By Judith Shatto
I know personally the danger of drunk driving; the pain, heartbreak, consequences, and rage it can cause. My son and I live it every day. He is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down because of a drunk driver.
Having the opportunity to write my experience has been somewhat overwhelming to say the least. The opportunity I am calling my purge. To release the negative emotions I have held on to; to let others know that no matter how difficult life gets, if you look over your shoulder, there is often times someone with greater pain. Seems trivial but the saying – if life gives you lemons, make lemonade is true. Some of us just take longer to start squeezing them!
The first year of my son’s injury I fell into a deep hole of depression. I was so angry. Actually, anger isn’t the right word. I was living in rage. I was angry at the world, at God, and especially the drunk and our court system. I was overwhelmed with the fear of not understanding or knowing anything about spinal cord injuries. Overwhelmed and stuck in that place many of us know…the whys. Deep down I had enough faith that I knew we would get through this. I just didn’t know how long it would take. And the hole I found myself in was so deep; forget the rope, I was hanging on by a thread.
When the phone rang at near midnight on Christmas Eve 2005 I expected the call to be from one of my kids wishing us a “Merry Christmas.” Our family lives in three time zones and we never know who is going to call and at what hour of the day. Instead, it was a call that forever changed our lives. That call, which is every parent’s nightmare. The call was from a friend who owned a wrecker/tow service. She told me their company had been dispatched to clean up the wreckage and tow a truck away. Her son drove the wrecker truck for the family business and she had sent him out on the call. Upon arriving to the crash site, as he backed in, he immediately knew the truck belonged to his aunt. He immediately phoned his mom to tell her that her sister (his aunt) was handcuffed and in the back of a squad car. She had been arrested for DUI.
My son was a passenger in this wreck. He was being airlifted to OU Medical Center and was in very critical condition. Had any other wrecker service been called, I don’t have any idea how long it would have been before we were notified. His wallet was lost and he had no identification. The hospital had no idea who he was when he arrived for emergency treatment.
We spent months and months in the hospital. He had broken an arm as well as the C5 spinal cord injury. His arm could bear no weight for 8 weeks. It slowed rehab almost to a halt. Getting into a wheelchair daily was about all the physical therapy he was allowed. In April, he was transferred to a rehab hospital in Tulsa. We were there for another 6 weeks.
It was decided we would bring him to live with my younger son and his family. Beings I lived with them already, it only made since…Many quads don’t have the family support and unfortunately, go straight to a nursing home. I am so proud of all my children, their love and support they have showed their brother is incredible. We have managed for the last 2 years to all come together during Easter week. Not an easy task for everyone to get time off from work at the same time. We have a lot of fun and excitement; and never a quiet moment.
The plan was to eventually build an accessible house across the driveway from my younger son’s home . The foundation to the home was laid while he was in the rehab hospital.
A wheelchair ramp was built for the homecoming. We were suddenly on our own and the fear intensified. How was I going to remember everything I was taught while in the hospital?
Most importantly I had to turn him every two hours to prevent skin breakdown. I slept on the sofa with my cell phone alarm set just outside his room that first year. I wrote down every drug and the time I gave it to him. I could not depend on my memory. I needed to know what the purpose of each drug was. I would record everything and keep track of the time I gave him the drugs. It was total confusion and terror. I ran across this notebook the other day and it brought back some unbelievable memories for me. Time has a way of making things easier. I no longer use the notebook. The fear is gone for now. Having the love, support and help from my family, got me through the panic I often felt. We were home, settling in, getting a routine of care going. This relief was short-lived. We had the fire!
We live in the country a mile or so from the highway. A car had overheated and the sparks started a grass fire along the road and suddenly fire was everywhere, our neighbor’s homes burned to the ground. Stranger’s and friends came to our aid. We had been home less than a week. The smoke scared us all. I remember running out to get firemen off their trucks to assist me in getting my son moved. I was shaking so much there was no way I could get the sling under him in order to use a Hoyer lift to get him up into his chair. He suddenly was having difficulty breathing and we needed to get him to the hospital. It is not at all uncommon for someone with a spinal cord injury to have difficulty breathing. He was admitted and spent yet another 2 weeks in the hospital.
Over the last 2 years I have become a speaker for OK Victim’s Impact Panel. All drunk- driving offenders are ordered by the court to attend a panel. I have participated in many panels. I have spoken at schools with students not yet old enough to even drive. It’s alarming that each time I speak, the group of offender’s is larger and unfortunately, younger.
I share how, as a result of someone choosing to drink and drive, our entire family has been impacted. I never know what I will say. I speak from my heart and I believe God guides me. I do say each time I speak, “I am just a mother blessed with four incredible sons, three beautiful daughters, and thirteen terrific grandchildren.” I’m not here to ask you to stop drinking, but to ask you not to drive if you have been drinking.
Perhaps the most difficult part of speaking is the “stepping back in time”. Sometimes I might appear that I have forgotten what I was about to say, but truly it is the “stepping back” which bring back the memories. The memories can be difficult to bring forth sometimes. Often it is that silence, those quiet moments that are, in fact, the most powerful of the evening
Why do I do it? Remember the deep hole I spoke about? It was getting deeper and deeper. After seeing a doctor and a therapist or two-they all told me the same thing! They advised – I needed to talk about my feelings.
I finally decided, what did I have to lose? I would take their advice. I would talk about the wreck, the injury, the changing of our lives. It has put me on a path of healing the pain and heartbreak I have experienced. Many offenders have approached me afterwards and said they were sorry my family has had to go through this tragedy. I explain to them, “I’m not here today to have people feel sorry for us. I am simply here to share my message in hopes you will remember my story…and not DRINK AND DRIVE!” Although many come thinking they will be held in judgement, that is not the case. Who am I to judge? After all, my son was drinking that fateful night; he was a passenger because he had his own DUI and had lost his license to drive…He made a choice to get into that truck with a person who was drunk. And he will forever pay the price…
We are learning to live life on life’s terms and learning to manage life in a world so new to us. I remember how scared I was to get my son from bed to wheelchair using a Hoyer lift. With my heart pounding thinking I would somehow either drop or hurt him. Today we just do it. We have good days/bad days like many people do. But I feel so blessed, my son lived when so many have died needlessly because a drunk thought they could drive.
By Judith Shatto
- Drunk driving is the nation’s most frequently committed crime.
- Half of all teenage automotive fatalities are alcohol related.
- An estimated 24 young Americans a day DIES in alcohol related traffic crashes.
- One person every 32 minutes DIES in America in a drunk-driving wreck.
- That’s approximately 50,000 lives lost due to automotive and alcohol related crashes.
- Drivers with a BAC level over .15 are more than 200 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.
- Repeat offenders account for only 1 percent of all the drivers on the road at night and on weekends but they are involved in half of all fatal crashes.
- 2 in 5 Americans will be involved in an alcohol related crash at sometime in their life.