MORE PRESENTS FROM A DRUNK DRIVER: Traumatic Brain Injury & Scoliosis
Updated: Mar 5, 2022
December 21, 2000
I-25 and Uintah, Colorado Springs, CO
…my driver’s side wheels slam back onto the ground. My head slams into the doorframe. My car skids back across both lanes and comes to a final, jarring stop.
Dashboard lights glowing.
Hands still death-gripping the steering wheel.
Am I breathing? I think so.
Can I move? I dunno.
Headlights flash from the frontage road, bounce into the ditch. A truck. Guy clambering up the ravine. Car door opening. A man’s voice. “Are you all right?”
“Don’t move. I’m a fireman. I’ve called 911.”
Is that a flashlight? I wince away. Too bright. Stop it.
Questions about how I am and my name and what happened. A blonde lady brings a blanket.
Dashboard lights. Orange. Dome light. White. I blink. Slow. “Is the other person okay?” I ask.
The blonde sniffs. “Yeah, she’s up hoppin’ around, looking at her car.”
Shivering. Shivering. Teeth chattering.
“Are you cold?”
Hands pulling the blanket closer around me. They roll down the window and close the car door. Better. “Don’t move. We don’t know what kind of injuries you have.”
So cold. So quiet. Time and time and time on the dark road before red-and-blue lights blink somewhere out there. Bounce off the roof and windows of my car. Dance with the dashboard lights.
Finally, a police officer. “What happened?”
“I was driving home and this car came so fast from behind and I couldn’t get outta the way and they rammed me and I hit the median.”
“Have you had anything to drink tonight?”
“How fast were you going?”
“Uh-huh. It’s a fifty-five zone. So more like seventy-ish?”
“Nuh-uh. ’S a construction zone. Snowed yesterday. I don’t like black ice.”
“Where were you coming from?”
“Walmart. Went Christmas shopping ’cause I knew it’d be empty. Hate shopping there during the day. ’S a zoo. Got all my presents. I hope everybody likes them. They’re in the back.”
Crunchy footsteps fade.
Time and time and time and I’m horizontal. Staring up at the sky. Stars again. Clouds over one patch. Duct tape sound. Arms, head, legs—pinned to a board. Young paramedics. Cute. Heh. All smiling down at me as they hoist me toward the ambulance. “You’re going to be okay.”
“We’ve got you now, miss. Just relax.”
“We’re taking you to the hospital. Which one do you want to go to? Penrose or Memorial?”
“I live near Penrose.”
“All right. Just relax and try not to move.”
“’Kay…” I grin up at them. Show them all my chattering teeth. “Wait ‘til you guys s-s-see what I’m wearing under this coat.”
Heads snap down toward me. “Oh, really?”
My grin broadens. “Belly dancer costume. Heh-heh-heh…”
They all laugh and exchange looks.
Humor good in emergencies.
White ceiling. White lights. Ambulance. I wince. Shouldn’t it be softer? Nice bulbs to keep people calm? But it’s bright. Ouch. Stop it. I squint ‘cause I can’t look anywhere else. We start moving. Huh. We’ll be on the overpass now. Almost got hit there. Good thing I wasn’t speeding or I might be dead. Off the Uintah bridge. Wheeee…. Good thing I did something right. Didn’t flip the car. Might be dead. Good…thing.
Voices overlapping. Evil lights. Shouldn’t it be calming?
Calm good in emergencies.
Nope. Squint again. Loud. Stop it. Faces above, like that gurney shot in the movies. White coats. More questions. Wheelie-wheelie into another room. All alone. Again.
Time and time and time in that bright room…
It finally comes. My lungs choke and my chest quivers and my throat burns. Whole body shakes. Hot tears slide down my face into my hair. I want my mommy and daddy. They’re sixteen hours away. I sob low and hard.
I sob a long time.
Finally, white coats come in. Pokey, proddy. Lots of questions.
My forehead wrinkles. “Is it weird that I didn’t feel anything before, but now my neck and shoulders are starting to tighten up?”
“No, that’s pretty common.”
“Ouch!” Stab in my left hip. Sore left arm. Forearm. The single abrasion on my whole body.
“We’re going to take x-rays to make sure your vertebrae aren’t fractured or broken.”
Dark room. Dark and greenish. Young guy. Ties to get my necklace off. Can’t figure out the clasp. I can’t help ‘cause I’m strapped to the board. He shrugs. “Well, I guess you don’t really need neck x-rays.”
He knows what he’s doing, right?
I’m given the thumbs-up. No broken anything. No lacerations. No punctures. No nothin’. They say I’m perfectly fine. Whew.
They unstrap me and put me in another bright, white room to fill out paperwork.
I blink a few times.
Lines that won’t stay put. Bunch of black, blocky things on a big white thing.
Letters. I know what they are. I know how to read, damn it. I had my own group in second grade ‘cause I was reading at a sixth grade level. Just me and Jim. I was friggin’ valedictorian. I can read a stupid paper! What the fuck!
Might as well be Chinese. Can’t bring myself to admit that to the nurses. They’re snooty. Un-nice. Out there laughing and chatting except when they talk to me. Then “nicey-nice” down their noses. I grit my teeth, squint, burn holes into the paper with my glare, scribble some stuff.
“Agh!” Something stabs my back. A knife in the base of my spine. I stagger forward, clutch the gurney. Another stab. I hobble out to the nurse’s station to tell them. They send me back into the room. “I’m sure it’s just a muscle spasm. If you have any pain in the next few days, give us a call and we can prescribe something.”
More knives as I try to snooze on the gurney before the policeman comes in. Burly. Official with his clipboard. “Well, she was drunk.”
My eyes bulge, then narrow to dagger-slits as I spill myself off the gurney. I growl. “That’d explain some things.”
He smirks. “She tried to tell me that you were in front of her and spontaneously crashed into the median, then hit her car.”
I glare. I snarl.
“Yeah.” He scoffs. “I went back to look at your bumper and saw the chunk taken out of it.”
I snarl again. Am I frothing at the mouth?
More questions. More paperwork. More crossed eyes.
He gives me his card. I’m cleared to go, but I have no way to get home. I call people. No one answers. They get me a cab. I shuffle-limp out the front doors.
The driver opens the car door for me. Older guy, graying hair. “What happened?”
I lurch my way in and wrangle the seatbelt around me. “Drunk driver rammed me on the freeway.”
His eyes fly open. “By Uintah?”
“That was you?”
“And you’re walking?”
I shrug. “Mm-hmm. They say I’m fine.”
In truth, they’re lucky I woke up after going to sleep on a closed-head injury.
They’re also lucky none of my cervical vertebrae were fractured, although the next morning I had a golf-ball sized lump in the back of my neck. Nineteen years later, I still have it. It’s smaller, but it’s there. So is the knife in the base of my spine because it’s become warped like a long S-curve and my hips are lopsided.
I hear I only weathered that wreck so well because of the athletic shape I was in when it happened.
Dancer-hiker-fighter-chick, you know.
I only have hazy snapshots of recollection from that first week, sparser and sparser as the days passed and my brain swelled more, pressing against the bony protrusions inside my skull, which created even more bruising and micro-tears. Those injuries stole chunks of my memory and made it difficult to convert the day’s happenings into long-term memories overnight. I wouldn’t realize that for three years.
Let’s say nothing about what happened to my professional dancer’s body or my brainiac mind. And let’s say nothing about what seizures do to me. Not in this round anyway.
No surprise, I didn’t get to fly home for the holidays that year.
Spent a few hours of Christmas Day at a friend’s house. Slept the rest of the time.
I hear I called my parents that evening.
At 3:00 a.m. my father awoke to my mother flinging things into a suitcase. When he asked what-in-the-bleep she was doing, she told him, “I’m driving out there. Right now. I don’t know who we talked to on the phone tonight, but that was NOT my daughter.”
She was correct. Moms always know. Often before we do. Good thing they started driving from Minnesota to Colorado within the hour, because it turns out I wasn’t fine. That drunk on the road had actually killed me.
I just didn’t die.
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