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Dear 17-year-old Driver

I’m finally sitting down to compose a letter that has written and rewritten itself in my head throughout the last 18 months. It contains things that I have known needed to be said, although until a few days ago I didn’t know exactly how and when that would happen.

A little over a week ago my husband, Jim,

set out on a bike ride for his birthday. Just a few miles from home he was involved in a collision. On a clear, sunny day a lady in a big vehicle pulled out right in front of him. Her view was unobstructed, and he was wearing a neon yellow jersey. He was close enough that it was impossible for him to stop, so he “T-boned” her vehicle. Thankfully, the injuries he sustained were probably far less than would have been the case if it had happened a second or two later when she would have run into him. We know no details beyond her exclamation that she hadn’t even seen him! In fact, she said she wouldn’t have even known she’d hit him if she hadn’t heard him screaming. Obviously, something had been distracting her from paying attention while driving, but we don’t know what.

Neither he nor his bicycle appeared in bad enough shape for it to seem necessary to call an ambulance. However, in considerable pain and with legitimate concern that this situation might serve to further complicate his spinal cord injury, Jim insisted on emergency transport to the hospital. The text I received from him puzzled me; I couldn’t seem to comprehend that after all we’d been through in the last 18 months he’d actually been hit again! Several hours later, we were grateful to hear that nothing was broken and the folks in ER couldn’t detect any other problems. So, we came home and although we both slept fitfully, it least it was together in our own bed. He’s dealing with a great deal of pain, and we’re trying to give ourselves space to process all this.

Just 10 days ago was the 18-month “anniversary” of Jim’s initial injury. I’d been journaling some recollections from that journey:

On a Friday afternoon 549 days ago, I received a call that would turn our world upside down. A few blocks from home Jim had been hit on his bike. A man on a bicycle is at a tremendous disadvantage against a motor vehicle weighing more than 6,000 pounds, regardless of other details. When the driver of the vehicle is traveling 35 miles per hour or more and does not brake or swerve before the impact, the bicycle and its operator can’t help but sustain significant damage.

Even before I was allowed in the ER to see my husband, an eye-witness had posted an account of the incident on Facebook! The brutal description was beyond horrifying! When I was finally able to get in to see him, the pain was so extreme that he was shaking uncontrollably. Except for the places that his face was scraped and bleeding, he was startlingly devoid of color. But he was alive and able to speak to me!

Following a battery of scans and tests, it was determined that our community hospital lacked the resources to treat such a serious injury. After watching the Flight for Life helicopter take off with Jim onboard, I made my way to join him at the trauma hospital in a neighboring city.

With covid-19 a brand new threat to our area, there were ever-changing protocols as to whether I’d be allowed to stay with him. I feared that if I left I wouldn’t be allowed back in. And, so began one of the longest nights of my life….

Thankfully, now that they had a better idea of Jim’s injuries, he was finally able to have pain medicine. The pain was still present, but somewhat more bearable. It was very cold in his room, but they only brought 1 blanket. So, I huddled under one corner of it with my head on his pillow and shivered all night. And prayed! “Breakfast” was a candy bar and can of soda, as we waited to see by the surgeon.

The extent of Jim’s injuries concerned the surgeon; but he promised, of course, to do his very best. He secured a time for the operation within just a few hours. There was no way of knowing whether Jim would even be able to walk again. In fact, the look the Doctors exchanged when he asked about riding his bicycle made me realize the depth of their shared concern for his future mobility.

When the Doctor telephoned me following surgery, he expressed great satisfaction with how well the procedure had gone. Even though there had been even greater damage than they had expected, he said he couldn’t have hoped for a more positive outcome. Later the anesthesiologist informed me that we’d “gotten our miracle” that day! After telling me how skillfully the surgeon had performed the operation, he assured me that Jim would, indeed, be able to ride his bike again!

I rested at a friend’s home and was back in the morning to see him take his first tentative steps! And, on his own insistence, a dozen more steps than the therapist had asked him to take! No wheelchair for my guy! That night I didn’t concern myself about the future, just basked in profound thankfulness for how everything had gone so far.

The 11 days he was in the hospital were really tough. Due to pandemic precautions, I wasn’t allowed back in to spend time with Jim. Phone calls were challenging – his hearing, speech, and perception were impaired, either by head injury and/or medications. That made communication between the two of us extremely challenging. He also experienced upsetting hallucinations. It was vital that he be receiving skilled care, but the lengthy separation was very difficult.

What a thrill for us both when I could finally bring him home! We were delighted to be together, but it was an incredibly demanding week. He required a great deal of assistance, almost more than I could manage. I was elated to have him here where I could care for him, but at the same time I was fearful and hyper-vigilant, quite overwhelmed, and exhausted.

A week later he moved to the Rehab hospital. Fortunately, we have a highly acclaimed facility in our own town that specializes in spinal cord injury. It was lovely having him close by and available by cell phone. They worked him very hard and he rose to every challenge. Although his time in the rehab center was interrupted by a late night emergency procedure, he returned to continue gaining strength and learning to manage by himself.

Upon his return home, we established a routine which included several appointments each week for treatment and therapy. There were a great many unknowns, but we held hope for return of compromised physical functions. Recovery following a partially severed spinal cord holds a lot of uncertainty. You work and plan for complete recovery, while trying to prepare mentally and emotionally for acceptance of the limitations which may remain. It’s a time of great joys and staggering disappointments.

It took several weeks to obtain our copy of the police report, which was very upsetting! What initial witnesses saw and the limited “evidence” from where the crash occurred was not at all in agreement with what was recorded. Plus, the young driver had not even received a citation. His cell phone records were apparently not checked, even though New Mexico law stipulates that take place when any motor vehicle “accident” occurs. The report listed superficial “damage” to the driver’s truck, but failed to make any comment whatsoever on the mangled bicycle. There was a limited description of Jim’s physical condition, with no follow-up whatsoever about the extent of his injuries. There had been, and would be, no further investigation at the scene.

In addition to lacking clarification, the official report conveyed a marked disinterest in my husband’s situation. It broke my heart to see how little concern was shown for his injuries. It felt to me like his condition had made little more impact on the officer than the carcass of a dead dog might have. I was appalled that so little concern had been shown for my dear Jim! Discarded and discredited…

Shortly after that we were able to collect what remained of the bicycle from the police. It was in pathetic shape, structurally telling a very different story to that which had been reported. To a person who knows bicycles, it tells a great deal about the angle and velocity of impact. It illustrates, quite literally, the terrific force that was involved, such that it had literally shirred off a bolt on a bicycling shoe.

We were, of course, notified shortly thereafter by the driver’s insurance company. They were most explicit about their refusal to take any responsibility for expenses we had already and would continue to incur. The bills we had seen thus far were enormous. If we had not been extremely well insured, the weight of those expenses could have bankrupted us.

An on-going blessing throughout those days was our amazing community of friends. They have held hands and helped out, prayed and cried, and celebrated. I’ve heard it said that how tall a man stands is determined by the number of those who care for him. That being the case, my Jim is a giant. And my giant is my hero!

The intervening months have held victories, challenges, and disappointments. Many of them! We are constantly reevaluating our expectations and plans. New strategies must be tried and adjusted. We have had to work very hard at not feeling disheartened. Through my advocacy efforts, I am doing my very best to “redeem” our suffering in ways that will positively impact others. We find ourselves cherishing the gifts, both large and small, that each day brings.

SO – here I am today, contemplating the set-backs from this latest collision. I feel compelled to do something proactive. I guess it’s time to write “the letter”…. Putting these thoughts on paper may help me to make some sense of another senseless situation.... It might serve to organize ideas that I will can share with others in an effort to raise awareness….. Or, it may just be that this is what I need to do to get through today…

Dear 17-year-old driver,

Although we’ve never met, I think about you a lot. One Friday afternoon, 18 months ago, you left home in your truck. A few miles later, you hit a man on a bicycle. That man was my husband, Jim. I’m not sure if you even remember the events of that afternoon, but we live every day with the consequences of that collision.

Before that day I had no idea how many pedestrians and bicyclists are seriously injured and killed by teen drivers. And I was even less aware of how one-sided the police tend to be in such circumstances. I naively expected law enforcement to treat my Jim the same as they would any other injured person, whether riding a bike or driving a car, truck, or SUV.

When the police officer called to tell me what had happened, he didn’t even sound concerned. I assumed he was trying to keep me from panicking. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that he just wasn’t all that interested. He probably carried on with the rest of his day without giving Jim another thought. Is that what you did, too?

At the hospital, I was greeted by a devastating sight! My beloved husband was lying in the ER - bloody and bruised, and in excruciating pain. His bike helmet was destroyed and clothes shredded; his cell phone was never seen again. Clearly, this had been far more than a minor “accident” or “fender-bender”!

They took him by helicopter that night to the Trauma Hospital in El Paso with his back broken in 5 places and a partially severed spinal cord. They weren’t sure if he’d ever walk again. Surgery and the weeks following were horrendous! Nearly 2 weeks in the hospital, almost a month in a rehab facility, multiple emergency procedures, and months of physical therapy were necessary for him to regain his independence. Thankfully he can walk, though not very well. He will never again be the strong, fit person he was before. Living with a spinal cord injury has meant the loss of certain bodily functions, embarrassment and inconvenience every single day. It’s incredibly discouraging to realize Jim will have to put up with that for the rest of his life!

I often wonder what was distracting you that day, especially when I drive by the intersection less than 5 minutes from our home. I can’t believe that with 5 motor vehicle lanes, 2 bike lanes and 2 side-walks there was no alternative to running right into the back of a man on a bicycle. A bicyclist who had no protection from a moving truck weighing more than 6,000 pounds! Since there was no evidence of you swerving or braking, I’m pretty sure you didn’t even know he was there until you hit him! Did you see him at all?

I’ll never forget how it felt to read the Facebook post by someone who saw the wreck happen. The picture replays itself in my head of my husband being flung many feet into the air and slamming down very hard right on his back! No one should have to imagine that happening to someone they love!

Most upsetting, the officer didn’t even give you a citation. His report made note of the scratches on your truck without even mentioning the mangled bicycle. I couldn’t believe that it didn’t include any details whatsoever about Jim, even though he was obviously seriously injured. And how could law enforcement justify their failure to do any follow-up investigation?

Our lives and your’s have been connected ever since that day a year and a half ago. I think about you when I zip my phone into a bag so I won’t be tempted to use it while driving. And as I watch Jim struggle with things he wouldn’t have had difficulty with except for his injuries. When we must face the disappointment of being unable to do many of the things we had expected to enjoy together, I’m reminded that we are victims of a needless collision that could, and should, have been avoided.

Some days I’m filled with anger! I try not to direct that toward you; I know you’re probably a very nice person who never would have been so careless with someone else’s life on purpose.

Mainly, I’m furious that law enforcement would sweep a situation like this under the rug! There is simply no acceptable explanation for the unfair treatment and complete lack of compassion.

I pray that even though they failed to hold you accountable for your actions, you will have learned from what happened anyway. Has that day made you change your behavior behind the wheel? If it has helped you become a safer, more conscientious driver then something good will have come out of the events of that horrible day.

I sincerely want the best for you. Please make a commitment to drive safely, look out for others, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. It matters, more than a lot of people realize!

I truly wish things had been different on March 20, 2020…

~The wife of the man on the bicycle ~

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