How a Thanksgiving Car Crash Changed Me

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It was Thanksgiving night 1983 and while I had no idea, my world was about to come crashing down around me.

The night before had been the classic young folks Thanksgiving Eve stuff: bars in Boston; friends home to visit; lots of partying. So much, in fact, that during Thanksgiving dinner at my grandfather’s house, I’d stuck to the apple cider rather than wine (and been teased about it by my many cousins).

Now I was on my way out again. I’d swung by home to sneak on a really cute new sweater my sister had just bought (sorry ‘bout it, Erin), and was on my way through my small town to pick up my cousin Judy for a night on the town.

It was raining.

“Good Love,” by the Rascals was in my cassette deck and I was singing it out loud the way my best friend Maura and I used to like to sing it. “Hood-lums! Well you got to have lums! Hood-lums!” I was happy.

Out of the corner of my eye, to my left, I saw headlights approaching on a tiny cross street. Something made me notice them. But I knew there was a stop sign there, so I kept on going along and singing. Of course they’d stop.

Only they didn’t. And in the time it took to register that the car to my left wasn’t doing what it should, we had crashed. Hard.

I slammed into the steering wheel and then partway through the windshield (Yep. Stupid. No seatbelt). My car spun and spun. I knew something really bad had happened.

But as I was slammed violently around, something strange came over me.

Peace.

Because as it all went down, I just got this incredible vision: I was supposed to live. And live for good reason.

The rest of the story is long and scary. The driver of the other car was intoxicated. Her sister died at the scene. We were in the dark and all alone for what seemed like forever as I bled and screamed for help (pounding my hand through the broken windshield and tearing the skin off that too), listening as the people in the other car moaned and screamed. Finally, someone came along (ironically, my sister had passed by but since I had a new car, did not realize it was me, and rushed home to call 911 to report the crash).

I cracked a joke in the ambulance. As the EMT lifted my skirt to look for breaks in my legs, I remember saying, through the blood dripping from my rather massive head injury, ‘Okay…, but I’m usually not this easy.”

I woke up the next day to a new life. My face was a mess. My body was cracked and broken and bruised and hurt. But my heart… I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it was pouring rain outside my hospital window, but the sky had never looked more beautiful.

I knew, immediately, I was supposed to do something. Give back. Have thanks. And so, months later when I was recovered and back to living my life, I reached out to the American Cancer Society and began donating my time and raising money. And I shifted my charity of choice when my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1997.

I tell this story for a reason:

Being diagnosed with Type 1 – or having a loved one or child with Type 1 – is a trauma. It’s like crashing through a windshield. It’s like seeing your life flash before your eyes. And while the time to heal from the impact of diabetes is likely to be long, it can yield reflection.  You may hear a calling and take action.

More and more, I notice that the folks called to this world of diabetes advocacy are some of the bravest people I know. They’ve spent time scared and worried. They’ve stressed over learning complicated medical equations that medical students might fret over. They’ve struggled to come to terms with their own body – or the body of one they love – becoming a battlefield.

Every time I meet a group of folks connected to Type 1, I think about the trauma they’ve faced and the good they are pulling out of it.

That’s a lesson to the whole world.

I can remember – after my crash – when little things that might seem big to others would happen in life. (Like . .. having to take out a loan last minute to pay for my wedding. Or, having a house we fell in love with and put an offer on fall through. Or something at work going crazy wrong). When those things would happen, I’d almost feel like my crash had been a gift. The gift of knowing what matters. The gift of realizing your time is valuable. The gift of understanding that by giving in life, we get back way, way more.

For now, my daughter will always have diabetes, and that’s a constant reminder to me to stay strong and keep helping. (Even when — I admit here — sometimes I wish we could just be done with it all.)

But here’s another thing: Because of the impact to my face, shards of glass have worked their way out of my bloodstream for years, decades even. I’ll suddenly get a black eye and I’ll know: another piece of glass is coming out. A few years ago, on a cranky day, I noticed a bump above my left eye. I touched it and knew what it was: a tiny piece of glass that had been in me since Nov. 23, 1983 at 7:05 p.m. It was working its way out and reminding me: it is our actions after the trauma that define who we are.

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