Thirty years ago today--the day before my 17th birthday!--I was in a horrific car accident which required more than 100 stitches to my face, and eventually minor plastic surgery. I decided to share that memory, before it fades too far into my past--more out of recollection and catharsis than mutual interest, though I hope that you find it interesting. If you were in the accident with me, I would be interested in your memories too--especially if you are one of the two people that I can't remember!
As a high school sophomore I became a member of Summit High School bowling club, and eventually progressed from club to junior varsity to varsity, earning a letter my senior year. The club met on Monday afternoons, and was three dollars for three games of bowling--a terrific deal. I convinced several of my friends that bowling was fun, and cheap, and so we went together throughout the fall semester all three years at Summit High. Few of them followed me onto the more serious practices and matches in the winter quarter. But for a geeky, gangly high school kid, having a fun group with which to go bowling was a good deal all around..
One of my friends, Sean Wilson, was an sporadic member of the bowling club. Sean had spent most of the previous summer working on his car, a '67 Chevy that he lovingly rebuilt himself from the wheels up. To get to bowling you could ride with the bowling club's faculty sponsor--Mr. Wheeler--in his huge van, or you could find your own way. Once Sean had his own car, we drove with him everywhere, including bowling.
Sean's car had front seat-belts, but they were clipped above each window. It was very easy to simply ignore them, which we almost always did. On the day of the crash, I was not wearing my seat-belt.
This particular Monday afternoon was beautifully sunny, and Indian-summer warm. Five of us met Sean at his car to go bowling, including Sean's younger brother, and another senior named Tom Clark. For some reason (that has slipped beyond my memory) we were running late. Sean always liked to drive fast--mostly to show off the car--and this gave him an excuse.
We squealed out of the school parking lot, laughing, listening to music, with the windows down--three of us in the front seat, three in the back seat. I had tossed my bowling ball in the trunk, but had my books with me in the front passenger seat, under my feet. Sean was driving, his younger brother (taller than me, though) sat in the front seat between us. Tom had his bowling ball and books between his legs in the back seat.There were two other passengers--underclassmen, if memory serves--who also sat in the back seat; I can't remember their names.
As we sped toward the bowling alley, we took a back road near the Ciba-Geigy plant--turning right on River Road, and then left on Chatham Road. Sean really opened it up as we sped along Chatham Road. Chatham Road becomes Summit Avenue, and jogs left, then straight, then a slightly sharper right. We then were supposed to turn left on Ogden Street (a shortcut to get to Main St, route 124).
We were going very fast.
As we entered the sharper right turn, Sean let out a string of foul language (a habit for him in that era), and shouted "Hang on!" and then something about the steering. I found out later that the power steering had failed, so that it must have felt like he was trying to pull a ten-ton weight. We were used to Sean driving fast, and to him swearing, so none of us took it too seriously until...
...we glanced against a tree on the right side of the road (my door). Then it get very quiet, and things seemed to slow down.
I placed my right hand on the dash board, and held onto the handle above my head with my left hand. After we glanced off the tree we were supposed to go left onto Ogden Street, but we never made the turn. Instead we slammed head on into a telephone pole on the corner of Ogen Street and Summit Ave. The phone pole was at the edge of a yard that was elevated about four feet above the street level. We hit the pole so hard that we drove it six feet deeper into the small hillside.
When the insurance adjusters talked to me later, they asked how fast we were going. I had no idea, so I just said, "Pretty fast, I guess." They said, "Would it surprise you to know that the speedometer got stuck at 58 MPH?" No, I answered them, that didn't surprise me at all; we were probably going more like 70 on the straight road before the crash.
IN THE CAR
Immediately after impact there was silence. No noise, no explosion, not even moaning. Everything seemed to be moving slowly, as if we were trying to talk and move underwater. When no one said anything, I shouted,
"Is everyone alive? Say something! Sean?" He answered. "Tom?" He answered. I named everyone in the car, and they all answered. So we were all alive.
As we hit the telephone pole, my right hand, which had been extended onto the dashboard, had instinctively come up toward my face. The result was that my entire right forearm was littered with glass shards from the shattered winshield, but my face was spared. I couldn't really move my right arm or hand for the pain. Also, blood was pouring down my face, so I couldn't really see. Apparently my head had smashed into the windshield, but instead of being thrown through the glass, I had simply shattered it with my forehead. I had a cut somewhere above my eye line--I didn't know where--but I immediately and instinctively put my left hand on my forehead. I wasn't thinking about first aid;I was just trying to block the blood from getting in my eyes so that I could see. Paramedics told me later that the instinct--to apply pressure to a wound--slowed the blood flow enough from my head wound that it probably saved my life.
Having determined that everyone was alive, I wanted to get out of the car. Unfortunately, with my right arm full of glass and bloody and my left hand on my forehead, I couldn't figure out how to get the door open. Frustrated, I gave up after a few seconds.
Now there was groaning and crying. I shouted, "Let's sing! Stay awake! Let's sing something!" I vaguely remember someone swearing at me for that suggestion (probably Sean), but i was insistent. "You cannot lose consciousness! Sing!!!" At that point, I began to sing the first song the came to my mind:
The Star-Spangled Banner
I don't know why I chose that; maybe because everyone knows that one. A few blocks away on Summit Avenue some construction workers had heard the crash and came running. When they got to the car one of the men wrenched open my door, and what did he find?
Six high-school boys singing the National Anthem.
Our high school principal was a volunteer EMT. He heard the construction workers call in the emergency on a radio in his office at the high school, and sprinted to the scene, arriving even before the paramedics. As he was driving the construction workers were trying to help us out. Sean was pinned with the steering wheel pinning him underneath his ribs (they would be shattered). I was still bleeding profusely, and was a little panicked as my blood was getting all over my books (under my feet).
As my principal arrived at the car, he saw me pleading with the construction worker to protect my books from the blood. Several weeks later, when I went to his office to collect my books, he said he had never seen anything quite like that--a student pleading to save his books! I guess that I was more of a geek than I even realized!
The EMTs were there very soon after the construction workers and our principal. There were two ambulances and six boys, so they put three of us in each ambulance. I was the one who looked the worst, what with blood covering both arms and my face, and soaking my shirt. Also, my door opened easily, so they took me in the first ambulance. In my ambulance they put me, Tom Clark (sitting behind the driver), and one of the other people from the back seat. When we glanced off the tree, before we hit the telephone pole, Tom had put his hand down to stablize his bowling ball. On impact the ball had bounced up against the front seat, and smashed his hand. The other boy (who I sadly cannot remember) had minor cuts and bruises, and ended up with a concussion.
Sean ended up the most injured, with a concussion, separated and broken ribs, and several burst blood vessels in his eye (probably from smashing his head into something). He was trapped in the car, and not bleeding as badly, so he, his brother, and the other boy (that I can't remember) came in the second ambulance. I found out later that Sean had to be cut from the drivers' seat using the "Jaws of Life".
While we were in the ambulance I was hyper-conscious--extremely aware of everything that was going on around me. They assumed that my right arm (with the glass in it) was broken because I couldn't really move it, so they immobilized that as well as my head, and strapped me to one of those boards that they use for spinal injuries. I told the EMT that I was very cold, and they wrapped me in warm blankets.
Then came the vital signs fiasco. I was referred to as "Patient A" and the other boys were B and C. Because I was hyper-conscious, I was paying rapt attention to the various vital signs as they took them. When the EMT called into the hospital, she mixed them up--she said "Patient A" with my condition and injuries, but with Patient B's vital signs (blood pressure, temperature, pupils, etc) So I interrupted her and said, "You mixed those up! That was Tom's vital signs and my condition." She told the hospital to hold on, checked them, and then corrected them. She asked me how I knew that she had mixed them up. I'm sure that I said something smart-mouthed and obnoxious, but I don't remember what it was.
THE PHONE CALLS
Once we got to the hospital, Tom and I were put into adjoining "bays" in the Emergency Room, separated by only a curtain. I don't really remember most of the goings-on in the ER; my hyper-consciousness faded on the ride to the hospital. They asked me for my name and phone number, which I gave them.
When they called my mother, the ER administrator said, "Your son has been in a car accident. He is at Overlook Hospital, and I am calling for your permission to treat him?"
My mother said, "What happened to him?"
"Oh we can't tell you that over the phone. We are advising you of the accident, and asking for permission to treat. If you want more detail you'll have to come to the hospital and show identification." She gave permission and called my father:
"Our son has been in a car accident, and they won't tell me what happened. Come home immediately and go with me to the hospital."
When they asked Tom about his phone number and family, he told the nurse that his mother didn't handle bad news well, and could they call a family friend, their priest, who could go over and talk to the mother. So that is how they handled it, except...when the priest came by and told Tom's mother that her son had been in a car accident, she assumed he was dead!
In the ambulance they asked us where we were going, and I told them about the bowling club, and that they needed to call the bowling alley and speak to Mr. Wheeler. When he got the call, they said, "Mr. Wheeler, six of your students have been in a car accident. We would like you to come and identify them please." He assumed that we were dead, too!
After the botched phone calls, a nurse came to tell me that my parents were on their way. Then she said, "How well does your mother deal with blood?"
"I don't know--OK, I guess."
"And how attached are you to this shirt?"
"I don't care about the shirt," I answered.
At that point they proceeded to cut the shirt off of me, and throw it away. They cleaned off my face a bit, because the blood was crusting around my eyes and mouth. I guess it didn't matter, though, because when my mother arrived, she gasped at what I looked like.
Sean was seriously injured, as I mentioned before, but recovered relatively quickly.
Sean's brother had cuts and bruises mostly, but his right hand was seriously damaged by the telepone pole as it came into the front seat. His injury resulted in some nerve damage to his hand, which had not fully recovered by the end of the school year, the last time that I saw him.
Tom had broken his hand in several places, and required pins and things, but eventually fully recovered.
I had split open my forehead. What I didn't know, because they never let me look at myself, was that a large flap of my forehead--a semi-circular arc about three inches along the arc--had been lifted up essentially "scalping" me. As they stitched me up that night, I was conscious throughout, with only a local anesthetic. With my mother holding my hand, they stitched up the wound for quite some time--an hour? Could it have been that long?
The doctor was pleasant, and was making jokes the whole time. At one point he said, "Well, that does it--you get the record for most stitches I have ever put into one wound."
I said, "How many stitches was it?"
He answered, "Just tell people more than 150 so that I can stop counting."
It turned out the my arms were fine. My right arm, with the glass in it, bled a lot, but nothing broke; I still have scars on my elbow from the glass. My left arm was fine. My shoulder must have hit something, because it was bruised, but nothing was broken. I had a fairly severe concussion, and they kept me in the hospital for several hours for observation, but not overnight; these days, with malpractice fears, they probably would have kept me for a day or two. We headed home late that evening, with my head bandaged like something out of a M*A*S*H episode, my right arm bandaged from the cuts, and my clothes cut off of me.
I only missed a week of school. When I returned, I still had the bandage on my head for a while, and the deep scar on my forehead for weeks. Eventually I would have minor out-patient plastic surgery to improve the looks of the scar. Today you can hardly tell that it is even there.
And the next day after the accident, I celebrated my 17th birthday!
Sean's car both caused the accident and saved our lives. The power steering fluid had all leaked out, causing him to be unable to turn the wheel at the speed at which we were travelling. Hindsight says that he probably should have just jammed on the brakes, but it is too easy to second guess something that happened in a matter of seconds. But had we been driving anything other than a steel-frame '67 Chevy, we easily would have all been killed. Also, because Sean had replaced the original windshield with safety glasss, instead of flying out of the car and likely being impaled by the pieces of glass, the windshield simply shattered, causing injury but not death.
Some time later, when undergoing treatment for another illness, a doctor asked me if I had ever had head trauma. When I told him this story, he was amazed--both at the story, and at the relatively minor injuries sustained by all of us. It truly was a birthday miracle.