A remembrance: the day I almost died

Greg Cusack
Extend yourself – you, the unique beauty and goodness that you are – that others may find the way, courage, and light to become who they really wish to be.
Greg Cusack
Greg Cusack

A fatal car accident 35 years ago led the author to realize the importance of being grateful to others.

THIRTY-FIVE years ago this morning (January 8) — an overcast, chilly, but precipitation-free Saturday — I was making my weekly run to the grocery store for provisions in my hometown of Davenport when, where 8th street intersects with Marquette, my two-door hatchback was broadsided by a pick-up truck smashing into my driver’s side door.

Although the actual event took but nanoseconds to unfold — the impact spun my car 180 degrees, caving in most of the left side of the car and a portion of the roof just behind my head — I was later able to recall what my mind had recorded: the rocking of the car, huge cracks appearing in, and then snaking across, the front windshield, and my driver’s side door glass shattering and streaming past my face, each shard reflecting the morning sunshine and looking like molten meteors as they crossed my line of vision. (For some days after that I kept discovering minute pieces of glass in my hair and in my teeth.)

BAM! And then it was over, quiet, still. I immediately knew that I was in trouble for, unable to draw a normal breath, I could only pant. (I learned later that one of my nine fractured and exploded ribs had punctured and collapsed my left lung.)

Strangely, I experienced absolutely no pain, although when I tried to move my left arm and side my body sent me sharp warnings to forget about moving around on my own. So I sat quietly in my destroyed car, the normal world outside seemingly unaware that my life had dramatically changed, and hungrily panting for air. The strangest thing was that I felt no sense of panic or distress; I was calm, even though it occurred to me that I could have internal injuries that could kill me.

Someone called in the incident, and a fireman climbed through the passenger side of my car and placed an oxygen mask over my face, quickly relieving my breathing anxiety. He then sat next to me, reassuring me that help was on the way and, very importantly, grasped my right hand with his gloved left, holding it until the ambulance arrived.

My only substantial pain from the entire incident occurred when, after they had lifted me out of my car and placed me on the stretcher, they tried to put me in a supine position: that caused me to scream out from the sharp pain. So I rode to the hospital in the ambulance sitting up.

I remember sitting on a bed in one of the hospital’s emergency room cubicles when my father and brother came in, just before some nurses, wielding an enormous pair of shears, asked my permission to cut my jacket off me. I assented, praying that they would not inflict even greater damage in doing so.

Right after that a doctor on call entered, did some preliminary checking and then quickly made an incision in my upper chest wall — I recall a small amount of pain and being surprised at how the blood quickly spurted from that hole. In a brief, pounding motion he inserted a plastic tube into that opening and, almost immediately, it began to fill — and drain into a large receptacle near the bed — with blood. This tube remained in my chest for about a day, its purpose being to drain my chest cavity of blood so that my left lung could reinflate which, to my amazement, it did all on its own.

Later, as I read his notes of that visit, I noticed with some amusement that he had written that, in entering, he found a “somewhat anxious white male.” Somewhat anxious, indeed!

In addition to my punctured and deflated lungs, and the nine broken ribs on my left side, my left collarbone had been broken in three places. Fascinatingly, and against my imagined expectations, nothing special was done to assist these various bones to heal. With the fractured and exploded ribs, I faced the rest of my life with a virtually useless protective cage for my internal organs on my left side — the ribs were just left to “float” in place wherever they had come to rest.

Towards the end of my stay in the hospital — just a week — I was able to view the x-rays they had taken hours after my admittance. A nurse pointed out a rib fragment that had shot towards my heart, stopping just centimeters from that very essential organ.

Who knows, had that pick-up been traveling but another couple of miles an hour faster, that fragment might have instead penetrated my heart, causing me to bleed to death internally before anyone really knew what was happening.

A few months later, that very thing happened to a lobbyist friend who had been returning to his home in Ames on a snowy evening after spending the day at the Capitol in Des Moines. His car had spun out, struck a guardrail, and plunged into the median strip. He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived, his heart having been punctured by a shattered rib.

As anyone who has ever suffered broken bones from impact trauma knows, it is the damage done to soft tissue, rather than to bones, that is the most painful. In fact, the most pain I suffered throughout the entire episode was on a day shortly after I had returned home when I unexpectedly sneezed. My entire chest, shoulders, and arms were wracked with so much pain that I almost fainted.

Greg Cusack

What I took from this

In the first few days in the hospital, the reality that I might have died really hit me. I cannot adequately describe the great relief I experienced knowing that I had been given a new gift of many days, and — for several weeks — I actually saw, heard, smelled, and felt things almost as if I were for the first time. When Beethoven’s violin concerto played on the portable radio that had been brought to me in the hospital — it was the first piece I had heard since the wreck — tears just streamed down my face; I was overwhelmed by its incredible beauty. And to think: I almost lost the ability to hear it, or anything else, ever again.

The faces of family and friends seemed newly dear, and I remember well the first bird-song I heard again when I first ventured to walk outside in later January or early February. The little guy was perched in a denuded bush just off the sidewalk: as its notes bubbled from its throat I froze, plunged my face towards it, and drank in the miracle. (I remember how big the little bird’s eyes got: he must have thought I was about to devour him!)

I tried, really tried, to hang onto this experience of beautiful newness but, inevitably, the return to daily rhythms began to both mute and dull my senses.

Although I can no longer summon back exactly what or how I felt in that brief, but glorious, time, I at least remember the sensation of newness, and have sought to preserve that awareness of the holy gift of life ever since.

The other memory is of the incredible gift of the beauty of human touch. From that fireman who held my hand those first minutes after the collision, to the nurse who gave me a backrub mid-way through my stay in the hospital, to all the health care workers who attended to my needs, their touches were golden: the gift of helping me know that I was not alone.

I also reflected on how there were so many things that I almost never would have been able to say, words of gratitude, praise, encouragement, or joy to family, friends, and others I encountered daily.

I vowed then, and have earnestly sought to follow since, that I would daily seek opportunities to notice individuals as they constantly sought to help, guide, teach, or nourish others; to always search for the good and the potential within each person rather than focus on, or be distracted by, obvious blemishes or imperfections; and to do my part to heal, bring together, soothe, and comfort. Some days I have done well, but there have been many others when I have not. But I keep trying.

Each January since 1983 I have found that my mind has essentially “reset” my birthday: although, for instance, I actually do not attain my 75th birthday until May 6 of this year, I already feel I am 75 for today, 35 years ago, I was given the gift — if not exactly of rebirth — of renewed life.

Brothers and sisters, do not waste a single moment of every precious day. Realize the beauty and goodness all around you. Extend yourself — you, the unique beauty and goodness that you are — that others may find the way, courage, and light to become who they really wish to be.

The author was a member of the Iowa State House of Representatives and also served in the Iowa executive branch. He retired in 2004. Shanghai Daily condensed the article. The author can be reached at gregcusack43@gmail.com

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