17 years ago today my life changed forever. What follows is that story…
Not Dying Was Easy—Surviving Was the Hard Part
I wonder sometimes what might have been if I’d taken my normal route home; if I’d swerved faster; if I’d not been driving on the spare; but, I didn’t, I couldn’t, and
I was, and everything in the world changed because of it.
“What time is it?” I asked. Everything was dark, but I knew someone was in the room with me. I tried to open my eyes, but my eyelids felt like they were made of lead, and what little light penetrated them was so bright that it hurt.
“It’s 4:30.” It was my mom’s voice. “You were in surgery for about seven hours,” she continued. “Do you remember me telling you about it when they brought you back to the room?” She asked. What she said didn’t make any sense. The last I remembered it was about one in the morning. How could I have been in surgery seven hours if it was only 4:30?
“4:30 in the morning?” I quizzed her—I was too confused to say more.
“No. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon.” She was standing next to my bed and had her hand on my right arm. She wasn’t crying, but I could hear the worry in her voice. With her blocking the light from the open door, I was able to open my eyes enough to see her standing there. My brain was foggy, but I understood now what she meant.
“What did they do to me? I don’t remember if you told me.” I heard her take a deep breath and clear her throat. “Shit,” I thought to myself, “my arm is gone!”
“Mom, did they take my arm? Just tell me,” I said in a more demanding tone.
She squeezed my right arm, “Shhhh. I’m going to tell you, but you can’t scream in here.” I guess moms never stop being moms, even when their babies are hurt.
She told me that the surgeon spend the first two hours of the operation suctioning “bone dust” out of my arm. Every bone in my left arm from my shoulder to my wrist was shattered, and I literally had no elbow left. They implanted two titanium plates, sixteen screws, and a six inch titanium rod was inserted into the radius. The incision started in the middle of my upper arm and extended to about three inches above my wrist. She also told me that my left lung and kidney were both bruised, that there was extensive bruising on my torso and left leg, and that I had a concussion.
“You have a long recovery ahead of you,” she said as she wiped the streaming tears from my face. “The doctors say probably a year or more until you’re fully recovered. But, you didn’t die, and that’s a miracle.” Not dying was the easy part—surviving was going to be the real trick.
Less than twenty-four hours earlier I was on my way home from my family’s Christmas celebration. I had dinner planned that evening with a friend whom I had not seen in some time. I was running a little later than I’d hoped and was driving above the speed limit. I never saw the small piece of metal in the middle of the highway, and the next thing I knew, I was struggling to stay in one lane. I pulled off the road. I got out and walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. BLOWOUT! The right front tire was completely shredded. Now I would be late for sure.
I opened the trunk to get the jack and spare tire. It was full of boxes and when I finally reached the spare tire, I discovered it was nothing more than the “donut” that car manufacturers included with new cars. My frustration growing by the minute, I unpacked it and the jack and went to work. As I tried to maneuver the jack under the car, I realized that where I pulled off the road was uneven and that the right side of the car was resting on a small hill. There was no room for the jack to fit. I tried it under the front bumper, but it was too small and wouldn’t hold sturdily to the car there.
Thankfully, an old man passing along the road saw the trouble I was having, stopped and offered to help. I rode with him to his home not far away to get a big jack like I’d seen in mechanics’ shops. He told me that was the only way we’d get the car lifted to change the tire.
As we returned to the car, I saw my sister’s green Ford Expedition pulled over near it. She, my mother, and my niece were headed to Dallas for shopping and happened to notice mom’s disabled and abandoned car. As the old man put the toy spare tire on the car, I stood and talked to them.
My mother tried her hardest to convince me to turn around and go back to her house. She was worried about me driving on the toy spare. I promised I would be careful and that I would go first thing the next morning and get a new tire. I pulled back onto the highway and headed for Dallas.
As I reached the Stemmons/Highway 183 split, I noticed a small, gold-colored sedan traveling almost parallel with me for some time. Somewhere between the Walnut Hill and Royal Lane exits, the little car swerved and collided with my right front quarter panel. The impact wasn’t that hard, but the little toy spare couldn’t handle its force. I was stranded.
I stepped out of my car and noticed that another car was stopped just behind mine. A young woman was behind the wheel. I motioned for her to wait and began walking toward her. She was driving a brand new silver Lexus with the dealer tags still on it. I walked up to her passenger window. I leaned in and asked if we could use her phone to call 911. She said we could and handed me the phone. I made the call and reported the accident.
“Do you know where Frankford Road is?” the Good Samaritan asked. I leaned into the window again and began to tell her how to get to Frankford. Then I heard the noise. . . like metal grinding followed by a gunshot. I looked up just in time to see the front end of an eighteen wheeler barreling toward us. Before my brain could process what was happening, the truck slammed into the back of the Lexus. Then, darkness.
I felt myself get hit, first from the right and then from the left. Everything moved in slow motion. There was no light and no sound, but I was not unconscious. I was keenly aware of what was happening, but at the same time there was nothing. It’s not true what they say–my life didn’t pass before my eyes–nothing did–it was just dark, and still, and deafeningly quiet. I never lost consciousness. I knew when my body was thrown into the air and I knew when I came crashing to the ground with a thud.
In just a few seconds my brain assessed that I was still alive–I could feel my heart beating and I could hear myself breathing. I was hurt–badly, and I was still in the middle of the freeway. “Jason, get your ass up before you get hit again!” I don’t know if the voice I heard was my own, my mind, a guardian angel, or some other celestial sentry charged with saving my life. Whoever. . .whatever it was, I trusted it and picked myself up off the pavement.
My glasses were gone, but the rest of my clothing seemed intact: shoes, check; pants, check; belt, check; shirt, check. But, something was not right. I only felt one arm. I looked down at my left side. The arm was there, but I could not feel it attached to my body anywhere. I began to panic, thinking that the only thing holding my arm off the ground was my shirt sleeve. I heard myself scream in terror, “NO!” Almost simultaneously I realized the fingers on my left hand were moving. I couldn’t feel them moving, but I saw them moving. Left arm, check.
Traffic was completely stopped. I walked toward the right shoulder where I could see the back of the truck peeking over the ledge of the deep ditch between the freeway and service road. It was burning and people were rushing around from side to side.
It was then that my head cleared and all of my senses returned. The smell of rubber and diesel burning filled the air and irritated my eyes and the inside of my nose and throat. The entire left side of my body, from shoulder to knee, felt like someone had smacked me as hard as he could with a baseball bat. It was an intense, burning and aching pain. I grabbed my left arm with my right hand and bent it at the elbow. I could feel the bones moving freely under my skin. As I brought my arm to my abdomen, I could hear them moving. It was a nauseating grinding and cracking sound.
“Somebody help me!” I screamed for my life. Until that point I don’t think anyone knew I was there. A man who was standing nearby ran to me. He grabbed my shoulders, and a lightning bolt of pain shot through me. I nearly collapsed, but the man caught me and sat me down on the pavement and leaned my back against the metal guardrail.
“Where are you hurt?” he asked calmly.
“I think my arm is broken,” I said, now writhing in excruciating pain. “No, I know it is, but what about my pupils? Are my pupils dilated?” I don’t know why I asked about my pupils, but I asked at least three times before the man assured me that my pupils looked fine.
Before long, paramedics, firemen, and police officers descended on the scene. As they attended to me, I noticed a familiar voice. I opened my eyes and squinted. Through the strobe of red and blue lights and the smoke from the truck, now completely engulfed in flames, I was able to make out a familiar face. “Ben Roberts?” I asked. Ben was a friend from high school whose parents were the youth leaders at my church. I had not seen him in over ten years.
After a moment he recognized me, too. “Jason Walker?” He asked. “What are you doing here?”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed as tightly as I could. “Don’t let me die, Ben. Please.” I began to cry—the first tears I’d shed during the entire time. Ben assured me I was not going to die, but was honest and told me that I had significant injuries and that they needed to get me to the hospital quickly. I asked him to ride with me in the ambulance and he agreed.
It was surprisingly quiet and calm on the ride to the emergency room. Ben asked me to tell him exactly what happened. I told him the whole story: the first of about ten repetitions of it that night. Then, I took Ben’s hand again and asked him to pray with me. He agreed and proceeded to ask God to protect and heal me, and to give me peace and comfort. I did begin to feel peace—finally, peace. When he finished, I asked him to call my mother and tell her what happened. He reached her on her cell phone and told her where she would need to meet us. I could hear her crying on the other end of the call and Ben assured her that everything would be alright.
We finally arrived at the Parkland Memorial Hospital Emergency Room. Ben and the other paramedic wheeled me in on the stretcher and we were met almost immediately by a nurse who jotted down the vital signs Ben gave her. After they transferred me to a hospital gurney, Ben told me that he had to leave, but that my mom should be there soon and that he would check in with me the next day. I thanked him again and closed my eyes as he walked away.
There were what seemed like hundreds of people milling about in the hallway, and from time to time I would hear blood-curdling screams coming from down the hall. Since the accident happened, time had stopped. My watch was gone and I couldn’t see a clock. I had no concept of how long I laid there on that gurney in the hallway waiting. Waiting for someone to help me; to give me something for the horrific pain I was in; to tell me I could go home and get me out of that hellish place.
Home. Five days later I was on my way, but not to my home. I was being released from the hospital and was headed to my mother’s home. I couldn’t take care of myself at all. On December 30th, the day I left the hospital, my left arm was still tightly wrapped in bandages. A drain tube and bag still collected the blood and puss which constantly oozed from the wound. I couldn’t take a shower or bath. I couldn’t dress myself. I could eat, but only if it was something which could be easily manipulated with my right hand alone. I was helpless, and if it hadn’t been for the wretched physical pain I was in, I would have felt that way. I had a fabulous apartment full of nice things which I’d worked hard to get, and something inside of me knew I’d never be back there again.
The first two weeks after I arrived at my mom’s house were spent in bed in various stages of consciousness and alternating between hydrocodone for the pain and Phenergan for the nausea that it caused. During the day, while Mom was at work, my sister would come and stay with me. Every other day for those two weeks, Eric, a friend from high school who still lived in town, came to help me get cleaned up. The entire situation was demoralizing and humiliating. I was ready to get out of bed, get moving, and get back to my life, but that wasn’t going to happen for months.
At the end of January, my doctor, who I had been seeing once a week since I left the hospital, released me to begin physical and occupational therapy. In the beginning I went three days a week. It was the hardest work I’d ever done. Even the simplest tasks wracked my body. My therapist began each session by having me lie on the floor. I held on to one end of a Theraband, and she held the other while I stretched my left arm as far across my bod as I could. The goal was to touch my right shoulder with my left hand—it took almost three weeks before I could do it. Each time I tried my weakened body would tremble, sweat would pour from every pore on my body, I would be as short of breath as if I’d run a marathon, and I cried like a brokenhearted schoolgirl.
During those days, victories were small, and they were few and far between. Tying my shoes, spreading peanut butter on bread, combing my hair, and shaving were cause for celebration. But, there were many days when victory was nowhere to be found. After one particularly difficult session, I called my mom at work. “Mom,” I said, sobbing, “why didn’t you just tell them to cut my arm off.” I was sitting in the floor of the bathroom where I’d collapsed trying to get into a hot shower, the only thing that seemed to help my arm. The physical anguish was bad enough, but nothing compared to the unbearable sadness I felt the day I sat in my mother’s living room and watched most of the things I owned being sold to complete strangers for pennies on the dollar. There was no victory in that.
My adult life up to the point of my accident had been largely directionless. I played around at college for almost ten years before giving up and going to work full time. I had a good job, but not a career, and certainly not what I felt was my true calling. During the nearly nine months I was recovering, I had a lot of time to think, to reevaluate my life, and to consider my options. In an odd way, the same accident which turned my world upside down had also cleared my head about life. I finally had an appreciation for what I’d heard people say all my life—it’s too short to waste a minute.
I was released to go back to work in early September of 2004, and I secured a job at Southern Methodist University that November. I was responsible for the operation of the Information Commons in the Hammon Arts Library. It was a dramatic cut in pay and responsibility from the job I had before my accident, but every day I was surrounded by people who valued education and hard work, including my boss, the library director. He knew my story and knew my goals. In November of 2006, after two successful and empowering years, I sat in his office and tearfully handed him my letter of resignation. I had finally saved the necessary money and was headed back to school full time. I was scared to death about what his reaction might be.
“Jason, I think this is wonderful, and I’m so happy for you,” he said with an enormous smile on his face. Not only was he gracious and encouraging, as usual, he gave me the biggest surprise of my life when about a month later, just before Christmas, a package arrived for me. It was a brand new computer with the latest software installed. It was from him. There was a note inside which read, “You are greater than your past. Love always, Tim.” I was overwhelmed.
Many things about the accident and the two years which followed it overwhelmed me. The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to also be the best thing. Coming literally within inches of losing my life saved my life. Working to regain the ability to use my arm for the most menial tasks taught me that those things are not to be taken for granted. And, the day I walked across the stage at Texas Tech University, all of the pain and all of the heartache seemed somehow worth it.
In the end, surviving was the hard part. But, I could, I did, and everything in the world was better because of it.