three titanium plates
Loss of all feeling and use of left arm
Shattered left femur, 15 – 20 pieces – Titanium rod
Two fractured metatarsals in my left foot – two pins
They put a lot of hardware in me that week. I spent a total of thirteen days in the hospital. The first few were spent in a series of delirious, pain filled moments, interrupted by visitors, morphine drips, suppositories, sleep, horrible nightmares, inattentive attendants, visitors, and pain. A distinct memory of a doctor coming in, pulling my left leg out of the sling and, comparing it to the right, “yeah, it looks like we are going to have to add a few inches to this one.” Evidently, in their rush to avoid amputation, they erroneously gauged the length of the titanium rod that now runs through my upper leg. No biggie. It's either another surgery, or I buy one tall shoe for the rest of my life. My family opted for the surgery, for which I am grateful. My hands looked like uncooked sausages, swollen from the bleeding and drainage of my upper arms. Even my scrotum was black and blue. It hurt to breathe, shift, and even think.
As I began gaining strength, the next challenge was to regain mobility. Learning to walk on my rebuilt leg and utilize my defunct left arm, as well as my newly appointed dominant right hand, was a monstrous challenge. Beyond the coordination I lacked, I also was without the strength to stand for more than a minute or two. They'd sliced a vertical line from my nipples to my pelvis, and shifted around everything in between. My stomach muscles just ached as I tried to execute menial tasks such as walking, standing, or bending. My left knee, with two screws driving through the femur above the joint, disseminated wretched tendrils of pain every step, reminding me that this limb did still exist, and was not happy about the current condition. Stairs were off limits. Getting out of bed was a monumental challenge.
Just shy of two weeks, I was released from the hospital. I made my way home, adjusting every aspect of my life to accommodate this altered reality. I couldn't stay in my own bed. I couldn't pee without alerting two or more family members to help me stand, hobble to the bathroom, and stand sentinel in case of mishap. All sense of privacy and shame went out the window. I did not care if my family saw my partially nude. I couldn't care. They had to help me bathe, brush my teeth, and shave.
I spent the majority of that fall smelling the autumnal bliss drift away. Leaves changed, sports were enjoyed, camps were camped. And I was static. This immobility drove me mad. I had plenty of homework to catch up on, but my ability to concentrate on that was severely diminished. In retrospect I wonder if the trauma from the accident had a detrimental affect on my cognitive abilities.
I finally returned to school mid September, the one year anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings. A half day, I pledged allegiance from my wheelchair, touched base with all of my sympathetic teachers, and went back to the monotonous existence that awaited me.
The events of that sultry August day shaped my life so profoundly, there is rarely a moment that they do not slip into my mind. It may sound a bit cliché, but I learned how temporary life is that day. It made me hungry to experience life. I half jokingly labeled my recent 25th birthday as the 1/5th mark. This is not because I truly believe that I might live to 125 (I don't know if I'd even want to), but because I want to do so much with my life that it'd take that long to accomplish that all.
The constant reminders on my arms, legs, and stomach are not obvious to those I meet day to day. My professional attire exudes no evidence of the trauma I once underwent. But sometimes I'll find myself in a situation that a scar is revealed. I used to revel in telling the most outlandish tales of death defying conflicts (there are hundreds of Boy Scouts in the Midwest who believe I was attacked by a bear in northern Minnesota), but I've grown out of that ruse. Besides, the truth is so much more entertaining, not to mention awe inspiring. I do feel a bit sheepish explaining it to people. I try not to wear these events on my sleeve.
That's why I keep them under my sleeves. They've shaped who I am, but I don't want them to shape who people see me as.