The night I nearly died

2010-05-08T23:00:00Z The night I nearly diedBy Rebecca Barrett Albany Democrat Herald
May 08, 2010 11:00 pm  • 

What would you say to someone who hurt you?

What if they hurt you really bad?

What if it wasn't an accident?

What would you say if they left you broken and bleeding in a crumpled wreck along the side of the road?

I've had more than 15 years to think about these questions and others, and I hope I would have the courage to say, I forgive you.

But I've never had the chance.

This is the story of how the dreams I had as a young woman changed significantly because of the choices another person made about drinking and driving.

I suffered life-threatening injuries in a head-on car crash when I was 18. Though my life has turned out much different than I planned, nearly dying taught me how to live.

I once grieved the loss of my future. Then I found my new path.

When I couldn't walk or feed myself, people took care of me, and I saw my potential for helping. In accepting my physical limitations, I found myself cheering on the triumphs of others. And though it took many years, I discovered that the process of healing is not complete without forgiveness.

After waiting nearly half my life, I finally have a chance for closure. The driver who hit me was recently arrested and extradited to Alaska, where he awaits trail in June on a 1995 charge of first-degree assault with a deadly weapon.

I'm 34 now, and I've spent about half my life in Oregon and the other half in Alaska, where I was born.

My family lived in a small town, Nikiski, where I attended high school. I was a three-sport varsity athlete. I was co-captain of both the cross-country and track teams, and I was starting forward on my school's two-time state champion basketball team.

In school, I was the co-editor of the yearbook, a member of the National Honor Society and student body president. I organized the Red Ribbon Week activities at my school to encourage students not to drink and drive.

I graduated in May 1994, and was accepted at both Oregon State University and Lewis & Clark College in Portland, but I chose to follow in the footsteps of my big brother, Brent, who was a Marine. I've always looked up to him and I saw how proud my mom was, so I enlisted, too.

I opted to study journalism and was set to ship out later that fall. I was going to write for Stars and Stripes and be stationed in Okinawa. After four years, I would use the G.I. bill to pay for college.

Eighteen and invincible, those were my plans before Sept. 24, 1994.

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On a Friday night I went to visit friends. I left for home around midnight down a two-lane highway. The road passes by a bar. That's when the lights of the vehicle approaching started to drift into my lane. Coming right at me was a full-size Chevy van making a lazy left turn into the bar. I slammed on my brakes, steered toward the ditch and attempted to downshift.

The van hit me head-on.

I don't remember the impact, only the feeling of terror of knowing I was going to be hit.

In flashbacks, this is where I wake up only to realize that I am safe. But that night was not a dream. It was the beginning of a nightmare.

I blacked out from the force of impact. I didn't know where I was when I woke up. Then I remembered the headlights and felt pain. I was slumped over the bench seat and couldn't prop myself up. My left arm was crushed and caught in the driver side door. When I opened my eyes, the light from the Budweiser sign at the bar illuminated my blood-soaked hair. I could see more blood on the shattered windshield.

The steering wheel column was broken and collapsed on top of my legs, which were pinned by the engine that was pushed into the cab.

I thought I might die before help arrived.

When the ambulance came, crews used the Jaws of Life to pull the engine back to release my legs and open the door where my arm was caught. They pushed on my splintered leg to move me under the steering column and lifted me out.

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I was kept awake at the hospital and remember giving a nurse my mom's phone number. I can't imagine how she must have felt to receive that call in the middle of the night. My little brother Brian came to the hospital. Before I went to surgery, he told me he loved me. I thought he was saying goodbye.

Two trauma surgeons worked for more than nine hours to begin to repair my broken body. They reconstructed my left elbow and put a metal rod through my left femur, attaching it with locking screws through my hip and above my knee. They reattached the severed tendon over my shattered kneecap with wire and stapled my puncture wounds closed.

It was the first of nine surgeries I've had to repair injuries from this crash.

I spent about a week in intensive care. Meanwhile, the van's driver, a resident of Mexico who had a visa to work in the U.S., was charged with DUI and first-degree assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors had hoped to use the case to establish a legal precedent that driving intoxicated was an intentional crime. The man who hit me faced up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $50,000. I testified to a grand jury from the hospital bed I was confined to.

Before I left the ICU, I was given a medical discharge from the Marines. They didn't want me anymore.

When I was stable, they transferred me by Life Flight to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, 200 miles from home. I learned how to get dressed and feed myself with broken hands and how to use an adapted walker. Eventually, I learned how to walk again.

During the day, I worked with a physical therapist. At night, anger, frustration and loneliness kept me awake.

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Two months after the crash, there was an evidence hearing in the criminal case against the man who had hit me. At the time of the crash, his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit to drive. He told police he had four to five beers at bars with friends. Investigators also recovered bottles of liquor from the van.

I wanted to attend the hearing. I wanted to look in the eyes of the person who had caused me such pain and stolen my dreams.

So I was surprised not to see the monster I had imaged. The man who hit me is an ordinary person just as I am an ordinary person who suffers the irreversible consequences of his choice to drive while intoxicated.

At the hearing, the judge dismissed all charges. The defense argued the indictment wasn't valid because the DA made an error in explaining the case to the grand jury. My assailant was re-indicted a few days later on a similar charge, but by then he had left the state.

The driver who hit me had no insurance and my policy only covered my medical expenses for the first five years after the crash. My initial medical bills exceeded $350,000, and I've paid for all my care since 1999.

My case is not extraordinary. For a vast majority of the victims of crashes caused by intoxicated drivers there is no justice. No prison sentence or fine will bring back the 11,700 people killed by intoxicated drivers each year in America.

Justice for me is changing public attitude about impaired driving.

That's why I became an advocate for lowering Alaska's drunk driving limit to .08 and testified to the state legislature. I volunteered with MADD, giving presentations at schools. I've volunteered with the Benton County Victim Impact Panel, sharing my story with people convicted of DUI since 2006.

Although I didn't get to go to Okinawa or serve in the military, I continued to write. I worked as a reporter for my hometown newspaper. After my sixth follow-up surgery, my doctor released me from his care and I moved to the mid-valley. I attended Oregon State University and was a reporter for nine years at the Corvallis Gazette-Times. I now work in the marketing department at The Corvallis Clinic, and I coach track and field at Linus Pauling Middle School.

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Almost 16 years after the crash, I have days when I hurt so much I cry. The broken bone in my leg healed shorter, which causes pain in my lower back.

My arm is an achy barometer for approaching cold fronts and shards of glass still come out of my forehead. I have severe arthritis in my hands and knees. Doctors couldn't fix the torn ligament in my left knee, and I often fall when my leg hyper-extends.

But I can walk unassisted, or sometimes with a leg brace. I can't run, so I ride my bike. And the surgical technique trauma surgeons used to fix my elbow turned out so well it was later presented to the orthopedic board as a new procedure to maintain range of motion and limit disability for people with injuries like mine.

I sometimes still wonder, why me? There must be important things I have yet to do.

In sharing my story, I hope to convince you that there is absolutely no excuse to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. DUI is a serious and deadly crime that kills every 45 minutes and tens of thousands more people like me are injured.

Every one of these crashes is preventable, the suffering avoidable.

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Last month, an Alaska judge denied a request by the defendant, Felipe Martinez Perez, 49, to reduce bail and allow him to return to Georgia. Trial is scheduled for June 21.

The Alaska Office of Victims Rights keeps me informed on the progress of the case. I received notice on April 30 that prosecutors have prepared a plea offer, but I do not know the details.

Regardless of how the case is resolved, Martinez Perez has other legal battles ahead. A team of lawyers in Georgia is fighting a final order of deportation.

How was he found?

In 2006, Martinez Perez, who went by the name Felipe Martinez, was the victim of a brutal stabbing. According to court documents, he was in a coma and not expected to live. He's had multiple surgeries and requested compensation from the state of Georgia as the victim of a violent crime.

It was during the investigation of his assault that authorities in Georgia, in 2009, discovered the warrant for him in my case.

 

Copyright 2015 Albany Democrat Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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