On Wednesday morning, I was one of three first responders on the scene of a fatal car accident. If you need to stop reading right now, please do. I won’t describe much, but I know that these subjects can trigger unpleasant feelings in some people.
I was on my way to a business meeting with a potential gig venue and as I approached the street that my destination was on, I saw a truck parked in the ditch parallel to the road. This is common in the country, especially in the spring and fall, when farmers are out working the fields. As I slowed to make the turn and drove past the truck, I noticed that the front of it was smashed up and that there was another vehicle maybe 100 feet into the field, smashed and perpendicular to the road that I was about to turn onto.
I pulled over immediately. Another person did too. We jumped out of our vehicles. I checked the truck and saw that there was nobody inside. Another man stopped. We ran towards the other car. One man called 911. We met the driver of the truck at the other car. She was trying to help the woman who was inside. I knew when I saw the young woman in the car that there was nothing that we could do. She wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a jugular pulse. There was blood. Her airbag was deployed, the car horn blaring. The 911 operator asked us to try to get her out of the car. We tried in vain.
A young man drove up and ran out of his car. He knew the young woman and was distraught. He ran out into the field and wailed. I followed him, hugged him, held him tight. A fire truck arrived. More followed, then sheriffs and ambulance. At least 10 minutes of jaws of life, an eternity of CPR, the whole time hoping for a miracle.
Road blocked off. Young woman pronounced dead and covered with a white sheet. My worries shift the survivor. I don’t see her. She must have been taken to the hospital to get checked out. The damage to her vehicle and the other suggests hard impact. The survivor had told us that the young woman drove through a stop sign.
I answered the sheriff’s questions, then a firefighter helped me clean the blood off of my face and hands. An EMT cleaned up a cut on my finger. A trip to the ER was suggested, counseling mentioned, appreciation vocalized between everyone there for their help. As one firefighter us, he tells us that in many instances, nobody stops. This horrifies and infuriates me. In my mind, I didn’t have an ounce of a choice. Yes, it was definitely going to make me late for my meeting. Yes, I might see something that will haunt me. No way in hell that I was going to drive right by without stopping to see if everyone was okay and if there was something that I could do to help.
I wish that there was more that I could have done. Having witnessed a lot of death in my lifetime, both animal (my pets and veterinary patients) and human (family), I am saddened by it but I also have a bit more experience with and understanding of it than most people. I’m also good at keeping a level head in emergency situations. No, I couldn’t save the young woman, but I did make sure that the other driver was okay. I made sure that 911 had been called and helped the others try to get the young woman out of the car. I comforted the young woman’s friend. I checked on the other responders and kept an eye on them, making sure that they were okay. I helped the other responders and the sheriff establish a timeframe for when the accident occurred. When I couldn’t do anymore, I noticed that I needed a bit of medical attention and I asked for help. I thanked everyone and when I thought that my presence was no longer needed, I asked if there was anything else that I could do. There was not, so I left.
I called and left a message with the woman who I had stood up for over an hour and then I drove to the meeting place. She wasn’t there, so I washed up in the restroom and ordered lunch at the bar. I noticed that I was shaking. I don’t know if this was a good idea, but I ordered a coffee and a coke with my brisket sandwich and collard greens. I made small talk with the waitress and a patron. I called work and let them know that I had helped out at an accident and would be a bit late because I needed to do some self-care in the form of comfort food. I took my time and then I drove to work. My coworkers were clearly concerned about me. I reassured them that I can handle being present in times of death.
BUT, I have had an inner dialogue slowly building girth in my head for some time. I drive almost 25 miles one-way to get to work and the commute was getting to me before this experience. That’s a lot of time spent in the car. And, truth be told, I don’t practice ideal driving skills. In an attempt to multitask, I make phone calls, answer texts, update my calendar, and check my emails and social media when I am driving because I feel like I don’t have enough time in my everyday life to take care of these things elsewhere. I could very easily end up like the young woman because of my distracted driving habits.
Everyone handles trauma differently. As an individual living with mental illness, I know that I have to be gentle with myself. I look within. This experience brought my talents, habits, and values to light. I realized that helping others (both human and animal) in times of great need is my superpower. I decided to change my bad driving habits and to look for a job that is closer to home and that allows me to utilize my superpower. On Friday, I gave my boss notice that I am looking for a different job. My phone goes in the glove box now.
When life throws you something that makes you think differently about your current situation, embrace the challenge! It can feel scary, but you will feel better in the end if you do what is best for you.