by Carol Greer, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law , Class of 2017.
Rumors tell of a formula for quantifying a human life for the purposes of proper life
insurance coverage or for accident settlement amounts. My mother’s obituary named her a
“waitress.” I wonder if an actuary somewhere came up with a number for how much she was
worth as a low-income waitress mother of three. There is no way that number could account for
the loss that we experienced when she died, or the six years that my family suffered prior to her
death that she was a paraplegic. In 1994 a semi truck struck my family and sent us reeling down
a mountain of misfortune. (Carol’s story is continued below.)
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During the summer of 1993 my family moved to Southern Indiana from Chicago. It was
my freshman year of high school, and for ten months we ritualistically drove five hours back to
Chicago to celebrate family holidays. The particular trip that changed my life was on Mother’s
Day weekend. My mother was driving, my (step-)dad was in the front passenger side, and each
of my sisters, ages four and seventeen were seated in the two captain seats behind our parents. I
took the back bench seat of the conversion van just a foot from the back doors. This trip would
be the last time I celebrated holidays with my family.
I fell asleep on the way, but woke up near Munster, IN because my mother was fussing
about the traffic stopped ahead that she heard from truckers on her CB radio. She put on her
hazard lights as she slowed down to stop for our long wait in traffic congestion. Minutes later,
Mom began screaming, “He’s coming in too fast! He is not stopping! Jay! Jay! No! No! No!,”
all while pumping the brakes to further alert the truck. Her efforts were fruitless
because the semi slammed into the back of our van. The impact to my head sent me sailing over
my little sister’s seat and into her lap, upside down. If I had been wearing a seat belt, I would not
have survived because of the way the back of the van folded into the middle. Incidentally, my
mother was the most unlucky. Her seatbelt failed, and she flew up over the steering wheel. So
when we slammed into the highway wall, her ribs were stuck and her spine snapped.
I remember a few other things clearly. I remember my older sister telling me that it
would be okay. She was very upset, so I made a joke to lighten the mood. I said, “Sarah, I have
a secret.” She said, “Yeah?” I whispered, “I can’t see.” Sarah sobbed, “I know, you already
told me!” I thought that was strange because the joke just came to me, apparently for the third
time. Then I could smell the rain while the firemen were extracting me, and putting a brace on
me that excruciatingly dug into the back of my head. Later, I became conscious in the
emergency room and enjoyed the challenge of reading the nurse’s name tag with blurred vision,
a feat that I never accomplished. I then asked my dad by my bed if Sarah was alright, if I hurt
Jacqi by landing on her, and if Mom survived. Strangely, I had a dream the night before that we
were hit by a semi and she died. Of course then my dad is crying, because had already
repeatedly asked these same questions. The next vivid memory is of my mother screaming. I
could hear her echoing from another part of the hospital. Her screams seemed to go on forever.
After that day, everything changed. Physically, my mom was paralyzed from the sternum
down, and I sustained a skull fracture, compressed vertebra, and torn muscles in my legs. We
both incurred injuries, but mine were minor compared to hers. My mother would never walk
again, and the tears that ripped through the fabric of our family were irreparable. For me, a brain
injury meant that for a long time I lost the ability to convert experiences into long-term memory;
instead, I regained suppressed memories from an eventful childhood. Yet, I previously
reconciled these events during childhood development, and became confident and happy in spite
of them. Until the semi truck damaged my head, I was well adjusted and building a relationship
with my mother.
Moreover, while I was struggling to remember to remember, I continued to relive those
negative memories and found it easy to blame my mother. Consequently, my disdain for her
grew to the point that I refused to offer her any solace for coping with her new condition. I
turned my back on her when she needed me. I have been told by therapists that what we went
through is not unusual considering the circumstances. Except, I know she needed me. We had
become very close the year before our car accident and afterwards I became so angry and
pushed her as far from me as possible. It does not make me feel better to know that my head
injury likely influenced the sudden change in how I treated my mother. All I have is the guilt.
At times, I attempted to rebuild our bond. However, living with a parent in her condition
means many different hardships. First, a paraplegic can no longer use the bathroom alone. My
mother had a colostomy bag and a catheter to vacate which smelled horrible. She preferred to
stay in bed, because she would experience panic attacks in her wheelchair. This was due to the
fact that she felt nothing from the sternum down, and she felt like she was floating. She spent a
lot of time screaming from pain or under so much medication that she was never herself. I once
called an ambulance and listened to her call for her dead father while we rode to the hospital
because she took too many pills. I was terrified. My mom aged more than ten years in only two.
She could not attend my school plays or games in which my dance squad performed. During the
one play she attended I watched her sleep in the audience. Therefore, I stopped inviting her.
Additionally, because my step-dad never adopted me, he could not stand-in for my mom when I
legally needed a parent. It was an ordeal to get my drivers permit or license in a regular manner,
since the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in that tiny town was not wheelchair accessible.
Furthermore and shockingly, this series of unfortunate events is only halfway told. My
parents hired an attorney to represent us against the trucker’s insurance
company. He was highly recommended from a friend, and was elected County Prosecutor
a little over a year after beginning the work on our case. He promised my family progressively
larger settlement sums over two years upwards of two million dollars. Then, our attorney got into an
auto accident in which it was speculated that he was attempting suicide. My parents then
retrieved our case files from his office, and discovered that our settlement was executed less than
a year after the case began. He had signed the contract and settlement check for four hundred
thousand dollars with one hundred thousand in an annuity. He also forged their names to the
check and neatly deposited the money into his own account. Now we had monstrous medical
bills that were never going to be paid. Consequently, our story was plastered across the media. I
felt so humiliated. My high school was quite small, and I detested everyone knowing about my
tragedies. It would have given me relief to disappear into my school life, but instead I answered
questions there as well.
Over the following years I continued to put as much distance between my mother and me
as possible. I went back to Chicago to pursue my dreams, and my mom, step-dad, and little
sister moved to Colorado. Then it was over. At twenty years old, I received the phone call. My
mother died. I had left at seventeen to follow my path toward law school, my own life. Except,
running from my tragedy proved to be ridiculous when I found out my mom was gone forever.
She died from a Staph infection from a bed sore, while I was gallivanting around focused on my
own success. The previous Mother’s Day was the first one that I did not even call her. I had not
spoken to her since my family relocated to Colorado without me the previous year.
I was orphaned at the age of twenty, and my grief was ironically paralyzing. Guilt
stowed away inside me, and my behavior over the following four years became exceedingly
more reckless. I hurt my mother. At times, I did it on purpose, and lost my chance to make it
right. After months of surviving under destructive, suicidal behavior I decided that I wanted to
live. I applied to school again, and submerged myself into my studies and school involvement.
Nevertheless, without dealing with my loss, I continued to take unnecessary risks. I veered many
years off my track of attending law school.
That is how a car accident changed my life. The semi truck rear ended my family and
triggered an avalanche of destruction. My family members each have their own stories. My
parents had to helplessly watch a semi crumple the back of our van into its middle sending one of
their children through the air unsure of the damage. I was told the sight of the wreckage is a
frightening demonstration of the miracle that I survived. My mom lost the ability to enjoy life at
all, and then died. My dad kept my mother’s hospital bed in their room for four years after she
passed. He could not let go. He fears that it is his fault that she contracted a Staph infection,
even though it is not. My baby sister, Jacqi, who became motherless at ten years old had to
repeatedly tell teachers that her mother was dead when they would say, “go tell your mother” or
“have your mother sign this.” Unlike me, my older sister never stopped running. I hope she is
okay, because she no longer speaks to any of our family.
Today, I understand my brain injury confused my memories and relationship with my
mom. I try not to think about what we could have had if the truck driver paid attention that day,
because it is when I think, “Is half a million dollars enough to cover that loss? Even if we
received the settlement, what is my family worth?” A larger settlement may have offered a
significantly better recovery for my mother, or at least the care that would have made her
comfortable, and maybe not die at fifty-one years old of a Staph infection. There were five of us
in that Chevy Conversion Van that day. I can only tell part of my own grief in three pages. I
imagine that in order to account for the total loss, we would need to multiply at least by five. I
hope factors like the ones I described are considered when attempting to quantify “pain and
Carol submitted this Essay to the Appel Law Firm, LLP for our 2014 Auto Accident Survivor Scholarship. We are greatly honored to have spoken to Carol and heard her story. Thank you Carol. This story is a redacted version to remove sensitive personal information.