The Day My Life Started Over

I pictured in my mind that little burial for that other life and started over.

The story of Karen Minahan who was crushed between a parked van and a car driven by an intoxicated driver at the Puyallup Fairgrounds on June 17th of 1997.

Photo # 9848IMG156202

On the night of my incident, I was investigated as a fatality accident because I was expected to die at the scene. So the police had to document it all with pictures. So that is why I share my story with two books of photographs. These pictures are very bloody, very gory and graphic. I lost my right leg and there is a picture of that in the road.

I have made mistakes in my life and I consider what brought you here today to be mistakes.

I had been in the workforce about 33 years before this occurred in my life. I had been this athletic, on the go, crazy person my entire life. I am a practical joker and I love being around lots of people. 29 of those years I had been in a management position. When this happened, I had been with Pepsi Cola as a promotions manager. It was probably the coolest job I had ever had. We got to do a lot of fun, crazy things. I used to put together Seafair, Bumbershoot, Bite of Seattle. Those were just some of the fun things. It was a pretty cool job.

But I have to say the highlight of my career was when I got to go to the Academy Awards 14 years ago. It was a primo job because we were basically busy all the time. I got some nice autographs.

I was basically a workaholic. I was a single parent and at that particular time, June 17th of 1997, my son and I were living together in an apartment and we were getting ready to go to work that morning. And my son said to me, “Oh, by the way, I am going to be going to the Puyallup Fairgrounds tonight because I am going to be doing the 9th grade’s school district-wide prom for the city of Puyallup. Would you come and videotape the kids for me?” Now my son is a disc jockey and owns his own entertainment business. I always loved the junior high and high school functions because I think young people have such energy about them.

We had arrived at the Fairgrounds. We had a great time, it was a wonderful summer night and the kids were beautiful. We laughed, we took a lot of pictures, and we gave away a lot of prizes. Now it’s eleven thirty and the dance is over. We loaded everything back up and I got into the front seat of my son’s vehicle. But my son came up to my window, said he had to go back and check one more time to be sure he didn’t leave anything. I said, o.k., but please hurry up because I have to work tomorrow. So he’s on his way back into the building and I am getting reaching to buckle my seat belt over my body, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed that I had left a box sitting on the sidewalk.

The last thing I remembered for awhile.
I got out, took the box to the back of the van, opened the doors and put the box away. Closing the doors was the last thing that I remembered for awhile. The impaired driver came around the corner. Now instead of a normal turn and proceeding straight into the driving lane, she had made a wide turn. She came around the corner at 35 miles an hour. The turn was so wide that she came all the way around into the curb lane where I had just closed the back of my son’s van doors. She then proceeded to crush me between the two vehicles. Then she backed up. The lady was so intoxicated she did not know who she was, where she was at, or what she had just done. It actually took three patrol officers to hold her up during the walking part of her field sobriety test. She couldn’t stand up, so they gave up.

She backed up and ran into me a third time.
My son came running out and said, “Mom, I heard the crash and you were hanging on to handles at the back of the van doors.” Now, I don’t remember that part of it. So my son then went into shock. He ran and jumped on the hood of the lady’s car. Now he’s pounding on this lady’s window, yelling and screaming and swearing at her to please turn off her car because she’s going to kill his mother. She didn’t see my son. He jumped down, ran back inside hysterically screaming “Someone call 911. This drunk lady is going to kill my mom” as this drunk lady runs into me for a second time. This lady backed up after that and ran into me a third time. She even backed up and was coming at me again for a fourth time.

We had a group of students and parents who had just come out of the dance. And to this day, we do not know why one of the bystanders did not run over and grab the keys out of the ignition during the first backing up and running at me, but eventually someone did yell “Take her keys away” and someone ran over and did yank the keys out. We don’t know if they were in shock or just figured someone else would do it. We just figure that it was happening so fast that no one was really thinking. But all those people in that group were my witnesses.

Now, had someone taken the keys out after I was first hit, I would have been in much better shape today. But because they didn’t and the way that my body had slumped after the third time I was hit, my right leg proceeded to go all the way over the trailer hitch and was hanging by a piece of skin. They actually cut that skin to get it off the trailer hitch. My left leg was going the other way and my body was actually pushed underneath my son’s van. The first thing I remember doing was that I had pulled myself up by the bumper of my son’s van and I remember looking around at all the flashing red lights. That actually was the only thing I could remember, other than the fact that I couldn’t breathe. The reason I couldn’t breathe was that my ribs had been broken which in turn punctured my lungs.

So I am drowning in my own blood and I am bleeding out down at my legs.

I told him I didn’t want to die.
There was a fire chief standing next to me. I hooked up with this chief about a year and a half later because I wanted to talk to everyone who had taken care of me, both at the scene that night as well as those at Good Samaritan Hospital before I was airlifted to Harborview. He told me that when I looked up at him, I told him I couldn’t breathe and that I didn’t want to die.

They put me flat on a gurney. They intubated me with tubes. During all this, I am going in and out of consciousness, so I don’t remember a lot other than thinking “This is taking an eternity. I wish it would hurry up and get over.” They finally got me into an ambulance and I spent ten hours in the emergency room at Good Samaritan. They told me that at one point they had given me three complete blood transfusions. And they also told me at one point they were going to also amputate my left leg because it was just sort of hanging there. Their orthopedic doctors consulted with the ones at Harborview. They decided to put a brace on my left leg, and if I survived long enough to be airlifted, Harborview would see what they could do with it.

We are not talking about a normal brace. My leg was fully extended with screws up and down it that were about ten inches long. I could not bend this leg, I could not move it, there was nothing I could do with this leg for a long time. I also had a dropped foot at this time because they had to take out all the nerves that bring my foot back as they were all damaged. So my leg sat just like this for two solid weeks.

At Good Samaritan, I flat lined twice. They had brought me back both times. After ten hours, I was stable, the bleeding had stopped and I was in a coma. So I am put in a red helicopter to be airlifted to Harborview.

I am actually very lucky.
Before I tell you about Harborview, I want to tell you that I am a pretty lucky gal. I am actually very lucky. I am lucky because I always carried very good car insurance. The lady who hit me had car insurance. You see, what happens on our roadway pretty often is that people drive without insurance. When that is the case and this type of accident occurs, the taxpayers pick up the bill. I was also lucky because I had catastrophic coverage from Pepsi Cola. By law, the money from those policies has to go back in to pay for the medical bills.

I want you to know that it did not pay off all of my medical bills. My medical bills for ten years far exceeded a million dollars. As I said, I am pretty lucky because I had some other resources. I had a 401k savings plan and I owned a home which I sold. A couple of years after the accident, I cashed them all in and paid off just about all the rest of my medical bills that my insurance company would not pay. Some of my girlfriends said, “Why are you paying that back, Karen?’ and I replied that if I didn’t all of you would be as taxpayers.

Now I was so excited that Harborview had saved my life that I wanted to pay it back. So I worked out a plan with them whereby I would volunteer some of my time at Harborview and at the University of Washington and pay them over time. I finished paying that off last year.

I also wear this artificial leg here. Now this is a pretty cool leg. It’s a computer leg, by which I mean it has computer chips in it. I can’t begin to tell you how much this leg has done for me. It’s programmed from a laptop so that it knows what to do, and at night I take it off and plug it into the wall. It recharges and reboots itself every night. It’s the same type of leg that our military people are getting when they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. They call it a computer leg, but I refer to her as Mercedes. That’s because it cost $60,000, as much as a Mercedes. Now, I don’t know if I had had an extra $60,000 if I would have bought one, but …
I am in the news a lot and all of my friends in the media ask me how Mercedes is when we they see me.

I choose to grieve through my sense of humor.
Everyone grieves in a different way. I chose to grieve through my sense of humor because I truly did not know how else to do it. I thought a lot about the process and I figured, “What good is it going to do me to carry around all the anger and all that kind of stuff? That wasn’t going to make my life from here to there any better.” Carrying all that around doesn’t change the outcome of anything.

I spent thirty days in Harborview in a trauma care unit in a coma, on life support. For the first three weeks, my family was told I would probably pass away and never come out of the coma. It was pretty touch and go. My brain swelled so much that they finally had to put three holes in my skull to release the pressure. I suffered a lot of head trauma and I picked up just about every kind of infection you can in those thirty days. My body actually swelled to about six and a half times its normal size. In the fourth week, they told my family it looked like I was coming out of the coma.

As I told you, I’m a pretty luck gal because I came out of my coma. They were concerned that I would come out of it a vegetable or with some closed head injuries. Those are pretty serious to live with and I remember exactly waking from the coma with a doctor looking in my face and telling me that I had been in a near fatal crash. They call them crashes, not accidents, because they are preventable. They don’t have to happen. He said, “Karen, you lost your right leg. They took it right above the knee.”

On June 17th, my old life died.
They took me to the rehab ward and I spend the next two months just trying to figure out who I was going to be for the rest of my life. And I realized that I didn’t even have the same life that I had on June 17th, the life that I was born with. On June 17th, that life died. I had to come to grips that I wasn’t going to be able to a lot of the same things that I had loved to do. My most favorite thing in my whole life was walking, playing golf and dancing. I realized I would be able to do some of those, but in a different way. And then I realized that I had do some soul searching to figure out what I really was going to do, what I was going to be. As I’ve told you, I have never been one to carry around baggage. I wanted to get out of the hospital, get some normality back in my life and focus my energy on healing my body. So that night I began journaling and also I decided to bury my past life because it was over. I pictured in my mind my little burial for that other life and started over.

Right after that, I also forgave the lady who had done this to me. I had to do those things so I could be what I am today.