The day I might have died

Twenty-nine years ago today I survived a car crash that could have taken my life. Rather than perish, I managed to, basically, walk away from it with merely cuts and bruises. Never mind that there was an immobilizing backboard, an ambulance ride, and an emergency room visit in between. Never mind that the subsequent police report read, “Car damage: Total, all sides and top.” In spite of those truths, I managed to hobble through my front door on my own two feet that evening.

I worked as a driver for a pharmaceutical company. I had to wake at 4am to arrive at work by 5am. Five days a week, I drove from Glendale, CA to Palm Springs, CA with stops at 6 hospitals to deliver radioactive isotopes for cancer treatments. Earlier in the year, I signed up to perform in two different plays, one at church and one at my community college. The rehearsals for each ramped up at the same time—college rehearsals in the afternoon, church rehearsals in the evenings. For a solid week, I was waking at 4am and falling into bed at 10pm. Here’s a bit of irony: at the college I played a lesbian; at the church I played a saloon girl. Somehow I made it through all the performances.

But even at 18 years of age, lack of sleep will catch up with a person. One morning during the drive back from Palm Springs to the laboratory, I suddenly woke to the company car being jolted around. It was driving in the freeway median bumping around on rocks and dirt.

PANIC!!! I’m supposed to be *over there*. Grab wheel; YANK to the right.

AUGH! Now I’m driving *across* the lanes. I saw trees coming at me fast. STOMP on brake. I’m not going to stop in time! I realized.

In a flash, I knew that something bad was actually going to happen to me; I wasn’t going to barely avoid it by the skin of my teeth. This car was going off the freeway with me in it.

God, NO!

It was the shortest and most heartfelt prayer I had ever prayed. I wasn’t afraid of dying, I was afraid of being maimed.

The car drove off the freeway and became airborne over the steep embankment. There was lots of green flashing by, the car banged into something, kept moving forward, then banged into something hard. The forward motion stopped. Then, slowly, the car leaned over to the left. Picking up momentum, it rolled onto the driver’s side, then onto its roof. It came to full rest upside down with me hanging by the seatbelt.

I learned later that the smaller bang was a tree that got demolished and the larger bang was a tree that stopped the car. I also learned that if the forward motion hadn’t been stopped, the car would have likely rolled and burst into flames. If I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt, I might have been paralyzed or killed. A co-worker who went to claim the car went weak in the knees when he saw it.

To add to the fun and games, I was carrying radioactive waste from the hospitals to be taken back to the pharmaceutical laboratory. I had released the seatbelt, tumbled to the roof, and was halfway out of the driver’s window when I got stuck by the seatbelt. Another car had stopped and high school girl scrambled down the hill to help me out of the car. I got out, stood up, and saw the suitcases holding the waste at the bottom of the embankment.

“Don’t touch those!” I yelled. “They’re RADIOACTIVE!”

That spanner in the works got the crash on the evening news.

Emergency services arrived. They asked my name, the date, and determined that I was coherent. Getting a secondary survey from a handsome firefighter certainly got my attention. He gripped my wrist then squeezed my arm at intervals up to my shoulder. “Do you feel that?” he asked. Yup, I did. He gripped my ankle and did the same thing up to the top of my thigh. eep! Yup, felt that too.

While being put on a backboard with sandbags to immobilize my head, I remembered that two friends had perished in a car accident just days before. I began to weep. The paramedics assured me that I wasn’t going to die, but that didn’t change the outcome of that other crash and the impact on their families.

After getting all checked out at the ER, complete with a Geiger counter scan to determine radiation exposure, I was released to the care of my parents. Mom drove me home and I managed to hobble through the front door while holding the back of the hospital gown closed over my derriere. Yeah, they cut off the new outfit I had recently purchased.

All my wounds were superficial: a few cuts on my face, a seatbelt abrasion across my upper chest, a few scratches on my legs. So, why did I survive a serious car crash when so many don’t? I have no pat answer for that. I have no answer at all for that except:

There but for the grace of God go I.