The Date: January 2002.
The Place: Long Island, New York.
The Setting: A highway in the middle of a frozen rain, sleeting, cold winter night.
Scene 1: The Accident.
I was on my way to church for choir practice. My best friend and I were driving along practicing for rehearsal. It was raining but before the rain could touch the ground it froze into small pellets of ice. I was going to teach a great new song for Sunday morning. But first, a stop at Dunkin Donuts on this freezing cold January night. Something to warm us up. A coffee for him. A Dunkaccino for me.
We pulled out of the parking lot, back onto the highway, going about 45 miles an hour. Way below the 55 mph speed limit. It was dark, cold, stormy and icy. No need to rush.
In the blink of an eye, I went from rehearsing harmonies to believing I was dead.
A car came out of nowhere and cut off the car next to us who in turn cut us off. Both cars pulled off to the side unharmed. I wasn’t so lucky. My tires screeched on the icy roads and I hit a telephone pole at 50 mph.
There was a crash. Life as I knew it was over.
Scene 2: The Aftermath.
When I opened my eyes, all I could see was the dust from the airbags as they sparkled against the cracked windshield. The light prisms formed rainbows in the vehicle. I whispered to my best friend, “I think we are in Heaven.” There was such a peace in the car. There was such quiet. I didn’t want to leave.
“Erika, we aren’t dead. I can smell the gasoline. You have to get out of the car.”
“My right foot is stuck. I can’t move it.”
“Erika, you have to try! We can’t stay in this car. There is gasoline and oil everywhere.”
“But I can’t move my legs”.
At that moment, the door of my car opened a small man was standing there. He had a red flannel shirt on and jeans. His hair was brown and he had a thick beard. “Hold onto me and I will pull you out.” “I can’t. I am too big for you.” He was all of 5’6. My 5’10” frame plus being very overweight at that time would have made it impossible for this tiny man to pull me out.
“Hold onto me. I will pull you out. Ready - 1, 2 . . . “
“My foot is stuck. Wait . . . “
And with that, this tiny man had me pulled out of the car lying on the side of a frozen highway in the blink of an eye. I had no shoes on as they were stuck in the dashboard of the car. He held me in his arms and told me everything was going to be alright.
My best friend got out of the car with a broken collar bone and a few bruises. I wasn’t so lucky.
I came to find that the dashboard of the vehicle fell on my right foot breaking my ankle. The seat belt broke ribs. My right hip had wedged into the seat and was dislocated. My head went through the windshield.
I remember telling the man holding me, “I feel so hot”. It was below freezing yet I was burning up.
As I wiped the “sweat” from my forehead, blood poured out of my head. When I went through the windshield, my head split and now blood was everywhere.
My sister later told me it looked like a butterflied lobster tail. The white puffy vest that I was wearing was now blood stained and the smell of Dunkin Donuts Dunkaccino was all over me. To this day, I can’t drink the stuff.
My best friend called my parents. No answer. They were already on their way to choir practice. “Please, Jesus, let them see my car on the way. Let them see me.”
A car passed by the scene of my accident. “God that accident is bad, John, we have to pray.” Little did my mother know, her little girl was lying in a puddle of blood on the side of the road. They passed me. They couldn’t see me because my car was twisted and totaled beyond recognition.
My brother, on his way to church passed by the accident and stopped.
The paramedics came, the cops, the firemen, it was chaos as they carefully tried to help my broken body. But I didn’t want to leave the arms of the little man holding me. He whispered to me, “I have to go now, but don’t worry, your hip is going to be okay.”
“My hip? Oh my hip isn’t broken. It’s just a twisted ankle”, I said in a state of utter shock, “I’ll be home tonight”.
“Listen to me. You aren’t going home tonight. But your hip is going to be okay.”
And just like that, the man was gone. I went from being held in his arms to lying on the frozen concrete flat on my back in a second. He simply disappeared.
I begged my brother to find him - to get his name and phone number so that I could call him and thank him for getting me out of the car. My brother looked around the surrounding area for twenty minutes. The man was gone. There was no sight of him.
They took me to the hospital. Broken. Confused. Lost. Shocked. Scared.
Scene 3: The Diagnosis.
My right leg was severely damaged. An x-ray reviled that my right hip was out of its socket.
The little man at the scene of the accident was right. How did he know that?
They wheeled me from emergency to another room where my doctor climbed on top of the gurney and said, “I am going to pop your hip back into the socket and it will hurt.” (Dr. Simonson, while brilliant, had absolutely no bedside manner. NONE!)
“Please, can you give me anesthesia first. Please don't hurt . . .”
“One, Two, Three”. He pushed my hip back together with his hands.
My mother said she heard my screams all the way in the emergency room. I passed out from the pain.
The next day a little old man came into my hospital room and sewed my head back together. About fifty stitches later I looked like Frankenstein. Better than a lobster tail! Four years after the shards of glass from the windshield were still coming out of my head.
A few days after that, they tried to bring me to surgery to repair the hip, but the screw needed to repair my ankle had to be ordered. So another week went by unable to move in a hospital bed.
The screw finally arrived. I was wheeled into an eight-hour surgery where they put my ankle back together. They dislocated my right hip again and one by one picked out all of the broken fragments of bone. The ball of my hip shattered and all the bone lodged in the socket. So one by one, they took all the bone out of the socket, put it back in place a said, “Let’s see what happens.”
Unable to walk, I would spend three of the darkest months of my life in a hospital bed. Paralyzed with the diagnosis: “She probably won’t walk again.”
I didn’t realize that there was going to be beauty out of brokenness. I couldn’t see that there would be a purpose for the pain. I didn’t comprehend that there would be lessons in the loneliness. But from the loneliness came lessons, out of brokenness came beauty, and from pain came purpose.