We have all driven by a traffic accident, and we’ve seen firsthand the damage vehicles can cause. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years, according to the World Health Organization. Approximately 1.3 million people are killed in road traffic crashes each year. Between 20 and 50 million more people suffer non-fatal injuries, with many incurring a disability due to their injuries. So why do we continue to drive vehicles aggressively, text while driving, ignore road signs, and act like we aren’t controlling a Mad Max car?
Just two months ago, I watched as a car flew off the road, flipped half a dozen times in the air, and landed upside down, utterly unidentifiable as to what vehicle make and model it was. I immediately pulled off onto the side of the road and was the first responder on the scene. I didn’t know that that would be my first experience of a car crash fatality and one that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I’m a hunter, a competitive shooter, and a thrill seeker, and I’m used to adrenaline dumps, but what was happening to my body was beyond comprehension. Nothing and I mean nothing, can prepare you for how you will respond or how your body will react until you are put in that exact position. As quickly as possible, I pulled off the road and dialed 911. My hands were shaking, and my mind went blank when the dispatcher asked me my location. The accident happened on I-59 Northbound in Clarke County, MS, just south of Meridian, MS. This was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I was far from my home in Eastern Tennessee. As I relayed as much information as I knew, a few other cars began to pull off and join me near the vehicle.
I consider myself “prepared,” but not necessarily a prepper. My truck is outfitted with MOLLE panels in the truck bed and behind the passenger seat. I always have a fully packed large medical kit, IFAK, glass breaker, knives, fire extinguisher, tourniquets, tow straps, car jack, jumper cables, air pump, and more, plus a firearm.
I’m more prepared than most, but being prepared and being able to help are two different things. As I looked at the vehicle and watched as a stranger ripped the handle off the driver’s side door while it remained shut, I knew there was absolutely nothing we could do.
I know it’s cliche, but minutes felt like hours waiting for help. With the car so smashed and upside down, we couldn’t tell who else was in the vehicle. The windows were covered in mud. The driver was conscious and able to communicate with us. He informed us his 10-year son was in the car with him but didn’t share anything more than that.
An off-duty police officer in plain clothes was one of the individuals who had pulled off to help. I will never forget when he asked me, “Do we know if the son is still with us?” It took my mind several seconds to register what he was asking me. I had never thought about the possibility of death. He and I searched the woods surrounding the car to see if the son was thrown out of a window during the accident, but to no avail.
The first official first responder to the traffic accident pulled up in his personal truck and threw on a bright yellow safety vest. While he assessed the situation, one of the sweetest strangers I’ve ever met held the driver’s hand out of the cracked window and asked him for the name and phone number of any of his relatives.
She called his family member on his behalf and ensured they knew what was happening. After what felt like hours, a fire truck arrived with just three people. They unloaded a generator to be able to run the jaws of life, and it failed to crank up for what I think was 10 minutes. An EMS team also arrived at the scene with an ambulance.
I remember vividly listening to the driver screaming and crying for his son. I think it had finally registered to him that the silence next to him meant that his son was gone. At this point, my body went into shock, and I started to cry. I watched the jaws of life being used for the first time as the driver’s door was opened. The EMS team brought a C-collar and a stretcher down into the ditch to get the man out of the vehicle.
It is an understatement to say that wherever I was in Mississippi was severely underfunded for emergency services of any kind. I looked up this statistic later to learn that 18.6% of Clarke County families live in poverty. The crew members barely had any tools, no one was in a uniform, the response time was abysmal, and I felt for the people living in this area. It took a group of us to get the driver onto the stretcher, attempt to strap him in and carry him up the muddy hill without sliding back down.
I was the one who had the job of securing the straps around him, only to find out that they’re stick-on straps that, when wet, do not work at all. I essentially held both sides of the straps together and grabbed one end of the stretcher to try and prevent him from rolling off.
The ambulance took the man all of 15 yards down the road, where a life flight helicopter was waiting to fly him to a hospital. The only thing left was to wait for the coroner to arrive and confirm the fatality. I dropped my tailgate and sat while one traffic lane was opened for cars to start moving. By that time, police officers had arrived, and the woman who had held the man’s hand and called his next of kin sat down next to me.
She and I didn’t have many words to share, and the weight of what happened finally began to sink in. An EMT told me that if I hadn’t pulled over and called it in when I did, there’s no telling how long the car would’ve gone unnoticed. He also thanked me for helping where I could and shared how well I acted as a first responder to the traffic accident.
I pulled off at the next exit to wash my hands and change pants and boots; all caked in thick mud. After throwing them in my truck bed, I didn’t wear them or clean them for weeks. I had only been two hours into what ended up being a 10-hour drive home. There was no controlling the tears that fell during that drive, and there were so few people I felt like talking to.
I called my uncle, who had been tracking me on Apple Maps, to tell him I was okay and called my dad to speak with him about what I had experienced. As a social worker, he knew the PTSD I was about to encounter. I didn’t sleep for weeks, the image of the car flipping was constantly on repeat in my head, and I can still hear the dad crying and screaming for help and in pain of losing his only son.
Instead of shutting down, I spoke to many friends, shared my story, and connected with the woman who had also been there, and eventually, things got better. It took time to recover, and the memories from that day will be with me forever. I invested in even more tools for my truck, so hopefully, the next accident I roll up to, I’ll be able to help.
As a Former Paramedic and Trauma RN, being a Cirst Responder to an accident is a Traumatic experience, even for us who’ve trained and answered many calls. Entrapped victims are some of the worst experiences as the feeling of impotence grows. We’re trained to compartmentalize our grief response. To set it aside and work on the problem at hand as we attempt to save the injured and the dying. To ignore the deceased as we fight to save those still alive. I can’t remember how many time after delivering a patient to the ER, that I stepped into an empty cubicle, behind a curtain and wept for those whom there was no hope and those that didn’t make it.
It’s not a career so much as a calling. Many of us, do burn out. I did, after 21 years.