A Year in the Rearview

At this time a year ago, I was lying on my back on the side of the road in a rainstorm, my brain buzzing and my body aching. Someone covered me with a jacket and more than one stranger kneeled down and told me they had called 911. I could feel raindrops splashing on my face, blurring with tears I couldn’t understand why I was crying. As the shock started to fade, I noticed jagged metal pieces scattered all around me on the asphalt – and that’s when I started to make sense of what had just happened.

Moments before, I was in the passenger seat of our big beautiful black Dodge Ram that we had purchased and affectionately named “Dottie” just months earlier. Whenever Chris pitched the idea of getting a truck, I had all my counterarguments ready. I wasn’t keen on the environmental impact or the added expense, but I finally gave in because I knew it would help grow our private chef side-hustle that was starting to boom into a real business – and because it would give me a very happy husband. (I wasn’t wrong in either case.)

What I didn’t know then as I was sweating and signing on the dotted line at the dealership is that the truck I wasn’t sure I wanted would save our lives just six months later.

The Accident

We were heading down a four-lane road in Indiana on the last stretch of our roadtrip, a few hours from home and a few miles from our destination on a weekend getaway we had been looking forward to for months. I remember seeing a car swerving out of control off in the distance a few lanes over in the opposite direction, then launching into the air and heading straight toward us. I heard Chris yelling but there was nowhere for us to go to get out of the way.

We both knew we were about to get hit, hard.

The next thing I remembered was hearing a woman screaming, not knowing where it was coming from, then slowly realizing it was me. Chris was trying to get my attention through my screams and calm me down, but it’s like I wasn’t in my body to respond. When I finally met his gaze and saw that he was okay, I was able to quiet myself down.

At that moment, I knew we were both alive – but I also knew that just a blink ago, I was sure we were about to die. That’s a feeling I still haven’t fully recovered from a year later.

When the paramedics arrived, they put me in a neck brace that stung sharp against the seatbelt burns on my skin, then loaded me onto a stretcher and into the back of an ambulance. I had no idea where I was, let alone where I was going.

The paramedics could tell how disoriented I was, so right away they told me I was in Indianapolis, that I had survived a head-on car wreck, and that my vital signs looked good. Realizing we were out of state and hours from home, the first responders got my purse, phone, and suitcase out of our mangled truck and brought it along in the ambulance. They told me that my husband was being transported in a separate ambulance but that we would be brought to the same hospital, the closest level one trauma center in the area given the severity of the wreck.

When I heard that, the seriousness of this all started to register. I asked how bad the accident was, and I’ll never forget the response, which I’m sure was a routine observation for a veteran paramedic:

“You’re just lucky you were in that truck. If you’d been riding in any smaller of a vehicle, that Charger would’ve come clear through the windshield.”

At that point, I’m pretty sure I went back into shock imagining what that would have meant – the phone call my mom would have gotten, our dog wondering why we never came home, all the things I would have left unsaid and goals unattained.

While the paramedics used scissors to cut my soaking wet clothes from my body, I floated into a what I can only describe as a state of extreme, forced calm to offset the strange combination of panic and relief I was actually feeling deep inside. My breathing slowed, and I counted each breath in-and-out to distract myself from what was happening.

I remember thinking that my mom was right – you really do need to make sure you’re always wearing clean underwear when you leave the house.

While we waited for traffic to clear, the paramedics told me what had happened – a young driver in a muscle car had lost control speeding in the rain, swerved across three lanes and over a grass median going about 70 mph, hit us head on, took off the whole front end of our truck, then kept going and landed in a lake. Miraculously, he survived with relatively minor injuries and was refusing medical treatment – a pretty sure sign that he was uninsured. They also re-confirmed that there were no kids in the car, which I had apparently been asking on loop to anyone within earshot since the crash happened.

On the ride to the hospital, the paramedics filled me in on the damage to our truck, which was totaled and being towed to an impound lot. Aside from the front end now looking like scrap metal or some kind of urban art installation, my knees had completely bashed through the glove box, so the paramedics were most concerned about my legs. Suddenly the intense pain swelling from my thighs to my shins made sense.

Chris had broken the steering wheel of our truck with his chest, confirming my long held suspicions that he might actually be a superhero. In his case, they were worried about internal bleeding, collapsed lungs, or broken bones near major organs – even though true to his character, he was walking around and talking to the police when the ambulances arrived.

I later found out he was the one who covered me with a jacket before going to check on the other driver.

Everything after the accident was a blur of questions, tests, and information we were in no condition to process. When we arrived to the hospital, the ER was already beyond capacity, so we were stationed in makeshift overflow beds around the corner from each other in the hallway.

After several hours apart and each undergoing a series of different scans, we were finally discharged, instructed to get rechecked by our primary doctors when we got back home, and warned that the real pain would set in over the next few days. Running on adrenaline, pumped with pain killers, and feeling grateful to be alive, we weren’t yet able to anticipate what all would come next.

Even on a dark day, there were bright spots – all the phone calls and messages from friends and family expressing their shock and sharing their love will always rank high in my memories as a time it felt wonderful to be alive. If you love someone, tell them, it’s as simple as that. Chris made me this “stuffed animal” at the hospital since he was hooked up to an IV and couldn’t get to the gift shop, then had a nurse deliver it to me. This is the one you wait for, folks.

The Aftermath

The impact of this one moment, a split second in time, has spanned throughout the past year in all aspects of our lives, in ways I would have told you were impossible if I hadn’t experienced it for myself. A year later, I continue to be amazed by how your life can be upended in an instant, whether you see it coming or not.

Our injuries were largely invisible – all of the cuts and bruising on both of our bodies were under our clothes, and no one could see the whiplash we felt for weeks on end or the pounding headaches that would lay us out unexpectedly. To this day, I have a heating pad in every room of our house, because that was one of the only things I found that would bring me any relief.

The absolute worst position for me to be in was seated at a desk concentrating on a computer screen, which made my workdays especially challenging. It was excruciating to laugh, to sneeze, to get dressed, and to bend my legs. I had to either ask Chris to tie my shoes or wear sandals regardless of the weather for several weeks, and when I had to leave the house, I wore loose clothes to avoid irritating my skin.

Beyond the physical pain, there were other effects that I couldn’t have predicted. Before the accident, Chris and I were on a shared wellness journey and had lost over 70 pounds combined in the span of 3 months – but our progress slowed and eventually reversed with bad emotional eating habits coming back, and since we could no longer workout at the same level of intensity we had been.

Two weeks after the accident, my body broke out into a mystery rash from my shoulders to my knees, again invisible to anyone who saw me out in the world, but alarming nonetheless. The doctors couldn’t be sure what it was or why it appeared, but were pretty certain it was connected to my surging stress levels.

I struggled riding in the passenger seat of any vehicle for many months, and would involuntarily alert the driver to any brake lights in my line of sight, no matter how far away – a really cute habit that still pops up from time to time. I’m surprised our marriage has survived my passenger seat driving, and I apologize in advance if you ever have to give me a ride.

While all of this was going on, we were also trying to navigate the never-ending logistics of the accident. Pretty quickly after we got home, we had to start managing the effects of the accident on our lives while trying to keep up with the regular day-to-day operations of adulthood.

We each had to take a week off from work to recover from the worst of our injuries per doctor’s orders. On a daily basis, we were dealing with out-of-state police, insurance adjusters, rental car providers, and medical billing departments. We hired a friend who happens to be an all-star injury attorney to help us navigate the process of putting our life back together, something I saw on daytime TV commercials but never imagined having to do myself. Looking back, I can’t fathom us successfully negotiating all the ins-and-outs of dealing with an uninsured at-fault driver and an out-of-state accident of this severity without an expert to guide us through.

The dreaded “file” where we stashed anything related to the accident – and this is only what came in the mail – most of our accounts were set to paperless communication. It took a full ten months before we were “made whole,” fully healed, and our case was settled and closed.

Since we were both transported away from the scene by ambulance with no family or friends in the area, we had little to no record of what had happened. Even something as simple as getting a copy of the police report turned out to be a hassle, and when we finally got it, major details were missing. I always ignorantly assumed that after an accident, everything just gets taken care of by all the trained professionals in their various fields, but the level of advocacy required to find your way through the aftermath of an accident is astounding, even for two mostly capable, self-sufficient adults.

Financially, the hit was hard but thankfully temporary. We had been putting all of our extra money back into our business, and suddenly had to scrape together enough cash to put a downpayment on a new truck while we waited for our case to be closed, which we knew could take upwards of a year. We also had to trade in our compact car for an SUV since I couldn’t ride in anything that low to the ground without fighting off a panic attack, so that was another investment we weren’t planning on making.

In the background of everything going on, I was also dealing with a toxic work environment that only heightened with the many unexpected inconveniences of our accident, so I started job searching despite not being in the best state-of-mind for another big life shakeup. Chris was also struggling with workplace stresses and the physical demands of his job as a uniform delivery driver – which he had only taken as a way to have weekends off while we started our business – but he started entertaining the idea of making a switch too. He had sworn off the restaurant industry after almost 20 years as a professional chef, but suddenly the stability of one kitchen and one job versus managing a day-job and a side-hustle sounded more and more appealing.

Within three months of our accident, we both landed new jobs – marking the first time I felt like things might be turning around for us. Chris taking his new executive chef job meant we had to close our business, a terribly difficult decision, but also the right one so we could keep focusing on healing and stability.

One year, two new jobs, two new vehicles, 70 pounds lost-and-found, and one closed startup business later, here we are, and here’s what I’ve learned from this experience:

  • Empathy matters. When someone tells you they’re hurting, believe them – even or especially if they’re going through something you haven’t experienced yourself. Just because you can’t relate to or visibly see someone’s challenges doesn’t make them any less real. This whole experience gave me deep insight into what it must be like to have an invisible disability, illness, or injury that you constantly have to explain and justify.
  • The only guarantee in life is that there aren’t any. No matter how hard you try to control things, life will always find a way to catch you off-guard. Instead of spending your time when things are good imagining the worst that could happen or bracing for an unseen disaster, just enjoy every moment you’re given, love your people every chance you get, and know that when the ups inevitably turn to downs, you’ll handle it – because you always do.
  • Squads are meant to be rallied. A great irony of being human is that asking for help is hard, but giving help is easy. In times of crisis, let your people lift you up, because they desperately want to – and ask for help when you need it no matter how humbling that is. We couldn’t believe the outpouring of support we received from every corner of our lives after our accident, and we appreciated every single gesture. We also learned how hard it is to advocate for yourself when you’re feeling down or disoriented, so if anything like this ever happens to you, bring in the pros as soon as possible. Listen to your doctors, talk to your HR reps, and hire a lawyer – you won’t regret having a team behind you.

And finally, a few more practical tips that I will passionately endorse until I actually do die, hopefully peacefully someday in the distant future:

  • Wear your damn seatbelt.
  • Get the gap coverage.
  • Always wear clean underwear when you leave the house.