Our 9/11 - A major car accident leaves others bewildered

(Second in a series: This ‘echo column’ authored by Vince Lovato is meant to tell the never-before-uttered story of one father’s desperation to hold his family together after the tragic car accident outlined in last week’s Adventures of Garlic Man and Wedgy Woman.)

When Michelle asked me to write a column to share my feelings about her tragic and critical car accident, I realized that this was the first time I was able to express what I went through 15 years ago.

It changed me forever and I didn’t understand the impact of the accident until hours, months and even years after it happened. Michelle called me from the accident scene. She was pinned under her car, but when she called me, she did not tell me that. She told me it was “no big deal.” So I took my youngest to school, left home-school instructions for our oldest daughter and drove 25 miles east down Route 66. When I arrived at the crash scene I realized how serious it really was. The streets were blocked off for about three blocks. The wreckage of two disintegrated cars were strewn quite a distance from each other. There were a handful of cops on each end and a few ambulances. Debris festooned the two-block area.

I parked outside the yellow tape and ran up to a cop and told him my wife was in the crash. He lifted the yellow tape and, ominously said, “they probably need you up there.” I walked up toward what was once our new Hyundai. It had been peeled open. Michelle, partially covered with a black tarp, saw me and managed a weak smile. I waved and my eyes immediately started burning. I knew what the “Black Flag” meant.

Suddenly, a rescuer and a man who I found out later was a pastor, led me away. The fireman said I probably didn’t want to see what happened next. I heard a chief, someone in charge, tell the rescuers not to use the Jaws of Life until Michelle was hooked up to an IV ready to administer with plasma. He was adamant about it. He forcefully told them to get the gurney ready and not to pry the dashboard off her legs until the helicopter was ready to board her.

As the pastor held my shoulders and faced me away from the car, the chief said, “G****D***it! If you don’t prep it right, she might bleed to death before you get her on the chopper!” A few minutes after the chopper landed, some fireman started the Jaws of Life. The IV was dripping liquid into Michelle’s arm. The gurney and two emergency techs stood ready to secure her legs with inflatable casts.

I heard three crews sound off. Ready? Yes. Ready? Yes. Ready? Yes. And the Jaws of Life made a low groaning sound as the metal and plastics popped and cracked. Suddenly a cry from Michelle went up like nothing I’ve ever heard. The pastor, who was watching over my shoulder while he held me at arm’s length, grimaced and looked away.

“What’s happening!?” I screamed and tried to turn around but he held me solid and said, I will tell you but you might not want to watch yet.”

He described the firefighters extracting Michelle from a car that had basically been turned inside-out. He told me how the paramedics/EMTs quickly placed Michelle’s dangling legs into air casts.

Within mere seconds, they loaded her onto the chopper, which was already running, and a few seconds after that, it lifted off to transport Michelle to a world class trauma center about 20 minutes away by helicopter.

Those highly trained rescuers and especially the chief, literally saved Michelle’s life. The chief’s foresight and planning turned what would have been a death scene into one that gave Michelle the best chance at life. Michelle went through three pints of blood on the flight and nine more at the trauma center. Without the chief’s expert instruction, Michelle would have died on that dirty, downtown lot 15 years ago.

I am so thankful she lived.

No one could tell me where our middle daughter was, only that an ambulance transported her and she had minor injuries. Michelle, our daughter, her best friend Cathy Inabinette and Cathy’s son were on their way to a weekend home-school writing camp. The stuff in the trunk was scattered everywhere but some good Samaritans gathered it all up.

I figured I’d never see it again until a cop walked by, saw the tear tracks and said, “You the husband? Sorry. Here’s the phone for the people who picked up your stuff. They said no hurry. Just call and come by and get it.”

I stuffed it in my pocket and started asking where I might find my 11-year-old daughter. After asking and thanking a dozen rescuers I headed toward the emergency room just a few miles down that very road.

A few minutes later, I was in the lobby and being told I couldn’t see my daughter because I was not her legal guardian. Actually, it was true since our two oldest girls were my step-daughters. I raised my middle daughter, who was 11 years old since she was 12 months old. But she was in the emergency room alone.

God was in the midst of our struggle however, because the hospital I stood in was one of Michelle’s biggest freelance marketing clients. A few agitated calls later I was told our daughter had some glass in her head and a cracked thumb. No stitches, a brace, a shot and she was ready to go.

I signed a few insurance papers, got my daughter, then drove to the house of the woman who picked up the contents of Michelle’s once-new car. I called my brother-in-law, who somehow already knew, and asked him to keep our kids until I could drive down and check on Michelle.

I like and respect my brother and sister in law and their kids are pure gold. After quite a bit of maneuvering and coordinated meeting in a central location, I dropped the kids off with my brother-in and started on an hour-long drive to see Michelle. Once I began the long trek to the hospital on the other side of the mountains in my 20-year-old car I realized life would change forever.

The one new car we owned was destroyed. My name was not on the new bank account and worst of all, if Michelle died, I could lose my two step daughters. Instead of one death, I would lose three of my four family members. And I’d already lost my young son a few years before. The thought was terrifying.

If she lived, Michelle faced a long rehabilitation period and her paycheck accounted for half our income. How would we stay afloat? Our future was bleak. There was no thought of God on my mind while I drove that 80-minutes. The whole thing was too overwhelming to bear. I arrived at the trauma center, fought my way through some medical techs and my in-laws and learned Michelle was alive. Before I could get to her berth, a small man confronted me, claiming he was an orthopedist. The doc was 5-foot-3, if that, with a mane of blazing red hair and a rusty afternoon shadow on his chin and eyes so green I wanted to rub them for good luck. “If she suffered any internal trauma we will have to amputate the leg. If not, we have to do everything we can to save it because of her age and the possibility she can clone one when she needs to. You can go in and visit for a few minutes but she is out of it and will be for a few days or weeks. Someone will let you know.” I never saw him again.

Finally, after hours of fear, I got to see Michelle. I walked past a dozen berths filled with major trauma victims who were screaming from pain or unconscious for undetermined reasons. When I finally found Michelle, I literally felt faint. Only my resolve to be strong for her held me up.

She was on her back, on a bloody ER table, her legs swathed with so much stuff, they were each three-feet thick. A woman was cleaning out a three-inch hole in Michelle’s forearm from which dangled a chunk of muscle held only by some skin. She pushed the chuck into the hole, and started running stitches through a crescent-shaped gash. She never even looked up.

Worse than that, Michelle was bloated almost beyond recognition. Her face was swathed and tubes ran in and out of her all over her body. I finally found her other hand and squeezed it. Gathering myself, I pushed out, “Michelle, how are you?”

She pushed out, “Vince, this really sucks.” Somehow, that phrase filled me with hope. She was still my Michelle. Mangled, in pain, near death, unclear future, but still as candid and specific as always.

That night in the emergency room and the many years of living with the crippling struggle and pain of that accident and its aftermath still haunts me. But here we are, 15 years after that car accident, contemplating the potential correction that offers new life and hope for returned activity to my otter-mate.

I have to trust God to do His will and work in the medical team that will repair her bones so that she can continue live her life for God for as long as God allows her to be here with me. As for our girls, we raised all three through the hard years of Michelle’s long recovery, their teenage years and young adulthood. I laughed with them, cried for them, fought with them and watched them grow into beautiful, intelligent, independent women.

Today, I am proud to say that they are women who will lead our future with the love and strength exemplified by their mother, and when challenged by life, their mother and I will be here, ready to support them. And God will be there too, even in the hard, overwhelming moments when all they can do is drive through the mountains.

One thing I know: Tough times make tough people and we are a tough bunch.

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