Not everyone can look at their life and pinpoint a date that their life took a 180-degree turn. Especially at age 25, but I can. August 26, 2015.
A beautiful summer day, I was a passenger riding passenger in a car with the windows down, listening to Justin Timberlake, looking out of the window and admiring the view. I shifted my view forward and in the distance, there was a little red car. In an instant that little red car became my worst nightmare. At 3:49 in the afternoon that little red car glided into our lane and hit us head on going 70 mph.
A while ago there was an Allstate commercial that showed a car crash and in the middle of these two cars colliding it freezes the image and rotates around the scene. You see the people in the cars frozen with their bodies flinging forward, the little shards of shattered glass frozen in the air, and the air bags half way deployed. All things you’d expect to see in a car crash. I’m here to tell you that that was my experience. I remember just after the impact, before I passed out, seeing the little pieces of glass and dirt sort of floating in the air around me, feeling a tremendous amount of pressure all over my body, and then I was out.
I woke up leaning on the inside of the car door with my arm hanging outside the window, I felt like I was being suffocated by the air bags. I could see a person trying to talk to me, but all I could hear was ringing in my ears. Eventually, I figured out that the lady outside of the window was asking about the driver. At that moment, I don’t think I knew what was happening around me, much less understand the events that were unfolding. So, I turned to the left and I saw the driver, Adam, leaning forward, with his whole body only held up by his seatbelt. I took my left arm, tapped him, and he jolted awake. He looked at me and I looked at him, we didn’t exchange words. I watched him sort of check himself over, unbuckle his seatbelt, open the door, and get out of the car.
I still hadn’t figured out what was happening or what had happened. I thought, “Well I should get out now.” I tried to move my legs, but I couldn’t feel them. My right hand was so swollen that it was probably bigger than a softball so that option was out too. My left hand and arm felt pretty good so, I pushed down on the center console with it trying to see if I could adjust myself or anything. The second I pushed down I felt and heard my sternum crack. Cue pain. I panicked. I started to hyperventilate and got real freaked out to say the least. Adam came over to my side of the car and was able to calm me down a little. While in the car I really didn’t know the extent of my injuries. The only thing I could see was how messed up my hand was. I remember telling someone how much it hurt, and this guy I think saw how afraid I was and saw the rest of the crash so he tried to downplay it by saying “Oh you probably just broke a few fingers.” I must have looked at him like he was crazy because I had eyes that could see much more than a few broken fingers. In fact, turns out I didn’t break any fingers, just every other bone in my hand.
It seemed like I was stuck for hours, I felt myself getting really tired, sort of dozing in and out. Adam and others that came to the window must have seen it too because I was constantly being told to stay awake. Then, I heard a helicopter in the distance getting closer and closer and then it landed. I thought “Yes this is it I’m getting out of here, I’m going to be okay!” But, then it left. My only thought when it left was that I was going to die. But God had another plan.
Shortly after the helicopter left, all the emergency personnel came over to my window and they said they were going to get me out. They reached through the window and put a neck brace around my neck and asked if I was ready, as if I had a choice. Up to this point the only pain I really felt was my hand and my chest where my sternum cracked. There was/is nothing in this world that could have prepared me for what happened next.
They pulled the door open as far as they could and yanked me out of the car as gently as they could manage. Side note, gentleness is nearly impossible when the engine of an SUV is in your lap. When they laid my body on the backboard, I felt an amount of pain that I didn’t know was possible. I’ve heard a few people say “Well, I’ll take pain because that means I’m alive,” but phew. Those people must not have felt what I felt that day. I remember just screaming, over and over again. It didn’t stop. They started cutting my clothes off and trying to assess everything that was wrong. Upside: I could feel my legs again. Downside: they were deformed, like my bones inside me were tangled. I was carted off into an ambulance to wait for the next helicopter. When in the ambulance they tried to put an IV in, but my body was in such severe shock that they were not able to. So, here I was deformed, totally messed up, in a bunch of pain, with no medicine. Not a great situation…
When the helicopter landed they loaded me in and tried to shut the door, but my legs were so deformed that they stuck out of the helicopter and they were not able to shut the door. So, they wrapped a strap around both my legs, told me this was going to hurt, and pulled the strap tight to attempt to straighten my legs enough to shut the door. Well, they succeeded. But boy the pain was unbearable. That’s really all I remember about the helicopter ride.
When we landed at the hospital I was carted in, and let me tell you, Emergency Room’s (ER) really work just like they show on TV. There were so many people there doing so many different things, if I wasn’t screaming the whole time from pain I probably could have admired how they all worked together like a well-oiled machine. I moved from the ER to the room where they do Computed Technology scans (CT), at the end of the CT a few nurses ran in, scooped me out and said I was going to surgery. Going down the hall I saw the lights on the ceiling go by faster and faster and then I was out. Again.
I woke up around midnight after surgery, I had family there, but the only reason I know that is because they’ve told me. Around day 3 I gained an understanding of what happened and what was happening. I ended up shattering my pelvis, hips, femur, right foot, right hand, broke a few ribs and my sternum, ruptured my esophagus and appendix, had a pretty nasty liver laceration, a collapsed lung, and several lacerations throughout my intestines. I had 6 surgeries in the first 5 days, spent 14 days in the ICU and another 8 weeks or so in the hospital. I had 10 pins in my hand for 3 months, and another 150+ pieces of metal used to rebuild my pelvis, hips, and femur that will be inside me for the rest of my life. I got the pleasure of relearning how to walk, which was bitter sweet. You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot.” I assure you it’s not the worst part though. A few nights after getting out of the ICU I remember waking up in the middle of the night screaming and violently throwing up because when I closed my eyes I saw that red car crash into me again and I was once again trapped inside that Jeep. It’s been two years since that crash and the nightmares haven’t stopped yet. The mental effects of that crash hit me harder most days than the physical effects. All of this was because some guy decided to get into his vehicle while he was intoxicated and high on heroin. In fact, when they got him out of his car at the scene of the crash he still had a heroin needle in his arm.
Today, a little over two years later I still have physical and emotional pain every day. I’ve had 9 surgeries since the car crash with more in the future. It gets tougher and tougher going into surgery, and at age 25 I’m trying to put off having a total hip replacement. My physical pain varies from day to day, sometimes I have minimal pain and I can get away with taking ibuprofen to manage and some days it hurts so bad that I cannot pick up my own legs without help. Before the car crash I was in the United States Air Force and lived a very active lifestyle. Because this guy chose to drive his car intoxicated and high I had to completely change my lifestyle. I lost a huge part of myself and who I was. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it’s something I haven’t learned how to live with yet. I think it’s nearly impossible to understand how PTSD affects you unless you have it. It’s overwhelming. A lot of people seek out sleep to rest from a tough day, but I run from it. Nightmares and pain cloud my sleep almost every night and that’s just one aspect of my PTSD. Although, I’ve learned ways of coping through therapy, family, friends, and my faith, it doesn’t ever get easier, just more manageable.
The first year or so after the crash I couldn’t fathom talking about it to anyone, much less strangers. Now, all I want to do is share my story so that another driver “thinks twice” before driving impaired. The guy who crashed into my car that day died. No matter how angry I’ve been at him, my heart still hurts for his family. They lost a family member that day because he made a selfish choice. I watched all the emotions my family went through while they were grieving with me, but at least I’m still here. I am blessed to have the opportunity to make memories with my family and friends every day, and every person should have that. His family does not. Too bad he didn’t think of that before he made the deadly decision to drive drunk and drugged. Please, help me spread awareness of the consequences of impaired driving. Help me save lives.
Stephanie Smith is a 25 year old United States Air Force veteran who trained as a military paralegal. She was medically retired after three years of service due to injuries sustained in a drunk and drugged driving crash. Stephanie is now attending school and pursuing a degree in secondary education. She currently resides in VA with her husband, Don and her and service dog, Bradley. We are also proud to announce that Stephanie is now a We Save Lives speaker. If you wish to have Stephanie speak please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.