What it’s like to be in a car crash
I’m driving home from Bayers Lake and it’s a beautiful day; clear and warm. I glance at the clock on the dash. Good. I’m going to make it back home before the kids are done at school.
I’m travelling down St. Margaret’s Bay Road, towards Hammonds Plains Road. I scan the intersection as I approach and a slight movement catches my eye; the car in the turning lane across from me is creeping forward. Not turning. Just moving forward, ever so slightly. For a split second, I brush it off. They’re just moving into the intersection. I’m three metres away.
I stop breathing when I realize the car going to turn in front of me, and my foot slams the brake. My bag, my iPad, a book—it all slides off the passenger seat onto the floor as my car skids into the intersection.
My brain runs at full speed while everything else slows down. My foot presses into the floor (I can’t stop maybe they’ll get out of the way before I get there). I grip the steering wheel (maybe if I brace myself I won’t get whiplash). My wheels are locked up and my brakes are screaming, but my Mitsubishi’s still sliding towards the other car (thank God the kids aren’t here). I close my eyes but nothing blocks out the thunderclap of metal on metal.
I glance around, disoriented. Everything’s on the floor, the steering column’s in my lap, and my car’s sideways in the intersection. I need to call Mike. I reach for my tote bag on the floor beside me, and try to pull out my phone… but my fingers won’t move. My thoughts feel detached at first. Maybe my arm’s broken? But it can’t be—it would have hurt more. Then I start to panic. I need to work. Shit, how am I going to work? I rationalize it. It doesn’t hurt, it can’t be broken. It can’t.
Halifax Regional Police Public Information Officer Dianne Woodworth was also a first responder. According to her, people are often seriously affected by vehicle collisions, no matter how severe it seems at first.
“It’s very personal for each individual,” says Woodworth. “I always try to remember that people can be hugely traumatized regardless of the impact of the collision. They might be in complete and utter shock, or maybe they’re in tears. Some people seem completely fine, like it’s no big deal. It can really vary.”
A grey-haired woman opens my door; it’s the other driver.
“You need to get out of the car,” she says. “Your hood is smoking.”
My thoughts tumble over one another. I’m hurt I’m not supposed to move I might make it worse what if my car blows up?
I emerge from the quiet of the car into a haze of colours and sounds, but I’m still hyper-focused on letting my partner know where I am. Using my left forearm to prop up my injured right arm, I dial his number with my left hand.
A man snatches my phone out of my hand and shouts directions while a woman walks me over to a nearby parking lot, to her minivan. She reaches around a baby sleeping in her backseat until she finds a blanket to cushion my arm while I wait for the ambulance.
When there’s a collision, Woodworth says it’s common for witnesses to make the 911 call, but emphasizes that witnesses need to take care of themselves, too.
“Don’t put yourself in harm’s way, because cars can be in very precarious positions,” she says. “We completely respect and appreciate that people want to help people, but try not to put yourself in harm’s way.”
Before long, I hear sirens. A paramedic opens the door and kneels down beside me. He rattles off a list of obligatory questions: Does anything hurt? Have you had anything to drink? Were you wearing your seatbelt? Yes, no, yes.
He helps me into the ambulance, where another paramedic is waiting. They check my neck and back while I worry about my arm. What if I can’t work for a few weeks? I’m a freelancer, there’s no safety net. And the kids. My stomach lurches. How will I take care of my child with a broken arm? I won’t even be able to pick him up.
After deciding that my neck and back aren’t seriously injured, the paramedics turn their attention to my arm. They poke and prod, and suddenly, all the pain I hadn’t been feeling overwhelms me. The faces of the paramedics spin in front of me, and I vomit into a bag that’s magically appeared in front of my face.
“That’s bone pain, all right,” says the first paramedic.
“Looks like you just had coffee,” says the other.
“Can you give me something to help with this?” I say.
They give me a pill and within minutes, I’m in a hazy waking dream, but the pain is gone. My partner and a police officer both come and go from the ambulance while I sit in a daze.
One of Woodworth’s more memorable experiences was a collision that involved a coworkers’ daughter. Someone reported a flipped vehicle, and they rushed to the scene, expecting the worst. Thankfully the young driver was fine.
“It puts a different context to it when there’s a personal connection,” says Woodworth.
After hours of shuffling from hallway to examination room to imaging and back to examination room, I’m starting to break. I’d held it together so far; between morphine doses, I cracked jokes, tried to read, called clients to let them know what was going on. Now I’m sitting in front of a resident who tells me that I need surgery. OK. I can deal with that.
Then he tells me that I’ll have to wait for two days until surgery, and that until then, I’ll have to go home with my arm in a bandage and sling.
“But you didn’t set my arm yet,” I say.
“That part will have to wait until the surgery.”
“In two days?”
I burst into tears.
When Rob Green, medical director for Provincial Trauma Service, first sees a patient, the first thing his team does is look for life-threatening issues.
“That’s for any patient, whether they initially look great, or they’re critically injured,” says Green. “Once we’ve got that out of the way, we’ve got time to look at the bigger picture—what kind of pain and anxiety does the patient have, what’s the scope of the injury?”
According to Green, long-term effects are common, but hard to predict.
“Even something that seems like minor trauma can cause problems in people for years.”
A few months later, I’m trying to drive again for the first time since the accident. The insurance company offered a rental, but the idea terrifies me, so I’ve been avoiding it. But now I have no choice: my psychologist asked me to try driving around my neighbourhood.
So here I am, driving down the deserted street towards the main road. I’m driving slowly, maybe 25. My heart pounds, and I grip the steering wheel with both hands.
I approach a turn, and as I glance to my right, I see another vehicle coming towards the stop sign. I realize I need to turn towards it if I want to avoid the main road, and I start to panic, but I grit my teeth and turn my wheel anyway. The vehicle drives by to my left. It’s all clear now, so I head back.
That’s got to be enough for today.
I turn back into my driveway, turn off the car, and let go of the steering wheel. My right arm is aching.
I sit there quietly for a moment, nauseated and exhausted.
Marc Woods is a psychologist at Genest MacGillivray Psychologists. His patients come to him for a variety of reasons, but the most common issues are driving anxiety, chronic pain, coping issues, and sleep disturbance.
“When you have an injury or pain, it doesn’t only affect the injured area of your body, it also affects your overall functioning,” says Woods. “So when our functioning deteriorates and we can’t do the things that we want to do, whether that’s working or socializing or having sex, that negatively affects our whole lives. Our quality of life is negatively being affected. Not being able to do the things you want to do can affect your mood, and lack of sleep can make us irritable. And all of this can negatively affect our relationships and that becomes a vicious circle.”
But you can prevent it.
“People need to take a breath,” says Woodworth. “Driving a vehicle is a huge responsibility. Keep your eyes on the road. A moment of distraction can impact your life or someone else’s, forever.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.