Twenty-two years ago today, I came as close to death as I ever have. A car was reduced to scrap metal while I was inside, and I was lucky to remain in one piece.
October 10, 1980 was a Friday, and I was looking forward to a break from the daily grind of classes and studying at the University of South Carolina. My roommate Ernest and I were going on a double date with my girlfriend Marie and her roommate Elza. We planned to go out to dinner and then see a movie (Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour). Ernest was driving his Volkswagen Rabbit. I was riding shotgun, and Marie and Elza were in the back seat.
I don’t recall which restaurant we had picked for dinner, but it must have been somewhere in the St. Andrews area of Columbia, because we headed out I-126 toward Irmo. I-126 is a local expressway that connects downtown Columbia with I-26, which bypasses the city on the west. Where I-126 meets I-26, the two highways simply join and the railing between them ends. Merging is not necessary; you don’t have to change lanes or yield to other traffic. In theory, traffic should continue to flow smoothly through the interchange. But on this particular evening, it did not.
Exactly what happened is a matter of conjecture, because we never did manage to talk to the driver of the car ahead of ours. It’s possible that she became confused or disoriented. Perhaps she thought she had driven the wrong way on an exit ramp and was now headed the wrong way on the interstate, and panicked. All we know for sure is that at the point where the railing between I-126 and I-26 goes away, she slammed on her brakes and skidded to a halt while traffic around and behind her was moving at 45 miles per hour.
Ernest had two or three seconds to react — not enough time to stop our car, but enough to try to avoid the obstacle. He attempted to swerve into the lane to our left, and nearly succeeded. By the time we reached the stopped car, only the right half of the Rabbit was still in the blocked lane. As a result, the actual collision took place directly in front of me. I don’t have any coherent memory of the crash, just a vague impression of deafening noise and violent motion.
When the world stopped spinning, all four of us were still in our seats. Marie and Elza had only had lap belts, so they had been rattled around in the back seat quite a bit and would shortly develop an impressive collection of bruises. They also had minor cuts from flying window glass. Ernest had escaped injury entirely, although he managed to cut his thumb on broken glass while climbing out of the wreck. But when I tried to get out, I discovered that my right leg did not work. The femur was broken.
We later learned that a total of seven vehicles were involved in the collision. Acquaintances of ours who passed through the area afterward said they had seen the wreckage and wondered how many people had been killed in the wreck. Amazingly, the answer was “none.” In 1980, most cars did not yet have air bags, but all four occupants of the Rabbit were wearing seat belts, and they did a superb job of protecting us. No one in the other vehicles was badly hurt, either. Mine, it turned out, was the most serious injury.
As luck would have it, two off-duty paramedics were in a vehicle not far behind us, and they arrived at the scene within a minute or two. At first, they were mainly concerned with assessing our condition. Marie and Ernest had gotten out on their own, but Elza, although conscious, was confused and didn’t seem to know where she was. And I wasn’t going anywhere without a stretcher. I remember noticing gritty stuff in my mouth and asking one of the paramedics to see if my teeth were damaged, but it turned out to be fine particles of glass. My face was covered with blood, but this all came from a few superficial nicks to my face and scalp, also from glass fragments. (Scalp lacerations bleed like crazy, even very minor ones.) Even my bone fracture was a simple one — no jagged bones protruding through the skin, or anything like that.
Eventually the emergency crews arrived and began the process of removing Elza and me from the wreck. The paramedics decided that Elza was suffering from whiplash and ended up strapping her to a backboard and taking her out through the rear window. Getting me out was a little more complicated, because I was sitting in the most severely mangled part of the car, with the dashboard more or less in my lap. In the end, they had to use the Jaws of Life to pry the door off and pull me out. This involved some movement of my broken leg, which was quite painful, but they got me onto a stretcher and immobilized it as soon as possible. One ambulance ride later, I was in the emergency department of Richland Memorial Hospital, where, after a quick assessment, I had to wait for several hours to be treated. (I’m not complaining. This is standard emergency-medicine triage. My condition was stable and I was in no danger, and I’m sure they had other patients who might die if they weren’t treated immediately. The RMH staff was entirely justified in letting me wait while they helped those people.)
In the meantime, Ernest, Marie, and Elza were treated and released. Elza had recovered from the initial shock and her whiplash was found to be minor; she had to wear a neck brace for a while but was otherwise fine. But I was admitted to the hospital. X-rays showed that I required traction to move the pieces of my femur into position for proper healing. A hole was drilled laterally through my right tibia and a metal pin about four inches long was screwed into the hole. I was then moved to a hospital bed equipped with an overhead rail for hanging traction gear. My leg was elevated in a padded sling supported by ropes that ran through pulleys (attached to the overhead rail) to a set of counterweights. Other ropes and pulleys were attached to the tibia pin and to a sling around my thigh, and weights were hung from these to apply traction in the proper directions. The resulting rig looked like I had blundered into a large spiderweb. Of course, as Bob pointed out at the time, it could have been worse.
The crash had apparently broken my leg by slamming the dashboard of the car straight back into my right knee. Such an impact could certainly exert sufficient pressure to snap my femur, but no one could figure out why the knee itself wasn’t injured. As any football player can tell you, the knee is a temperamental joint that’s easy to damage, sometimes permanently. Not only was there no damage to the joint, the skin of my knee was completely unmarked — not the faintest sign of a bruise or abrasion. This wasn’t the only bizarre aspect of the accident. At the time of the wreck, Marie was wearing my high school ring, a pendant on a neck chain, a pair of clip-on earrings, and a bracelet wristwatch. All of this jewelry vanished in the crash; afterward, it wasn’t on her body anymore and none of it was ever found in or near the wreckage. Her glasses and mine were also knocked off, but both pairs were found lying intact on the roadway. Mine had several nicks where the plastic lenses had stopped glass fragments and presumably saved my eyes. (This was the only time I have ever been thankful that my glasses had such thick lenses.)
Apart from the broken bone, my injuries were minor. None of the lacerations required stitches, just Band-Aids. The last joint of the little finger on my right hand was also damaged; it was sore and I couldn’t move it. X-rays showed a tiny bone fracture and a muscle that was displaced from where it should have been. The joint would have to be repaired surgically, but this would have to wait until after traction was complete, because I was stuck in my hospital bed for the duration, and you can’t wheel a bed into an operating theater.
At first, the doctors weren’t sure how long I would be in the hospital. There was some discussion of a surgical procedure to use metal pins to put the bone back together, but the doctors didn’t want to resort to such an invasive procedure if it wasn’t necessary. In the end, they decided that it was best to continue the traction until the bone fragments were in the right positions, then put a cast on the leg, fix my finger, and send me home. But there was no way to predict how long the traction would take to set the bone. We would simply have to wait and see.
It took six weeks. During that time, I was unable to leave my bed. Obviously, this put an end to the fall semester as far as I was concerned — I had to withdraw from all my classes. I was also stuck in a hospital 70 miles from my family. They visited as often as they could, as did my friends from the campus. But it was Marie who kept me sane. She had only known me for six weeks prior to the accident, but she visited me every day, riding buses or borrowing a car to get to the hospital. She took charge of my life, bringing me things I needed, helping me straighten things out with the university, and making sure that visitors didn’t tire me out. I don’t know how I would have gotten through that experience if it hadn’t been for her.
Eventually, the bones were in position. The traction rig was dismantled, the tibia pin was removed, and a cast was applied to the leg. My right hand was then surgically repaired, which resulted in another cast that went halfway to the elbow. After I recovered from that procedure, I spent several days in physical therapy learning to walk with crutches (the right one equipped with a cradle for my forearm and a handle that my partially-immobilized hand could grip). I was finally discharged and allowed to go home the day before Thanksgiving. I had to wear the cast for nine weeks, and after it was removed, to walk with crutches for another four weeks. It was February before I was able to walk normally again.
Some effects of the crash lasted longer than the treatment. The fracture healed, but my femur now has a sizable knot in it, which can be painful if pressure is exerted on my thigh (for example, when a child sits on my lap). The surgery on my finger was not a success; instead of healing properly, the joint simply fused, and I have never regained the use of it. (Fortunately, I am not a concert pianist, so I have very little need for full mobility in my little finger.) The lacerations on my scalp and face healed, but you can still see the scars if you know where to look. (Marie also has a scar on the back of her left shoulder, where a piece of window glass left its mark.) And I have permanent scars where the pin was inserted in my tibia and later removed.
But there are compensations. Marie and I were already in love on October 10, but the custodial relationship forced on us by my hospitalization moved matters along considerably. And being apart during November and December underscored how important the relationship was for both of us. In January of 1981, I asked her to marry me, although we didn’t announce our engagement until the following year. Over two decades later, we’re still together. Would this have happened without the crash? I like to think so, but it’s impossible to know.